BROOKLYN, Conn. — The Brooklyn Fair. For some it might bring to mind thoughts of New York City — a fair tucked in between skyscrapers and brownstones, the sights and smells mingling with smog.
But the Brooklyn Fair is nestled among the hills of The Last Green Valley (the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor), a gem hidden in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut.
Often touted as the oldest continuously running agricultural fair in the country, the Brooklyn Fair is a safe haven from the commercialism of some fairs; volunteers and leadership remaining steadfast in their dedication to the fair's agricultural roots.
What began in 1809 continues with arm wrestling competitions, a Sunday draft-horse show, the women's skillet toss, pageantry, pie eating and powder-puff ox pulls.
Nearly all aspects of the Brooklyn Fair, from the veggie car races and the truck show, to the country store and playland, are maintained by volunteers. While many organizations are struggling to find good help, the Brooklyn Fair often brings in new volunteers and keeps them. Families volunteer together; youngsters moving up in the ranks and finding niche positions for themselves that allow them to continue to serve the fair's community.
"We find people with a passion for their hobbies," said Windham County Agricultural Society President Sandy Eggers, who applauded first Vice President Ryan Vertefeuille for finding "like-minded souls" to volunteer at the fair each year.
Eggers explained what it is that makes the Brooklyn Fair so special.
"We know who we are," Eggers said. "We are a family-oriented, agriculturally-based fair. Everything else? We do try to have things for people to look at and Ryan understands what it takes to engage the people.
"We try to explain to all of these vendors that Ryan and I are not the public face of the fair. They are. These exhibitors are. They have a chance to educate people. Give them a chance to see what they just don't see anymore … the modern evolution of farming."
Admittedly, keeping today's society interested in a fair that insists on keeping traditions can be difficult. Concessions include a respectable midway, an ever-expanding selection of popular fried foods mixed in with offerings from the local Elks Lodge, and concerts from well-known artists.
Vertefeuille acknowledged, "People like to have a good time," but both he and Eggers, along with other fair folk, try to temper the excitement with a little underground education.
"We do work at that," Eggers said. "at trying to make everything an opportunity. Usually without people realizing it."
Many who visit, especially those from out of town, learn a great deal about farming, agriculture and old-fashioned beef and dairy shows at the Brooklyn Fair.
Many more, though, are seasoned pros at showing animals.
Dennis Birdsall, of Birdsall Beef in Homer, N.Y., waited patiently for contestants, cattle and crew to appear — ready to judge the various classes in showmanship midmorning on Aug. 23.
The event began with the super senior class and Birdsall got to work, sizing up structure, balance and presence.
John Bertrand of Hillcrest Farm in Auburn, Mass., took second place. Bertrand has been showing for five years and was pleased with his win.
"I just like getting in the ring and having new experiences," he said. Bertrand said he enjoys spending time at area fairs and mingling with people.
Birdsall praised all of the showmen but said, "This girl had the presence … a little bit of an older animal that has obviously been worked with," before awarding the first place showmanship ribbon in the super senior class to Victoria Oatley, 21. Oatley, who has been showing since she was just 3 years old, is a resident of Exeter, R.I., and a frequent visitor to the Brooklyn Fair.
"I just love every minute of it. I just bond with the animals … we have this amazing rapport. Every year I have a new one and every year I get attached. This is just an amazing opportunity," said Oatley. Later, she thanked her animal, Havok, with a big kiss.
Winning ribbons is a family tradition and Victoria was not the only Oatley to take home a blue ribbon. Her brother, Ethan, won an award along with her younger sister, 12-year-old Olivia.
Olivia is not sure how long she's been showing cattle.
"For like, a long time," she said. "I don't know where I would be without it."
"We've had a good day so far," mom Terrie Oatley said proudly. "This is such a nice thing to do as a family. It keeps the kids close and out of trouble."
The Oatley Family has been showing, working and farming together for years. They frequently bring their animals to the Brooklyn Fair for a well-rounded, family-friendly weekend.
Dad Vern Oatley chimed in proudly: "Nobody got loose and nobody got hurt. It's been a good day so far."