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Demo derbies, oxen pulls and roller coasters: Local photographer compiles century of pics from Champlain Valley Fair

A black-and-white photos of teens on a carnival ride at the Champlain Valley fair. In the forefront, two teen boys are dressed in long-sleeved collared shirts. They are waving at the camera. Behind them, two more teens are seated in a carnival ride car and waving at the camera.
Champlain Valley Exposition
Archival photograph
"Teens have a special relationship with the fair," Stephen Mease said. For many, it was their first taste of unsupervised freedom, or their first time holding a paying job.

A parade of young people with their prize-winning dairy cows, a wooden roller coaster dubbed, "Mad Mouse," and smashed-up cars in a demolition derby. These are some of the images that make up Williston photographer Stephen Mease's new book: Images of America: The Champlain Valley Fair.

The Champlain Valley Exposition was founded in 1922 in Essex Junction, and went on to hold its first four-day fair on the exposition grounds the following year.

Longer now and dubbed, "The Ten Best Days of Summer," the Champlain Valley Fair is the state's largest annual event.

Mease's black-and-white photography book documents a century of agricultural exhibits, midway rides, grandstand concert series, attractions — and of course, fried fair food of all kinds. A former features editor for the Burlington Free Press and former communications director for the Champlain Valley Exposition, he culled images from archival documents, photos and ephemera, along with a cache of his own pictures taken at the fair over the last quarter century.

Vermont Public's Mary Engisch spoke to Mease about his book. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor's note: Stephen Mease edited Vermont Public Radio's membership newsletter from 1993-2008.

Mary Engisch: This spans 100 years of history of the Champlain Valley Fair. Where did those archival photos come from? Take us with you into that room full of boxes of old photographs.

A book cover by photographer Stephen Mease, titled "Images of America - Champlain Valley Fair." The picture looks to be from the 1940s and is sepia-toned with carnival tents, rides and fair-goers, some in dresses, some in sailor uniforms.
Arcadia Publishing
Stephen Mease
Williston photographer Stephen Mease's new book of photos documenting that century-old Champlain Valley Fair.

Stephen Mease: Well, it's a pretty cramped little closet, but there were lots of boxes with black and white photos and contact sheets. There were slides, old posters. So there's a lot of that and some ephemera. Actually, there were some of the old program guides — the premium books from the early '20s. So those were fun to look through.

Fortunately, a lot of the material had been collected for the 75th anniversary at the fair. And some folks before I was there put this together. They actually did a little booklet with some of the history in it. So a lot of the pictures were collected and a history exhibit had been created that year for the 75th.

The thing that sort of reenergized this was after 25 years, that exhibit was feeling a little tired. So the fair asked me last year to come back as a special project to sort of reenergize it, update it, include the new pictures from the last 25 years.

Going through all that material to create that exhibit really sort of teed up the idea for doing this book, because I'd looked through everything, I knew where things were. And the next step was to sort of organize it and put it into the book.

How did you choose the photos from the last 25 years from your own collection? What rose to the top?

There's always the favorites. You catch the great smile on a kid showing their cow, or just that moment of a concert, the rides. The night the full moon's rising, and you catch it like right by the Ferris wheel. So there are definitely those kinds of photos.

In fact, there were so many, that it was sort of difficult to pick the favorites. There was lots of good photos we found at the UVM Special Collections. Dan Higgins, a photographer in Winooski, had some photos from the '70s that we included. There were actually some archival from the Smithsonian that we were able to use.

And the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction, it's always been heavily agricultural. How is that tradition represented throughout the book?

Pictures of the dairy showing. The 4-H kids out there with their cows, and they're wearing their white uniforms to show the cows. There was also a tradition back in the day when the track was still there,the kids would be sort of a cavalcade of cows and animals at the fair, and they would march them around the racetrack. And the reward for the kids doing that was at the end, after they got off doing the parade, they would get a shiny 50-cent piece as sort of a thank you. And they got to spend that at the fair.

A newspaper from 1946 announced "Fair News," in large block letters. There are gray and black newsprint drawings of tents and people high atop a Ferris wheel, waving. The newsprint reads, "Champlain Valley Fair," and in smaller type, "6 days, 6 nights, August 26th to 31st, Essex Junction, Vermont."
Stephen Mease
Champlain Valley Exposition special collection
Archival photos, newspapers and posters make up some of the images in Stephen Mease's book, documenting the 100th year of the Champlain Valley Fair.

And this book is black-and-white photography. There's newspaper articles, and also replicas of posters from the fair. It's so fun to look through. It just feels timeless. I found myself trying to use clues of people's clothing and footwear, just as keys to knowing what year those pictures might be from.

Well, in many ways, some of the things at the fair are timeless, you know? It's hard to tell if it's an oxen pull from the 1930s or the 1980s. But some of the older pictures, if you see folks wearing suits and ties and hats and very dressed up, those are probably the '30s and '40s. Folks tended to really sort of view the fair as an occasion. It was a big deal to go to the fair, and they dressed up for it.

As a lifelong photographer, what what do you see in these photographs?

I mean, I see history. And I see the people. I have always been really interested in the stories. There's a photo in there of — it looks like a family of six or eight people standing and sitting on the tops of their cars back in the '30s, watching something. Probably the harness racing on the track. What was it like for that family to come to the fair? And what did it mean to them?

And the book has lots of photos of young people — and especially pictures of teenagers. And I think for so many of us, the fair was that first taste of freedom. I'd love to know if you see a common thread between the decades of photographs of young people. Like some of the pictures from the 1940s, the world was immersed in a world war. Those young people had to have very different things on their mind.

Well, actually on the cover, there's the pictures of the midway. And you can see a few folks there that are in military uniform. So this was taken before the war. So you're thinking that guy may have gone off to war. And did he come back or not? It's hard to know.

I mean, one of my favorite pictures in the book I took a few years ago was — you can see three girls sort of walking down the midway. And there's the carnival games and all that. But you just know that they're good friends. They've had a great time. And, you know, they're making memories. I mean, I think teens have an interesting relationship with the fair. Back in the day, they would go over and get a job helping to set up the carnival. They put up signs around town, and you could earn your fair money, helping put together the rides.

Two men in suits stand in the forefront of an old black-and-white photo. A large building in the background with the words, "Champlain Valley Exposition, Inc.," is painted on its front. Others are gathered in small groups at small vendor stands.
Stephen Mease
Champlain Valley Exposition special collection
Williston photographer Stephen Mease has culled photos, posters and newspaper clippings, depicting images of the last century of the Champlain Valley Fair in Essex Junction. His book of black-and-white photos cover the fair's agricultural events and exhibits, carnival rides, grandstand concerts, food and fairgoers.

What's next?

I could have put another 200 pictures in. There were just so many good shots, so many interesting pieces that I think people would have enjoyed seeing. One of the things I'm talking with the fair about right now is, what to do with this material and how to preserve it for the fellow doing the 150th book! I think we'll probably try to build out, on the fair's website, a good sampling of some of the photos. There's more to be done with this. I'm just not sure what yet.

The book from Arcadia Publishing is available at bookstores and online, and at the Champlain Valley Fair in the home craft area.

The 2022 Champlain Valley Fair runs through Sunday, Sept. 4.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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