It was not the greasy and overpriced food. Nor was it the expensive and sometimes dilapidated rides, the relentless traffic jam on Route 110, the chump-appeal of the carney barkers, nor the blatantly disparate treatment given the two major political parties with official booths there.
What really set me off, on my third day at the Tunbridge World’s Fair in the company of my eight- and four-year-old offspring, was the elaborate exhibition hall that had been created by the local historical society. It is there one finds a respectable array of artifacts from Vermont’s agrarian past – everything from farm implements of the horse-drawn era to civil war uniforms (both sides!) to a working, gasoline-powered wood-splitter. Women in period costumes earnestly sew, churn, spin and otherwise tend to the same chores with which their great-great grandmothers might have occupied themselves.
What’s wrong with this picture? I think the irony of the fair’s name, which ostensibly points ahead rather than backward, is beginning to lose its appeal.
Consider, for example, a competing world’s fair that sprang up, briefly, in a not-too-distant city, during a time of global anxiety that is not so dissimilar to the state of the planet today. I refer to the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.
“The World of Tomorrow” was that fair’s official theme. Among the exhibits to which people flocked was the General Motors “Futurama,” a ride through an imagined America of 1960 that strongly resembled the nation that did, in fact, emerge.
“If we listen carefully to those people who were there and can’t help but smile when we mention the topic, we can still hear today the resonant roar of a good, bold, brilliant future just over the edge of time,” wrote David Gelernter in his book 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. “Seeing as I have the piles of meticulously preserved fair memorabilia that survive today all over the country, I am willing to bet that somewhere pressed in a scrapbook there is a yellow flower that tells us something about love and the fair.”
Indeed, I myself have a piece of that lost world on a shelf in my office – a square piggy bank, made of glass so that one could see an accumulating future in saved pennies, bearing the name of the fair along with a depiction of the tall Trylon and the round Perisphere that stood at the center of the fairgrounds. My grandmother gave it to me – the same grandmother whose family migrated at the turn of the 20th Century from Europe to the mining boomtown of Butte, Montana in quest of a great future that is my inheritance.
The point here is not to idealize the 1939 New York fair, which exuded commercialism, reeked of racism and failed to foresee the destructive implications of the sprawl it conjured as our future. The point is that a forward-looking orientation is an infinitely more satisfying, inspiring and, frankly, honest source of pleasure than the false nostalgia served up every September in Tunbridge.
Life in the rural America conjured by the fair’s historical exhibition wasn’t bold and brilliant – it was hard and miserable. Unremitting toil, rampant disease, and isolation were the norms – as well as sheer darkness. Nine out of ten rural homes in the U.S. had no electricity in the mid-1930s until the electrification program of the New Deal financed customer-owned utilities like the Washington and Vermont electric cooperatives.
The Tunbridge World’s Fair elides these realities, serves up a heaping helping of their lingering legacy, and unapologetically demands that fairgoers suspend judgment about the whole thing.
All of that unwholesome fried, fatty food? An echo of an era when the lack of available refrigeration made such a diet inevitable. The carnival games like the one that conned my daughter into paying five bucks for a tiny, 50-cent stuffed animal? An echo of a time when farm-dwelling fairgoers were isolated and vulnerable to the manipulative ways of city slickers. The expensive and rickety rides, staffed by guest workers unable to speak English and, thus, to talk with their patrons? A throwback to the era before labor laws, safety regulations and consumer protection.
This is not to suggest that the rides are illegal or unsafe. I mean only that the 40 bucks a day I spent to allow me and my two kids to take a few rides on the bumper cars and carousel did not seem like money well spent. I’d rather pay the bus fare for a ride down Avenue Pierre Dupuy in Montreal for a look at Habitat, the Lego-like apartment building that still looks futuristic today, 43 years after it was a part of Expo ’67, that city’s version of the world’s fair.
Or I would rather pay my way into the Common Ground Country Fair, coming up this very weekend in Unity, Maine, which offers a hopeful take on a healthy and vibrant agricultural present. Forget fried dough and vomit rides; the fair of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association features the Harry S Truman Memorial Manure Toss, barn after barn of livestock, tons of local crafts, an “energy and shelter” exhibition, and, for those so-inclined, two “public policy teach-ins.”
At Vermont Law School, where I work, students are routinely instructed that the Tunbridge World’s Fair is a crucial aspect of any lawyer-in-training’s educational sojourn in the Green Mountain State. That’s true of the farm animals and other agricultural exhibitions that are consigned to the periphery of the fairgrounds. It might even be true of the rest of the fair, which puts Vermont’s ongoing contradictions on vivid display. There’s ample time to discuss them in the traffic jams of up to an hour along the five miles of Route 110 from South Royalton to Tunbridge.
So, by all means, festoon your Prius or your pickup with the bumper sticker announcing the dates of the 2011 Tunbridge World’s Fair. But stop pretending that the gathering is worthy of uncritical acceptance. We deserve better than a vision of Vermont in retrograde.
Don Kreis is an assistant professor of law and the associate director of Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment.