“We’re in the City of Essex Junction — brand-new this year — and we are celebrating a hundred years of the Champlain Valley Fair,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “We’ve asked Steve Mease, who’s a local photographer who used to work for the fair — very interested in fairs in general and has just published a book on this fair — to join us at the exhibit which he rebuilt last year.”
“The fair actually got started back in 1915 up in Essex Center,” Mease said. “The (Essex) Grange was running the fair. It turned out that the location they had there wasn’t great. When it rained, it was very muddy; the ground just was terrible — and so, after the fair grew for a number of years, they said ‘we need a better location’ (and) settled on this location in Essex (Junction). It was a farm, it was also right on the trolley line from Burlington and it was also close to Five Corners for the railroad.
“In its earliest years, the big draw for many people were the harness races,” Mease continued. “Over the years, they had auto racing. There were always the thrill shows, the Hell Drivers and the auto shows with cars crashing into each other or jumping over others. That continues today with monster trucks and the (demolition) derby and figure-8 racing.”
“Which really revolves around the grandstand,” Perkins noted. “And there was kind of a seminal event for this fair in the mid-’60s.”
“I think it was July 11, 1965,” Mease replied. “The grandstand, right around noon, caught on fire and I think within probably a half-hour, it was burned to the ground. Fortunately, though, they were able to rebuild. Concerts are always a big draw for folks; a lot of memories there. The biggest concert I can think of was the Elton John concert (in 2008) when he closed out his 50-state circuit and Vermont was the last state in that.”
“At its core, this fair is still an agricultural fair,” Perkins said. “Can you talk a bit about what that means to the community, and what you used to see and what you can still see today?”
“Well, very much what’s here today is what was here over the years — just maybe at a smaller scale,” Mease answered. There are not as many cattle, there’s fewer farms in Vermont, there are smaller displays of chickens and the pigs and the rabbits — but it’s really the first chance (for) some people and many kids to get a sense of where their food comes from. It’s toward the end of the summer, the harvest. People would bring in their vegetables — time to go for your blue ribbons and just to see folks. It was probably the big social event at the end of the summer.”
Perkins asked, “They say (it’s) ‘The Ten Best Days of Summer’. When did that saying come about?”
“Probably the last ten to 12 years, I would think,” Mease said. “It’s had a number of different slogans over the years, the way you advertise the fair, but it’s pretty much stuck with ‘The Ten Best Days of Summer’ for as long as I can remember.”
“You can see, Steve, on the exhibit itself as a product of your research, that it couldn’t have been branded as that any earlier than, I believe, the mid-’90s — because it didn’t last ten days until then,” Mike Hoey said.
“Right; it started off a four-day fair,” Mease said. “The fair has a website, there’s some history on there — but new this year is a new book, ‘Images of America: Champlain Valley Fair’. It’s available here at the fair, you can get it at local bookstores and you can get it online.”