2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the the Champlain Valley Fair, the largest annual event in the state of Vermont. While so much about the fair has changed over the last century, so much has remained the same. It’s the sights, sounds, scents, and tastes that continue to define the fair experience that runs this year from August 26th through September 4th in Essex Junction.
The heaviest pumpkin in the Green Mountain State; pristine fresh vegetables, fruits, and flowers; well-tended potted plants; preserves, honey gleaming in glass jars; quintessentially local art and crafts; well-bred cattle, horses, oxen, sheep, pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the latest shiny farming equipment and cultivation methods – that’s how founders envisioned the Champlain Valley Fair.
They were right in thinking that pride in local agriculture would draw exhibitors into friendly competition for blue ribbons, cash prizes, and bragging rights. And it would lure visitors from near and far throughout New England for a heady dose of the country life, novelty entertainment, games of chance, thrilling rides, and sweet and salty well-oiled flavors of fast-food favorites. It’s a formula whose ingredients haven’t changed much in over a century.
It’s not a fair without a midway where mysterious sideshows, games of chance, and dizzying rides reside. Since 1927, the fair has hosted nine carnivals including the World of Mirth, Vermont’s own King Reid Shows, Reithoffer Shows, and currently, the James E. Strates Shows.
The carnival games today still test ring tossing and balloon-popping skills, feats of strength and aim, and every year the thrill level cranks up toward faster, higher, more extreme rides.Fair food, that once-a-year traditional indulgence, is often only available locally at the Champlain Valley Fair. Irresistibles include simple, hot, buttered ears of fresh sweet corn from the Rotary Club booth, corn dogs from the 75-year fair vendor Piggy Bar, cartons of Al’s French Frys, onions and peppers piled on Mr. Sausage, milkshakes from the Dairy Center, or anything sweet from the Maple Sugar Shack.
Veering away from the booths, fairgoers enjoy the more social cooking demonstrations with local chefs, craft beer competitions, and even a martini bar to compliment the beer tent.
The fair’s grandstand shows have provided Vermonters the chance to see performers like Taylor Swift, the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Bruno Mars, while the monster truck shows and demolition derbies help to round out the slate of entertainment.
Still, it’s that scent of fried dough and burgers wafting across the midway; the whoop of a winner choosing a huge plush panda; the shriek from atop the Ring of Fire, aerialists swinging high above the crowd, an eight-year-old leading her Holstein calf to their first blue ribbon – all this and more is why the Champlain Valley Exposition’s signature Champlain Valley Fair has grown to become the largest annual event in Vermont – aptly described as the “Ten Best Days of Summer.”
Stephen Mease is the author of “Champlain Valley Fair: Images of America,” a history of the fair that includes over 200 historical images that tell the story of how a modest country fair in Essex grew to become Vermont’s largest annual event. The book will be sold at the Champlain Valley Fair’s Arts and Crafts Pavilion as well as local bookstores, and is available online at Arcadia Publishing.