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Around The Grange
North Stonington fair is still rich in tradition - and volunteer spirit

By Sasha Goldstein, New London Day (7/8/11)

  JULY 8, 2011 --

As fair-goers come onto the grounds, the first thing they see, aside from a welcome sign, is a familiar face.

First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II is keeping watch at the main gate this year during the 47th North Stonington Agricultural Fair, just as he has for more than 30 previous fairs.

"I helped build that gate over there," Mullane said Thursday, pointing to a smaller entrance on the other side of a sea of cars. "Every one of these buildings was put up by volunteers."

Mullane is one of about six town employees, of 13 total, who volunteer at North Stonington's premiere event.

Town Hall closes at 4 p.m., and most of those workers were at the fairgrounds, ready to go, when the gates opened at 5 p.m. Thursday, opening day of the four-day event.

Town Clerk Norma Holliday, selectmen's assistant Robin Roohr, tax collector Sandy Steinhart and planning assistant Cheryl Konsavich have all volunteered in the information booth for several years, while Public Works Director Stephen Holliday does whatever is needed around the grounds.

"My dad had pony rides at the first fair in 1964 when I was a kid, and I've volunteered every year since," Norma Holliday said Thursday.

Holliday is in a select group, dwindling every year, that has participated in the fair since its inception 47 years ago. It began as a collaboration, that still exists, between the fire department and the Community Grange #138, said Charles Smith III, another "fair founder."

"We started in 1964 with $100 from each organization," Smith said. "All that money has been donated back into the community, to the fire department, Little League, or Boy Scouts, things like that."

The days of running the event on a $200 budget are past, but the tradition remains.

"We've stuck to the traditional stuff and didn't go hog wild with all the commercial stuff," said Gene Bromley, another original member of the fair committee.

On Thursday, the air was thick with the smell of fried food and diesel fuel.

Tractors roared as they vied to pull the farthest.

Screams of joy emanated from the midway as youngsters were tossed and turned on rides that magically appear in town for four days a year.

Hens clucked, cows mooed and rabbits hopped as young 4-H members prepared their animals for show contests this weekend.

Young ladies applied makeup and put on dresses as they prepared for the Fair Queen contest.

"We have lots of good old-time stuff, but lots has been revised and revamped because of insurance criteria and safety issues," Mullane said. "We used to have 'chase the pig' and contests to shimmy up the pole to get the $20 bill off the top, but we toned that down."

The family tradition continues as well. Steinhart said four generations of her family were attending this year. Memorials and trees circle the information booth, reminders of those who have passed away.

"We planted that tree 25 years ago after my brother was killed by a drunk driver," said fair secretary Peggy Sue Long, pointing to a good-sized tree in front of the booth. "My mother was one of the founders of the fair."

Bromley, who keeps meticulous records of different fair information year after year, said the finished product, the four-day event, is always special, but it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make sure it runs smoothly.

"There's a lot of people that don't belong to the fire company or the Grange, but who come out and volunteer," Bromley said. "It's the biggest thing that happens in North Stonington every year."

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