NORWICH – I used to fancy myself as a Renaissance Man. A Jack of all Trades. A real Mr. Know-It-All. That said, let me be the first to say; there’s nothing that’ll bring you down a peg or two like working at the Chenango County Fair. I found that out Tuesday.
The original goal
My plan heading there was to spend a day-in-the-life of a carnival worker; give a hand setting up, operate a game or two and help run some rides – free of charge. Hard work for no wage sounded like an easy sell. It was not.
“Volunteer or not, you just don’t have what it takes. Sorry kid.” After an hour of pleading, the door to a day on the midway got slammed in my face. Distraught and hurt, I thought about giving up. But any staffer worth their salt at The Evening Sun knows there’s no leaving the fair without a story.
No carnival. No problem. A large cheese-fry and chili-topped Elephant Ear later, I was back in the high-life again. My new goal: work as many jobs as I could find in five hours. There had to be somebody who needed some help, or didn’t know how to say no. Lo and behold, there were.
I needed references. Why not start at the top? So who better to solicit than Mary Weidman, the county’s very busy fair board president.
“Give me one good reason why I should help you get a job?” she asked.
Nose running, tears falling, I told her why. “Because I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
I won’t say I looked like Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” but I won’t say I didn’t, either.
Ten minutes later, eyes still red from crying, Mary got me in with Fowler’s Taffy.
Talk about going from rags to riches.
Originally from the Buffalo area, the Fowlers have been making taffy the same way – from scratch, no machines – for 90 years. They’ve been making it at the Chenango County Fair for nearly 60.
“These fair weeks are great,” said John Fowler, whose great-grandfather started the business. “You meet a lot of great people.”
The Fowlers, who only operate in the summer, try to make it to most of the county fairs in New York state. “There are fair board presidents that have changed my diapers,” John said.
A fourth generation Taffy-man, John explained that the weather is the secret to getting a good batch.
“Last year here was the best week we’ve had at this fair,” he said. “It was in the 70s and 80s. It was perfect.”
Fowler explained that excessive heat or cooling changes the texture of the taffy – making it less chewy or too chewy – and can affect people’s craving for the fair favorite.
From boiling to cooling and pulling to wrapping, Fowler, his wife Tammy, and cousin Randy Moylan took me through all the steps. And like they said, it was harder than it looks.
“You did great,” John said. “Pulling (when the taffy is tossed repeatedly over a metal hook to get its final texture), you could use a little help with that.”
The Hodge Family
From Fowler’s on, it was smooth sailing getting work. My next boss was Lee Hodge. He, his wife Jennifer and daughter Morgan gave me a job in the animal barn in the 4-H agricultural area. Lee, an Oxford resident, is showing six of his livestock, a calf, two yearlings and three cows in the fair and county competitions this week. Competing since he was 8-years-old, Lee has over 20 years experience.
“It’s especially important to me now that I’m not in 4-H,” Hodge said. “When I was, 4-H taught me about teamwork, commitment and dedication. Now that I’m older, it’s important that I do a lot with the program. We want these kids to have a good experience as well.”
Lee had me scoop manure, put out hay, and prepare the cows for milking. He also gave me a few pointers and some quick insight into the dairy industry.
“It was great,” he said. “It was nice to have someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about dairy farming be willing to work and interested in learning about it.”
I recommend everyone who heads to the fair take a trip around the agricultural grounds. If you don’t have one, you’ll definitely find an interest in learning about it. That’s what the fair is all about.
Doing our part
My next stop was at the first-ever recycling center at the fair. Sponsored by Wilber Bank and the Wildlife Learning Company from Hartwick, members of Norwich High School’s student government have set up nearly two dozen receptacles in various hot spots around the fairgrounds. In teams of two, they’ve been collecting plastic, cans and cardboard from vendors and the like.
“It’s a good thing to do,” said Norwich junior and student government President Cassidy Griffin, who’s volunteering at the center all week. “Our purpose is to recycle at the fair, but it’s also to spread awareness about the importance of recycling.”
“We wanted to make the fair a more pleasant place to come,” said fellow volunteer and classmate Brooke Abbott, who’s the student council vice-president.
We took a tour around the grounds, but most of the receptacles were less than a quarter full. We picked up more soda bottles off the ground than anything else.
“I think it will catch on,” Griffin said.
Overall, they said I did a good job, despite failing to wear gloves and turning down use of a staff T-shirt.
“Your hygiene and lack of uniform were negatives,” Abbott said. “Otherwise, great job.”
No fries with that shake
My last and most stressful stop was at the Grange Hall’s pie and ice cream booth in the Exhibition Hall. The Grange has been serving homemade pies and baked goods there for over 30 years. They got served a heaping pile of Mike a la mode when they needed it most.
“Sometimes it gets pretty hectic around here,” said Janice VanHouten, Grange member and my supervisor.
I pulled ice cream duty. The rush didn’t stop for an hour. Coffee milkshakes, strawberry sundaes, Root Beer floats – it didn’t end. It got messy, too. But Janice and I managed.
“You did great. Glad you were here to help,” she said. “You could use a little work on your milkshakes, though.”
All in all it was a good day. I worked hard, that’s for sure. But I didn’t even scratch the surface of what goes on at the fair. There’s a lot of cogs that make the wheel go, and I bet if I did the same thing tomorrow, it’d be worth a whole other story.