Since 1842 the Dutchess County Fair has delighted visitors with an old-fashioned celebration of farmers, agriculture and homesteading. As the second largest fair in New York State, this classic country fair sets up shop for six days in late August every year in the charming Hudson Valley village of Rhinebeck. Though the Dutchess County Fair is certainly a major highlight, the 147-acre fairgrounds play host to other events throughout the year including the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Fest, classic car shows, craft and antiques fairs, and the annual New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.
Easy to navigate, a variety of tents and permanent buildings spread throughout the Fairgrounds showcase local and regional craftspeople, hands-on children’s educational activities, superior animal exhibitions, a bounty of award winning produce, live musical performances – including an annual fiddle contest – and a cornucopia of locally made edible goodies.
It wouldn’t be a county fair without the bustling avenue of concession stands selling everything from ears of corn hot off the grill to barbecued ribs and all manner of greasy delights – fried Oreos, anyone? And of course, some time spent exploring the fair’s midway is a must, with its dizzying carnival rides, flashing lights and carnival games.
Our favorite section of the fair features Dutchess County’s admirable 4-H program known as Livestock Hill. Kids of all ages showcase their animals and present their vast knowledge about animal husbandry. In 12 barns a multitude of farm animals are primped and preened in true county fair style, awaiting their turn to strut their stuff in the show ring or receive a rub behind the ears by friendly fair-goers.
The 4-H barns are the first place we head every year, after grabbing a couple of paper sacks full of hot roasted peanuts from the peanut stand. Because of our oldest daughter’s love for goats from a very young age, we tend to make a beeline to the goat barns to check out the county’s fantastic Kids for Kids program. A highlight of last year’s visit, our youngest daughter got to try her hand at milking and walked around the fair proudly sporting her “I milked a dairy goat today!” button.
In addition to the goat barns, fair-goers can visit dewy-eyed dairy cows and calves, plenty of sleepy pigs – it’s always a treat when there are litters of squirmy piglets – beautiful horses, and an entire building dedicated to all manner of farm fowl, including a chick hatching exhibit, along with furry creatures such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Shearing, spinning and dyeing demonstrations take place in the sheep barn while three large arenas showcase the various animals throughout the fair.
Whether it’s time spent in the Century Museum Village learning how to knit on a peg board or making your own printing-press bookmark, strolling through a building spotlighting local landscape design, admiring displays of blue ribbon-festooned herbs and veggies, or stopping into the Miracle of Life dairy birthing center, there is no end to the agricultural practices one can learn about and enjoy at the Dutchess County Fair. One of my favorite stands sells handmade brooms, handles adorned with a hand-printed label.
A fun way to cap off a day filled with animal encounters, marionette shows and maple sugar cotton candy is to spend some time riding rides and shooting hoops at the fair’s colorful, vertigo-inducing, wallet-draining midway.
Ten rides cost $20 if you purchase tickets online by Aug. 21, a great deal as most of the big kid rides require four tickets each. Traditional fair favorites such as the Sling Shot, the Matterhorn, the Ferris wheel and the fun house are all here interspersed with kiddy pools full of bobbing rubber duckies manned by hawkers claiming that, “every duck wins a prize!”
It’s impossible to avoid the persuasive carnies along the main alleyway of games and each year our girls enjoy tossing darts at balloons in an attempt win a little stuffed octopus or Minion or bear. A day or two spent at the Dutchess County Fair is a late summer must-do.
Gina Vercesi is a Westchester-based freelance writer who enjoys the Dutchess County Fair.
Dutchess County Fair
GPS directions: 6636 Rte. 9
Dates: Tuesday, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Aug. 27
Hours: Open daily, 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Admission: $15 for adults. Kids 11 and under are free.
Fair is held rain or shine. No pets allowed.