Midway at Columbia County Fair

Amusements of America returns to the Columbia County Fair with its exciting rides and classic carnival games.

CHATHAM, N.Y. — After a year’s absence, the 180th Columbia County Fair comes roaring, oinking and mooing back to life.

The fair, in nearby Chatham, N.Y., runs Wednesday, Sept. 1, through Monday, Sept. 6.

“It’s the end of summer, the last big hurrah,” said Angelo Nero, longtime manager of the Columbia County Fair. ”We’ve got something for everybody, it’s a lot of fun for the whole family.”

Each year, over its six-day run, the much-anticipated tradition draws some 65,000 fairgoers from New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and beyond. “We look at license plates and see where cars come from,” Nero said.

Red the Bull

Red the ox poses for a photo at the 2019 Columbia County Fair.

As befits its agricultural roots, livestock is in abundance — mighty oxen, doe-eyed dairy cows, grunting pigs, groomed sheep, frisky goats. Show barns house myriad poultry and rabbit breeds, camels and kangaroos inhabit the exotic animal zoo.

For hungry appetites, 4-H offers baked potatoes and milkshakes, with fairground food including fried dough, funnel cake, corn dogs and cotton candy throughout the game booth-lined midway. There are ice cream- and watermelon-eating contests for the intrepid, and cold brews for thirsty grown-ups.

Carnival rides abound — bobbing carousel horses, gentle kiddy trains, daredevil thrill rides whirling, soaring and plummeting precipitously. Unlimited Ride Passes keep costs affordable, Nero said.

“They’re a big draw for younger people,” he said, “I don’t know how some of the kids go on there, it looks scary to me!”

Still, each year he takes granddaughter, Cassie, 10, on those same rides. “She loves getting on them,” he observed.

Nero, a native of Hudson, N.Y., has worked the fair since organizing band and drum corps appearances as a teenage trumpeter. At 90 years old, he is half the fair’s age.

“I’m not one to sit and watch TV,” he said, “I enjoy working and talking with people.”

He attributes the fair’s success to a dedicated board of 18, plus an army of volunteers and staff. “They all work hard,” he said, “it takes a lot of people.”

Last year’s cancellation — the first in its long history — was used to spruce up the historic fairgrounds. “They look the best they’ve looked in a long time,” Nero noted.

The income loss, however, meant they couldn’t hire the usual big name western band headliner this year. Instead, said Nero, “we’re using all local bands and groups.”

Public reaction has been positive, he reported.

Rock ’n’ rollers Eli’s Gin and Chatham’s own Side Show Willie lead Sunday’s Grandstand lineup, with five more music acts featured during the week alongside a magician, mentalist, juggler, youth talent show and Ghent Band.

For many, a highlight is the vintage and monster tractor pulls and demolition derbies that nightly bring noise and excitement to the Grandstand arena. During the day, piglets and dachshunds tear up the track at Hot Dog Pig Races to cheering crowds.

Saturday’s Firefighters’ Parade provides a fitting tribute to local heroes, while Monday’s Painted Pony Rodeo sees riders race horses around barrels, rope steers, and brave bucking bulls and broncs under the watchful eyes of rodeo clowns.

Throughout the fairgrounds, giant pumpkins, scarecrows, handmade quilts, flowers and produce are displayed along with shiny new tractors and sputtering antique engines.

Man rides bull

The Painted Pony Championship Rodeo rounds out the Columbia County Fair’s run on Monday, Sept. 6.

Local youth, ages 5 to 18, are well represented by 4-H clubs.

“4-H is extremely important, given the agricultural land here,” said Abby Langdon, 4-H and Youth Development Program Manager, “and the fair is one of the most important parts.” With the slogan “Learn by Doing,” 4-H is a hands-on experience, she said.

Through agricultural, home-setting and STEM-related programs, 4-H participants show and sell livestock they raised, and exhibit projects including woodworking, natural resources, gardening and baking — earning ribbons and rosettes for their efforts. They also run a mini-barnyard and Milk Bar.

“Youth are rewarded for their dedication and responsibilities in the projects they committed to,” Langdon said. “This is their time to shine.”

Proceeds from Monday’s 4-H livestock sale cover the cost of raising the animal and help towards next year’s animal care, she said.

As a health precaution, masks and hand sanitizer are offered throughout the mostly outdoor fairgrounds. Masks are required inside 4-H buildings, “because they’re all children in there,” Nero said. 

“I’m a fair nut,” said Nero, whose family all visited — and still volunteer — at the fair. “I think we’re going to have a good fair, people have been tied to their homes for so long, they just want some place to go and something to do.”

Each night, as darkness falls, the towering Ferris wheel looks down on a sea of twinkling colorful lights — and an ocean of happy smiles.

“I like to see people along the midway enjoying the fair,” Nero said. “I love to see how much fun they’re having.”