“Males can’t hurt you,” exclaims Ken Hall to a crowd of about 30 onlookers. “Only the female has the ability to sting.” A short brunette wearing a George Strait t-shirt turns and says otherwise to her beau. Mind you, it’s easy for Hall to say as he is wearing his beekeeping suit that looks more like a spaceman’s outfit while he stands inside a mesh observation structure with a few hundred honey bees flying around him. Elsewhere in the Agriculture Tent at the 2010 Albemarle County Fair, which ran through the first week of August, farmers young and old gather to show off and sell their wares. Squashes of all colors and shapes compete for first prize, okras and melons vie for the largest specimen, and Maddie Morales takes the prize for best cucumber pickling. The winning scarecrow stands upright at the other end of the tent, enough straw stuffed in its belly to mimic a proper beer gut, sporting a t-shirt that reads: “Keepin’ it rural.”
Far removed from the trendy storefronts of collegiate life on the Corner or the upscale eateries on the Downtown Mall, the county fair is both a time-honored tradition and a folk grotesque, where good taste and conceit go out the window. It’s an enduring love affair with corn-dogs, smoked meats and deep-fried batter that proves too much for the empty stomach. And, after more than 20 years, it is about to be (temporarily it’s hoped) homeless. The owners of Bundoran Farm in North Garden, long the fair’s locale, have canceled the $1-a-year lease so they can develop about 100 homes on 2,300 rural acres.
Americans will give up a lot in a recession, but the county fair apparently is not high on the list of sacrifices they are willing to make. Indeed, attendance was reportedly up this year by 20 percent to 10,000.
“One basket wins the prize,” growls the carnie barker over at the basketball game, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he hands a pre-teen chap the first of his two shots.
“Yo, there’s some free chocolate chip cookies over there,” exclaims another young male running towards the rides. He sports a Confederate ball cap and a Tom Perriello campaign sticker on the left side of his NASCAR t-shirt. His friends take off in the direction of the Democratic Congressman’s tent, none of them old enough to vote.
Perriello is the first to make it to this year’s fair, walking the grounds for some old-fashioned glad-handing on opening night. One of his opponents, Republican Robert Hurt, will stop by Saturday evening.
Nearby at the Entertainment Tent, the Burnt Mill Band plays to a crowd of about 15. “We’ve got CDs and t-shirts for sale in the back,” reminds the lead singer as he adjusts the microphone. “Here’s a little Kid Rock to get things rollin’.” It’s Wednesday night around 7:49pm and black clouds resembling a smoke stack bear down on Bundoran Farm. Southern rock cover tunes aren’t enough to keep things rollin’ on this night.
By 8pm all rides are shut down as a torrential downpour sends most attendees running for their vehicles. The rides never do open again this night, but the electric light display ripping across the night sky is something to behold. The show must go on, and so it does the next day.
Over at the Livestock Tent, a short mustachioed man gets in the spirit of things. “One dollar folks, yes one thin dollar to win this here heifer. All proceeds go to the 4-H Club.” This is the first year children show animals through the Charlottesville Albemarle Livestock Family Club, one of several 4-H groups at the fair.
On Friday, 13-year-old Olivia Burkholder sells a pair of Barred Rock roosters (names: Julius and Caesar) for $175 a piece. “The buyers ended up giving them back, though,” says Burkholder. “They just wanted to donate the funds to 4-H.”
At that moment, all eyes turn as a pair of llamas pass through the tent. “Is it true they spit on you?” asks a freckled young boy standing with his father, who gets a good chuckle. “Only if they don’t like you,” an elderly woman retorts. “You haven’t given them reason not to like you, now have you?” Scout’s honor, he hasn’t.
Over in the Special Kingdom Tent, the newest fair pastime unfolds. Wives from all walks step up to the microphone to demonstrate how they control their unwieldy spouses in the hilarious Husband Calling Contest. “If you ain’t home in 15 minutes, you good for nothin’, lazy bum,” yells one wife (wielding a rolling pin), and well, we have a pretty good idea of where he’ll be sleeping tonight. By the end of this hottest of days, many of the epicurean delicacies from the baking competitions are looking patched-up a bit. But as they say, a good, flaky crust is so much better than one that you can build a house on.
“We’ll be breaking down early Sunday and heading straight for Augusta,” notes the curly-haired blonde at the basket toss game. She works for Rosedale Attractions, supplier of the amusements at the fair, which has been in business since 1928. Their stable of dingy-looking rides with bad artwork and gregarious flashing lights is oddly comforting. “It’s a lot of hard work, but I love traveling with this show.” She has to repeat that last line, as it’s become hard to hear over the sounds from the nearby Dirty Harry’s Machine Gun Fun game.
More than 4,000 people pass through the gates on Saturday, including Miss Teen Albemarle County Fair, Anna Beth Higgins, who braves the Ferris wheel, despite the fact that the ticket-taker tells folks that the tire that the ride rotates on is starting to look flat. Prospects for a new home for the fair don’t look all that robust at the moment, either. Organizers have said that an ideal solution would be a permanent home, being that it’s costly to build and dismantle the fair and the rides year after year.
“I’m not spending $5 to get on the Horndog,” says one college-age blonde to two friends. A few minutes later, all three of them stand in line for the Elvis-themed ride (it’s actually called “Houndog”). The thrill? Two people sit face-to-face inside a wheel cylinder mounted to a spinning carousel that whips around and around, tossing in every which direction as ticketholders scream their heads off.
Over at the Cannonball, where strapped-in riders are taken 100 feet up a pole and dropped in unison seconds later, one young lady is screaming insufferably. “She can say she’s gonna puke all she wants,” the ticket-taker says with a dead serious look on his face. “Anyone throws up on me, I leave ’em up there!”
As darkness sets in, families begin their inevitable trek back to the parking lot, carrying tired kids in their arms. Over at the food stands, a concessionaire tosses fried onions and peppers, and offers a dollar off all Italian and Polish sausages. Back in the Entertainment Tent, the Cedar Creek country band has ’em packed in to hear their version of “Margaritaville.” Alcohol is not served at the county fair, but the crowd falls right in line, following the lead of Katherine and Matthew Hall, who tango across the small dance floor down front, and damn if it all doesn’t feel as exotic as the shores of Cancun. Call it Americana if you must, but as rural as the whole affair might seem, it’d be hard to imagine Albemarle County without it.