Personal essay: A contrarian view of the Tunbridge World’s Fair

Tunbridge ferris wheel

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.

Tunbridge ride

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.

Comments

  1. Three Cheers for Don Kreis!

  2. Wow. Been going to the Fair for 20 years. My eyes have been opened.

  3. Warren Kitzmiller :

    Well, I guess you just can’t please ‘em all! I went to the Fair on the same day Don attended, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. My 2-year old granddaughter had a wonderful time, petting animals, riding the ferris wheel and enjoying a view of life that she seldom sees (she lives in Manhattan).
    While I understand what Don is saying, I see nothing wrong with suspending reality for a few hours and just having fun. Hey, if you REALLY want to suspend reality, visit Las Vegas! It’s running 24/7/365.

    • Don Kreis :

      Warren:

      Please don’t misunderstand — I had a nice time too, and so did my two kids. We will be back next year.

      In a sense, what has been bothering me about the Tunbridge World’s Fair is that it seems to do the opposite of asking us to suspend reality — it makes an implicit claim of reflecting the real Vermont. Besides, the food is better in Las Vegas and there’s a monorail for getting around the Strip.

      cheers,
      Don

  4. kraig richard :

    Yea I know what you mean..Fair’s just not the same these days. Missing some of that tawdriness with so much less public drunkenness and no stripper tent….

    • Don Kreis :

      I was waiting for someone to make this point. It is everywhere reported that the Tunbridge World’s Fair cleaned itself up, following a long era in which drunkenness and so-called “girlie” shows were the norm.

      Who could do anything but commend such progress? But it begs a bunch of relevant questions (among them, the ones I raised in my essay) and it should certainly not serve as an excuse for ignoring other pressing issues.

      Along those lines, in an era of communitarianism (here in Vermont, I mean) and public accountability, why do people indulge the Tunbridge World’s Fair’s institutionalized feudalism? It is not widely understood that the fair is anything but a public institution — it is a private organization that belongs to 100 shareholders whose ownership interests are, apparently, hereditary.

      I’d like to buy a share. Any idea where I can get one?

      I’d also like to see the Fair’s financials, including the extent to which the operation is publicly subsidized. (There might well be no such subsidies, but I would like to know.)

      The last thing I want to do is spoil anyone’s fun, much less that of my family. One of my fondest memories of my daughter as a tiny kid is her sweet little voice asking for turn after turn on the “merry ride” at the Tunbridge World’s Fair. Who would tamper with that?

  5. Liz Schlegel :

    Don,

    This is a great piece – truly thought-provoking! Thanks so much for sharing your ideas.

  6. Diane Sullivan :

    I’ve never been to the Tunbridge fair. As soon as they bring back the drunkenness and girlie shows, I’ll be there with bells on.

  7. Dick Drysdale :

    This has to be one of the most bizarre commentaries I’ve ever read. Let me count the ways.

    Professor Kreis (if he’s not a professor yet, he sounds like he’d want to be one) believes that the word “World” in the fair’s title means that it is or should be a fair about the future. Why would he believe that? Since when does ‘world’ mean or imply ‘future’? It doesn’t.

    That leads him into a lengthy comparison between the New York Worlds Fair, put on by the biggest, most cosmopolitan city in the country after years of plannning, with the Tunbridge Worlds Fair, put on by volunteers who mostly live in the town of Tunbridge, population 900, and a few from Chelsea, population also about 900. Hey, the New York World’s Fair comes out ahead! What a surprise.

    Mr. Kreis also seems to believe that the superb exhibits on Antique Hill are put there to make people think that Antique Times are preferable to today’s times when, in fact, Antique Times were pretty rough, without widescreen and all. There is nothing to this criticism at all: No claim is made that the fairgoer is looking at a better more pure time. There is an implied statement that there’s value to gaining some insight into ways of living that are different than our own.

    Mr. Kreis also says that the farm displays are pushed to the very edge of the fair. Well, that’s where the RIVER is, and therefore the barns, etc. For many of us, the barns, the animals, the families young and old who get such satisfaction and such life-learning from raising animals are the very heart of the Tunbridge Fair.

    The professor also has a problem with how the fair is owned, organized and run. It is indeed a closely-held arrangement, where ownership of one of the 100 shares is a treasure to be relinquished only through bequest. But compare the recent histoy of the Tunbrdge Fair management, which year by year makes small but succinct additions and improvements (without the help of ANY public money so far as I know), compare that with the Rutland Fair, which a sort of a semi-public event that is constantly in crisis.To call this very workable arrangement ‘institutionalized feudalism’ is catchy but really now, it’s meaningless.

    Finally, Mr. Kreis mentions that this was his third day at the fair. This is the problem right there. Unless you volunteer there, as hundreds do, you are supposed to go to the fair once, maybe twice. Otherwise you get tired of it and start asking silly questions and making weird comparisons.

    My suggestion is that the next Don Kreis goes to the Tunbridge Fair he deactivate part of his brain for awhile and open his eyes and maybe even his heart. And lay off the crappy fair food. It’s not good for you, you know.

