Durham Fair’s centennial jubilee to honor devotion of generations of families
DURHAM — Durham Fair organizers set out to make this year’s 100th anniversary a spectacular, four-day agricultural celebration to be remembered for decades to come.
It will include a fireworks display, laser show, military appreciation day, giant pumpkin judging and other activities. There’s even a special 100th anniversary poster designed by acclaimed illustrator Ted Bertz.
Entertainment Coordinator Wendy Manemeit began brainstorming ideas worthy of such a milestone for one of the largest fairs in North America managed wholly by volunteers. She thought involving every single president since 1916 would be a fantastic idea.
“Obviously, we’re not going to find the person from 100 years ago, but we thought, ‘What if we could get all of them and any representative from the family of all the folks?’” said Manemeit, who was tasked with tracking down all 22 to attend the ribbon cutting.
It took 25 hours of her time — calling people and hitting dead-ends in the process.
“The problem is, now everybody has cellphones and every number I called was disconnected. That was really what took so long,” she said.
But Manemeit persisted.
“The good thing with Durham and the Durham Fair is somebody has always stayed local. Others may move south or (elsewhere) for whatever reason, but we seemed to find somebody connected to somebody in a small town,” she said.
Throughout it all, Manemeit remained resolute, not letting setbacks deter her mission to find every president or someone related to them who could attend.
“Once we started phone calling and emailing, everybody said, ‘Oh, I know where this person is,’ and helped out, so the process was a cool thing,” she said. “It was exciting, because every phone call was someone new,” all of whom were excited to return for the 100th fair.
“The folks on the committee are energetic and brilliant. We have the best of the best,” she said.
Manemeit is a third-generation descendant of a president, and her son, the fourth.
“Even as folks pass away, you look down the line and there’s the next generation popping up. There’s a linkage to someone connected to somebody, and it makes you feel proud because you can accomplish something,” she said.
Alumni of Coginchaug Regional High School, as well as its first incarnation, Durham High School, are invited to participate in the extravaganza, as well. Manemeit also leads that committee.
She wasn’t sure how many would be interested in attending — and soon was surprised.
“I don’t think our space is going to be big enough. We’re getting hundreds of people coming from all over,” including one Durham High alum who is flying in from Arizona.
“It’s what the fair was meant to be — a gathering place for the community,” Manemeit said.
The fair doles out $25,000 in scholarships every year. A lot of those students attended universities out of the area and in other states, but chose to return to Durham to make their home, something Manemeit is thrilled to see.
Her research began with the great-great-nephew of the first president, Henry Ryan, who was at the helm from 1916-18.
Henry Coe had three uncles who were presidents of the fair, so he’ll be there in lieu of all three, Manemeit said.
“All the older names in our town will be represented there, so it’s kind of neat,” she added.
The first fair was held in 1916 and became a one-day event through 1921, then began operating for two days from 1922 to 1950, according to the Durham Fair Agricultural Association.
It was expanded to a three-day fair from 1951 until 2010, when a fourth day was added and opened on Thursday evenings. No fairs were held in 1938 because of the hurricane, or during the World War II years of 1942, 1943 and 1944, according to fair history.
Admission initially was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.
A feature of the first fair and every one through 1924 was a parade down Main Street, which began at Burckel’s Corner (intersection of Haddam Quarter Road and Main Street). It was discontinued after the 1924 fair because of traffic concerns, according to the website.
Some of the many expected to attend are Phil Rich, great-great-nephew of 1916-18 president Henry Ryan; Harriet Duval, daughter of Walter Stevens, who served from 1949-53; 1956-57 leader Ernest Otte’s niece Sue; and Frank Behrens, whose father (of the same name) was in charge of the association from 1966-77.
Duval’s late father was involved in the operation over many years. From 1937-47, he was superintendent of gates, moved on to vice president of the fair in 1948, then became president.
“He just loved everything about the fair. You kind of grow up with it, and it’s part of who you are,” she explained.
“The whole family was involved for as long as I can remember,” said Duval, whose mother supervised the flower department from 1946 to 1980 — a remarkable 36 years.
The family’s devotion to the town’s agricultural riches is evident, as Duval took over her mother’s role when she died in 1981. She served through 2011, and has since retired — but still volunteers in some capacity.
Her father most loved the various exhibits: in particular, the vegetables and baked goods lovingly grown and prepared by locals.
Because Stevens was so busy filling multiple roles during fair season and throughout the year, Duval recalls sometimes being frustrated as a youth.
“It was a job to find him, because he’d go gate to gate to gate. As a child, I would be hunting for him. I was interested in going on the rides and needed to get money,” she said with a laugh.
To encourage participation this year from those outside Middlesex County, organizers came up with an idea for out-of-towners.
Manemeit, who works in Hartford, visited a diner there. As she enjoyed her meal, she thought it would be neat to give free passes to the four waitresses, all of whom work multiple jobs along with other responsibilities, she said.
None had ever been to the fair.
She was shocked at the reception: “The whole restaurant cheered. One of them cried. They were so excited,” Manemeit said.
The fair will take place at the Durham Fairgrounds Sept. 26-29 at 70 Maple Ave. Active military members, children under 11 and those in wheelchairs will be admitted for free. Thursday night tickets are $9; and $15 a day Friday through Sunday, while four-day passes are $35. Rides are an extra charge.
For information, visit durhamfair.com.