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Town Times

July 20, 2001

Celebrating 75 Years of 4-H Fairs

by Betsy Booz

There was an air of anticipation in the group of about 30 youth gathering at the Durham Fairgrounds on Friday evening, July 13. It was the last meeting of the New Haven and Middlesex County 4-H Fair Association before their upcoming fair on August 3, 4 and 5, held on the lower grounds of the fair. But this isn't going to be just any 4-H fair; this is their 75th fair, and the proud group has much to celebrate.

"First Fair of Its Kind"

The year was 1924, and the article read: "The first county agricultural fair in the United States to be managed by boys and girls of the 4-H clubs was held at Ridgewood Farm, Middletown, on August 30." More than 2,000 people attended, "and it promises to be the beginning of…an annual event in the county." With the exception of a few years during World War II, the tradition has continued.

Elizabeth Spencer participated in the first fair when she was 16, and she‹s planning on attending this year‹s as well. "I haven‹t made it to all 75 of them," admits the 93-year-old lifelong Middletown resident, "but I‹ve been to at least 50!"

First Fair Headquarters

A SIMPLER TIME...Pictured above is the headquarters of the first Middlesex County 4-H fair, held on August 30, 1924 in Middletown. As stated in one of fair's first mailings, "4-H Club work is the four-fold type of education that trains the Head to think, to plan, to reason; the Heart to be kind, loyal and to play the game square; the Hands to be helful, useful and skillful; and the Health to enjoy life, resist disease and make for efficiency." Those words have served to guide 4-H members over the 75-year history of their annual fair.

Spencer recalls that, in addition to "generally helping out wherever I was needed" for the 1924 fair, she and a friend also demonstrated how to bathe and dress a baby. "We had been to a course at the University of Connecticut to learn how to do these things, and then we demonstrated the skills ourselves at the first 4-H fair."

The long-time fair participant says she did many things over the years of her fair involvement, including running food booths and helping out as a judge, "mostly in the area of clothing." As the mother of two children, she made sure they also participated in the event. "We were a 4-H family," she proudly acknowledges.

Also featured at the first 4-H fair in 1924 were "30 head of purebred dairy cattle, 24 fat steers, 50 sheep and more than 300 poultry…girls exhibited more than 800 individual articles of clothing of their own handiwork. There were 150 articles in the basketry and arts and crafts exhibits."

75 Years Later and Still Going Strong

In 1989, the Middlesex and New Haven County 4-H Fair Associations combined their efforts into one annual event. Its most unique featureęthe fact this it is totally youth organized and youth runęstill proudly continues.

Notes Middlesex County 4-H Program Coordinator Emily McCabe Alger, "We are fully committed to having the kids run the show. Yes, we (Alger, her New Haven County counterpart Peggy Grillo and fair program advisors Kathy Naples and Doug Lanyon) are there to help them and advise them, but we let them learn by making their own decisions." Naples agrees, "We give these kids a unique leadership opportunity."

This year, the group‹s president is Melynda Naples, and she is assisted by 14 other youth in key vice-president jobs. Supporting them are a number of "managers," all of them between the ages of seven and 19. They are assisted by Alger, Grillo, Naples, Lanyon and a number of volunteer advisors, as well as a numerous parents and former 4-H‹ers. The youth officers all participate in a one-day training program prior to beginning their term of office.

Not that much different from 1924, the current 4-H fair still includes exhibits of livestock and the home arts. Both food and non-food booths are part of the three-day event, as is entertainment. Oxen and horse pulls, an English and Western horse show and a gymkhana horse show are featured, as well as both a cat and dog show. (A complete schedule is included in the 4-H fair ad on page 6.)

Vice president John Dannecker of East Haddam is particularly proud of the "dog agility" event, which first opened to the public (i.e., not just 4-H ers) last year. "We had about 30 dogs, and I‹m expecting probably twice that number this year," notes Dannecker. He goes on to explain that each handler must guide his or her dog through an obstacle course consisting of jumps, tunnels, seesaws and other challenges. "There are different classes with different difficulty levels, and the dogs are judged basically on timing and accuracy," he said.

Reprinted with permission from the TownTimes

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