by Meghan Wayland
BARTON — This marks the fifth season the Orleans County Fair will be closed in its 153-year history.
“We’re talking about ’21 and in the meantime keeping our ears open,” Art LaPlant, vice-president of the fair board, said in a phone interview last Thursday. “The hope is that if the fair has to be canceled because it draws too big a crowd, smaller gatherings can still happen on the fairgrounds.
“We’re doing what everyone else has been doing, waiting to hear what the Governor has to say,” he said. “Fortunately, it’s still early.”
Governor Phil Scott announced May 22 that fairs would not be allowed to open this summer in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Canceling the fair amid the threat of disease and economic depression is nothing new.
In 1917, the Vermont State Board of Health banned fairs, street carnivals, circuses, and Chautauqua — then popular adult education and social movement gatherings — because of the fear of “infantile paralysis,” or polio. Darlene Young, author of A History of Barton, Vermont, wrote that little was known about polio at the time and since “large public gatherings, like fairs, posed the threat of mass contagion,” the state decided it wasn’t worth the risk to public health.
The following year, in 1918, the fair was again canceled to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu. By the end of that pandemic, the virus had infected 500 million people — about a third of the world’s population at the time.
Years 1942 and 1943 brought another two-year closure after the U.S. joined World War II, and rationing and other hardships made participation in the fair difficult for locals.
Ms. Young wrote: “canceling the fair has never been a matter to be taken lightly.”
This year was no different. Mr. LaPlant said people have called — vendors, townspeople, “different groups” — asking what the plans are for the fair this year, if there’s any chance it could still go on.
“Not much to tell them,” he said. “Maybe there’s a way to do something safely, but things would have to open sooner than later.” He said if the government ban on large gatherings were to be lifted in late June, the board of directors would have little time to plan and advertise an event. Turnout would be poor.
“We have a short window up here to enjoy the summer months,” he said. “People have the mindset that nothing’s going to happen this year. Every time you turn around something’s being canceled and they’re making other plans.”
Agriculture was going to be a bigger draw had the fair happened this year. Mr. LaPlant said the board and other organizations — including the 4-H program run by the University of Vermont Extension’s youth development program — were fleshing out new ideas and events. He said the board was working on improving buildings at the grounds to host more farm shows.
“We’re very strong in agriculture and we want to continue to build on that,” Mr. LaPlant said.
Melinda “Lindy” Birch, 4-H educator for Orleans and Essex counties, said there are at least 100 4-H-registered youth who participate in agriculture shows at the fair — about 150 if all youth participants outside of 4-H are counted. She said she had 80 young people show cows alone last year.
The fair, and all the events leading up to it, are important for young people in the county, Ms. Birch said.
“It’s more than just the fair,” she said. “The county dairy show is where kids qualify to go to the state show and from there they’re selected to go to the Big E, the Eastern States exposition.
Everything leads up to something else,” she said. “You take one thing away, another thing goes.”
Ms. Young wrote that after the 1940s the fair experienced financial hardship until being resurrected almost a decade later by locals who raised money “to get the fair back on its feet.”
Longtime president of the fair Howard Conley said in a statement to the Glover Historical Society 1991: “In 1956 the fair was still in bad shape. Broke. No money.” He said the mortgage hadn’t been paid since 1931.
Rental income from the many buildings on the fairgrounds has helped stabilize the operating budget for now, Mr. LaPlant said.
“The barns get filled, from classic cars to boats to motorcycles,” he said.
Still, the board of directors is expecting a financial hit this year, and not just from the main event being shut down but also from the cancellation of smaller celebrations and various expositions.
“Memorial Day, Fourth of July — those have always been a source of revenue for us,” Mr. LaPlant said. “We were looking forward to a big Fourth because it’s on a Friday this year.”
Earlier state plans to squelch the demolition derby — one of the fair’s biggest draws — have been scaled back, and the derby is set to happen once the fair reopens.
“They softened the regulations,” he said referring to Montpelier. “It looks like we won’t be at a point where there’s no more derby.” Mr. LaPlant gave credit to current board president Jason Sicard for staying on top of the issue and meeting with legislators.
“You can’t take a backseat to safety, we understand that,” he said. “On the other hand, you’re working with a grandstand that’s more than 100 years old. You can’t just pick it up and move it. The derby’s an integral part of the fair culture.”
Mr. LaPlant said, the worst case scenario is there’s no revenue this year. It’s an outcome the board has considered.