  8. Michael Bradshaw :

    I grew up in Orange County & now live in Chittenden County. I think the Tunbridge Fair (see, locals tend to leave off the “World’s” part, because they know it’s just …a fancy add-on used for marketing)… is more of a spotlight on the CURRENT, rural, agricultural industry that struggles everyday to exist in The Green Mountains. You see farm kids showing their oxen, calves, hens, roosters & more. Vegetables, “folk” art, quilting, crafts, cooking & more are all on display from area residents.

    As far as the historical barns up on the hill, two points:

    1) The Ed Larkin Contra Dancers has been made up of generations of local residents that have been enjoying the lost art of contra dancing since 1934. My grandparents were part of the group for many years and they’d all get together to practice their routines & enjoy the “old timey” fiddle music (which is also a dying artform).

    2) The men & women working in the “period costume” areas are very often a mix of “old timer” native Vermont families & “new comers” with their families, that migrated here in the 70’s during the “back to the land” movement. They showcase & share such activities as weaving clothes, gardening, pickling, canning, etc. These are all things that many people still do in rural parts of the state as an economic necessity & not nostalgia.

    So, my view is that instead of peddling “false nostalgia” the Tunbridge Fair actually exposes people to rural life in Vermont, which I don’t think is a bad thing for anyone to learn about.

  9. Eve Ermer :

    Disclaimer, I was one of those “women in period costume” earnestly weaving (Saturday) and cooking (Sunday) this past Fair. I live in Tunbridge. I do not own one of the 100 shares, but I know people who do.

    Does Don Kreis realize that the name World’s Fair comes from a comment by the then Lt. Governor, in 1867, referring to the Tunbridge Fair as the “Little World’s Fair”? So the name stuck. I don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously, then or now. Kind of a joke.

    Antique Hill is a museum. Does Mr. Kreis object to museums? Does he object to looking at our past? Would he prefer that the excellent collection of household and farm implements be returned to old barns and attics, or that they just be static displays, with no re-enactors demonstrating how these were used? Thousands of people are able to visit this museum over these 4 days, for the price of Fair admission. Which for kids is free.

    Working there, I have many people come by and tell me that Antique Hill is the best part of the Fair. Or that it is a good break from the midway. Or that they appreciate being able to take time during the Fair to show their kids some history. That said, I agree with the poster who mentioned that these demonstrations are not necessarily just about past activities. I always get the comments about microwaves while I am roasting a chicken (I have a microwave, but do people really roast chickens in them? ugh), comments about food processors when I cut an onion with a knife, but also questions about cooking meat when camping, using dutch ovens, and hear stories about hunting and cooking game. Many people ask for recipes or share their family recipes with me. Several people want to know where I get the salt cod, because they are interested in cooking it themselves. I had two small boys watch me weave for at least 15 minutes this year, and their primary interest was the mechanics of the loom. They asked very good questions. The spinners, etc., do these things during the rest of the year as well, and many people are interested in the crafts as a current activity. And telling people about the number of woman who died from cooking over a fire does not exactly glorify the past.

    As far as Fair food, I eat fudge, kettle corn, and onion rings once a year. At the Fair. Once. If Don Kreis does not like “fair food” there is a pizza place making pizza with local ingredients, the burrito place, the maple place, etc., etc., etc. Look around a little.

    I am puzzled why Mr. Kreis needs to see the Fair’s financials. If it was publicly subsidized, you should be able to see that information from whatever public entity was subsidizing it. Does he ask for the financials from every store, restaurant or, for that matter, the Lego-like apartment building he is fond of in Montreal? And the last time I checked, his employer, Vermont Law School, was a private school. The Law School probably has more of an impact on the day to day lives of people in these towns than the Fair, but I have no idea about its financials, and looking at the list of Trustees, must admit that although I know the few who live locally (very few), I have more to do with the people who have shares in the Fair.

  10. barb morrow :

    I wish Mr. Kreis would use his obvious analytic talents to write about something that really matters, such as, oh, why the leaves turn red in the autumn. I guess I’m with Dick Drysdale on this one. Essays like this make me want to call the writer a “young whipper snapper” and box his ears.

  11. Marjorie Power :

    I need to update Michael Bradshaw who suggests that contra dancing is a “lost art”. On the contrary, it has not only survived. It is growing by leaps and bounds. You can contra dance at least once a week here in Vermont and often twice or three times.

    The young people are pouring into the dances. At the Capital City Grange Hall in Montpelier, the biweekly dance attracts 150-200 dancers year ’round. For a dance near you, check out http://www.thedancegypsy.com/.

    As for the fiddling, the old timers may be passing over to the great contra dance in the sky, but they are being replaced by talented younger fiddlers, who play in the bands that provide the music for the dances. (Yes, contra dances always have live music.) See you at the dance. It’s the most fun you can have standing up.

  12. Steven Farnham :

    I agree with some of Kreis’ critique, but some is way too harsh. It’s the Tunbridge World’s Fair, not NYC’s World Fair–presented with a Tunbridge-sized budget. Get a grip, Don. Believe it or not the Tunbrige Fair is much improved from the drunken mayhem it once was. If you want to further improve it, get involved. Donate. Get on the board. Volunteer. And quit bitchin’.

  13. Paul Denton :

    I rather wonder what Mr. Kreis would have said about the Fair as it was in the 1960s. With the girlie shows and guys with six packs festooned on their belts. The World of Tomorrow it wasn’t.

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