History

Two new books take us back: one reviews the last 400 years of Valley life, the other recalls the 160-plus year history of the Dutchess County Fair.



History

 

Vintage Volumes

 

Two recently published books — each packed with wonderful photos and “bet you didn’t know that” facts — examine the Valley’s past from distinctly different perspectives

 

 

photo Ted Spiegel

As a peek at the shelves in any local bookstore will confirm, books about the Hudson Valley are as numerous as hot days in August. A fair number of these tomes fall into one of two categories: splashy coffee-table books, with gorgeous photos of the river and environs; or accounts of the Valley’s long — and colorful — history. A recently published volume, created by two longtime Valleyites with close ties to this magazine, combines both genres into a truly unique document of the Valley’s landscape, its people, and their history.

 

 

Hudson Valley Voyage: Through the Seasons, Through the Years (Involvement Media, $36.95) features 150 full-color photographs by Ted Spiegel. A former staff lensman for National Geographic (and publisher of the popular Hudson Valley Calendar), Spiegel’s vivid images of the region capture the many ways in which residents and visitors alike experience the Valley. Taken during all four seasons of the year, these photos range from aerial views of Manhattan and the Adirondacks to a close-up of the first frost clinging to fall leaves. Written by Hudson Valley’s former editor, Reed Sparling, the lively and informative text presents a concise account of the numerous events that have shaped this region — and, in many ways, the world at large — since Henry Hudson first sailed up the river in 1609. Sparling’s essays are supplemented with excerpts from first-person recollections and historical documents written during the time period being discussed; an unusual twist which gives the book a real “you are there” feeling. And even Valley natives are likely to discover one or two new facts about the region after perusing these pages. (Did you know, for instance, that the first American Declaration of Independence was signed not in Philadelphia, but Coxsackie?) Also included in the book are a historical time-line, regional map, and comprehensive guide to area cultural and historic sites. In many ways, Hudson Valley Voyage is just like the region it celebrates: useful, educational, and beautiful to look at.

— Grace Turner

 

 

The Dutchess County Fair has been delighting Valleyites and visitors alike since it first opened back in 1842. It’s now the second largest event of its kind in New York (only the State Fair in Syracuse is bigger) and more than half a million people are expected to pass through the turnstiles during its six-day run this year. One of the keys to the fair’s longevity — and a large part of its charm — is a tradition of keeping the main spotlight on agriculture, despite changing times and trends. In The Dutchess County Fair: Portrait of an American Tradition (Black Dome Press, $15.95), photographer Molly Ahearn takes a fond look back at this fun-filled fair and its intriguing evolution through the years.

 

Every period has had its high points. In the early days, the most popular event was a plowing competition to determine who could clear a quarter-acre in the shortest time using a pair of oxen. Ladies competed in homemade-craft contests, in categories including best macrame broom case and best embroidered silk toilet cushion.

 

By the 1920s, fairgoers were hungry for more modern thrills. Ahearn notes that the 1920 fair featured daily airplane shows with daredevil Larry Drake climbing out of an open cockpit to walk the wings in midair. That year, too, a prize cabbage weighed in at 28 pounds.

 

At the 1932 fair, Hyde Park resident Franklin Delano Roosevelt — then governor of New York and a big booster of the fair — was said to have been intrigued by a pre-animal-rights-era act in which a horse (named John the Baptist) and rider dove off a 40-foot platform into a pool of water. During World War II, the fair was cancelled and the empty, wide-open fairgrounds were used as plane-spotting locations. In 1960, at the height of the Cold War, a fallout shelter was displayed at the fair, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller encouraged all citizens to build one.

 

 

 Disco dancing was a hot nighttime activity in the 1970s, along with the likes of Joe Chitwood’s Thrill Show, featuring automotive stunts and races. One car was even shot out of a cannon.

 

The fair celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1995. As usual, the crowds lined up at its renowned 4-H milkshake bar. This divine dairy stop features couldn’t-be-fresher milk from local cows; it’s so popular that some folks come to the fair just for their annual vanilla, chocolate or strawberry shake.

 

Now, in the 21st century, the Dutchess County Fair continues to delight. Last year, the baking contest featured the likes of a cake in the shape of a chicken. And digital photos were allowed in the amateur photography contest for the first time in 2006.

 

Ahearn’s book is stuffed with lots more tantalizing trivia. Did you know that rock star Don McLean was discovered at the little ole Dutchess Fair? In 1964 he took the top prize after performing “American Pie” at the fair’s Raphael’s Talent Search. In fact, he so impressed radio personality Raphael Mark that Mark arranged a performance for McLean at Dutchess Community College. (Mark’s wife Frances was quoted in the Poughkeepsie Journal as saying, ‘This song is never going to make it. It’s too long.’) McLean returned to the fair in 1973 and 1975 as a headline attraction.

 

Sponsored by the Dutchess County Agricultural Society, the fair now features more than 1,600 farm animals every year (sure to delight the kiddies) and everything from spinning, weaving and goat-milking demonstrations to horse and canine shows, floral-design displays and tractor pulls. (There’s even a Chicken Clucking & Rooster Crowing contest. No foolin’.)

 

But that’s only scratching the surface. You can stroll through the midway and play games, whoop and holler on carnival rides, pop into tents for 4-H competitions and cooking demos featuring luscious Hudson Valley summer veggies and other fresh ingredients, and check out the concession and vendor stalls. When your feet get weary, pause for a laugh at a comedy hypnotism show, cheer at a talent contest — and catch top-notch music acts including Tracy Lawrence and Ricky Scaggs.

— Rita Ross

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