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"What Makes the Fair": Organizers Remember Orange Country Fair's History

Organizers Walt Bespuda and Jim Zeoli on what makes the country fair great.

 

Since beginning in 1972 as a bicentennial celebration, the Orange Country Fair has stayed remarkably close to its roots -- appropriate for an event celebrating tradition.

Walt Bespuda remembers clearing brush out from the space that would become the fairgrounds by .

"Let's see, that was the mid-1970s," he says. "It was all woodland back then. I was the leader of a 4H group, had about ten boys. And those boys were the ones who actually cleared out the land. We cut the wood out, the brush and all of it, just cut it out. We did it in sections, and every year we'd do a little more. That was probably something that doesn't happen today -- a group of boys working as hard as those boys worked."

"That was an outstanding 4H group," he says, "And a lot of the boys that did it then are today the leaders helping run the fair."

One of those boys was First Selectman Jim Zeoli. When I catch up with him, he's taking trays of pork butts out of the oven at High Plains Community Center in preparation for the fair's roast pork and pulled pork.

"You can smell how good it is -- and how hot it is in here," he says. "I've worked proudly every job from garbage to chairman, under the guidance of Walt and Maryellen Bespuda and Jim and Helen Ewen [the original co-chairs.]"

While Zeoli's been around since the beginning, he credits a long list of Orange residents, from Jody Daymon, Bill Daymon and Lynn Plaskowitz of the food committee to Orange-based Marenna Amusements.

"In the fair book, we list the former fair members and workers that have passed away," says Zeoli. "It's memorable people that make the fair, and make it possible for everybody. Everybody on that list I knew well, and I knew personally. And that's what makes the fair -- it's the people who make the fair."

"It's so important to us to keep the commercialization at bay and make it possible for it to be an affordable and safe fun environment for everybody," he says. (For information on prices and events, see the fair's web site.)

The doodlebug pull, the ox pull, the horse pull -- these staples of the fair have been around since the beginning, says Bespuda.

"The first real difference in the fair was the carriage rally we had -- it was a horse carriage rally. We had some real nice horses in costume, and some decorated buggies. That was one of a kind then. One of the most outstanding features of the first fair, i would dare say."

Times may have changed around the fair, but inside, life will stay remarkably true to tradition.

"There's a few of us old-timers still kind of running it," says Bespuda. This fair will continue to be a success because we have a lot of good people who are really interested in keeping our town what it is."

Like Christian, 15, who helps Zeoli unload pork butts from the oven. Christian is bringing his first calf to the fair, says Zeoli, a 12-week-old named Betsy he's raised from a bottle. Betsy sounds like she's already excited.

"You go out in the lot and call her name, and Betsy turns around and looks at you, like 'Where are we going?'," says Zeoli.

Zeoli says people like Christian will be the future of the farm.

"There are new people coming along after I'm going to be dead and gone who will be involved with this fair."

He laughs, "I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, however!"

Tickets are $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and free for children and people with disabilities. For more information, visit the fair's web site.

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