[Return to Home Page] [Subscriptions] [Newsstands] [Contact Us] [Archives]

2005 Altamont Fair Preview — The Altamont Enterprise, August 11, 2005

Pride in the fair is restored along with its oldest buildings

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Tragedy has turned to triumph at the Altamont Fair.

Just over a year ago, vandals hurled rocks at one of the fair’s oldest buildings. Twenty windows were broken in the Flower and Fine Arts Building, a graceful Victorian structure built in perfect symmetry, with four wings spreading from a center hall. Each wing has a Palladian window and the center hall beneath the roof is rimmed with clerestory windows.

The fair secretary at the time reported in tears how she felt sick when she came to work and saw the broken windows. "I couldn’t believe it," she said. "It’s such a beautiful building."

The community read about the vandalism in The Enterprise and several villagers offered to donate antique glass for repairs. While measuring for repairs, workers discovered that the window sashes and mullions — bars dividing the panes of glass — were so badly deteriorated that new glass couldn’t be installed; the antique frames were fragile and were ruined by the vandalism.

This spring, the fair’s board of directors announced it had received a $50,000 capital grant from the Wright Family Foundation to repair the Fine Arts and Flower Building.

"It’s the gem of the fair," said Marie McMillen, vice president of the fair board.

The newly-refurbished building will be ready when the fair opens next week, said McMillen. "The date is in the contracts," she said.

"First building at the fair"

McMillen herself became involved in the fair when her children, now grown, were active in 4-H.

She takes great pleasure in helping the fair and likes the variety of people who are involved.

"There was a lady wandering in the parking lot at ten of eight," she said last week. "She wanted to know where to drop off her entry for ginger cookies and chocolate fudge. She was 78."

McMillen went over some of the fair’s early history for The Enterprise.

She read from minutes, written in careful longhand, of a meeting held on Sept. 3, 1892 in the house of J.O. Stitt. The meeting was called to order by C.M. Frederick and a motion was made by W. Hilton, she read.

"They were charged to go to Cobleskill and have the Cobleskill County Agricultural Society share their experience," reported McMillen.

A committee of five was set up to call on subscribers; 200 or more subscriptions were needed, she said.

"The fair initially was a stockholder fair," explained McMillen.

As she spoke of that century-old history, the modern-day fair was bustling about her. Waves of people ebbed and flowed through her fairgrounds office, seeking information and directions for their tasks. The phone rang as McMillen efficiently answered queries.

Then she picked up with the history again, explaining that an Altamont contingent "went to Cobleskill to look at the Flower Building there."

"It was called the Exposition Hall," said Harold Hahn as he walked through the office. Hahn has been helping with the restoration project. He went to a file cabinet in the back of the office to look up the contractors for the work currently underway.

The building’s roof is being painted by Robert White; the building itself is being painted by Clark King of First Choice Painting; and the windows are being done by Bellamy and Sons of Glenville.

"His grandfather was involved with the Altamont Fair for a long period of time," Hahn said of Bellamy.

"This was the first building at the fair," said Hahn of the Fine Arts and Flower building. "It’s well over 100 years old."

McMillen looked to her records for the exact date. "The Exposition Hall was built in 1896," she said.

Restored glory

Only two buildings on the current fairgrounds are older — the gateway at the foot of Grand Street and the original grandstand building.

The board of directors of the Altamont Driving Park and Fair Association purchased 24.5 acres from Isaac Reamer and held the first fair in 1893, from Sept. 12 to 15. Receipts for the four-day fair totaled $884.13.

The cost to build the gateway was $115, McMillen reported. The two Victorian gatehouses were spanned by an elaborate arch, long since gone.

Three years ago, a group of volunteers painted the gatehouses, where tickets were once sold, in splendid Victorian colors. The two ticket booths are now used as restrooms.

"This was the fair’s main entrance for everyone from the village and it still is," said Jerry Oliver, who helped with the restoration. "Why should they walk into the back end of a restroom, surrounded by barbed wire and a chain-link fence" Everyone in the village should be proud to walk through the gate and they will be. In its restored form, it will reflect the history of the fair and the village. It will be a thing of beauty."

There was talk at the time of reconstructing a replica of the original arch that connected the two ticket booths.

McMillen said this month that the gate entrances will be raised so new sills can be put in. Asked if there were still plans to re-create the arch, she said, "We’re going to visit that."

The original grandstand now serves as the Poultry Building. "If you look on the walls, you can see the treads where they pulled the seats out," said McMillen.

She looked at her records and reported that H.P. Foster built the grandstand for $1,975.

A race track was built in front of the grandstand for horse racing, which continued in Altamont until the mid-1990’s.

A later wooden grandstand burned and was replaced with metal bleachers.

The Fine Arts and Flower Building was complete for the third fair and was based on what the Altamont committee had observed at the Cobleskill Fair.

"They stipulated the roof be of A Number slate," said McMillen. "It’s now standing-seam. That was done in the 1900’s."

H. Schoonmaker was awarded the bid to build it, for $2,146.

Picture perfect

McMillen has photographs from the era when fair patrons arrived in horse and buggy — the women in long skirts and bonnets, the men in suits and straw hats. Later pictures show an occasional horse and buggy amid the many rows of new horseless carriages — the early automobiles.

There, in the midst of the crowd, was the fine Arts and Flower Building, looking much as it does today. The roof was slate then, while today it is tin. And the building was painted in a variety of hues while today it is white.

The old black-and-white photographs don’t reveal the hues but they show the lightest color for window trim, and batten boards, creating a striped pattern, with the darkest shade on the gables and an in-between hue beneath.

The Fine Arts and Flower Building takes it name from what is displayed there. McMillen recalled some of the local florists like Doris Remus and Inga Barth who had years ago transformed the place. "They did extensive displays; they were just beautiful," she said.

This year, as in years past, local artists will exhibit their works along with the plants and flowers that are displayed and judged. But the setting will be much grander because of the restoration.

"They’ve made exact duplicates of the Palladian windows," said McMillen.

"They look original in appearance but they are vinyl so they’ll be easy to maintain," said Hahn.

A beautiful park beneath the bright mountains

The restoration of the Fine Arts and Flower Building is part of an overall refurbishing of the fairgrounds.

"We’re hoping to bring the fairgrounds back into being a beautiful park, actively using the grounds for outside events," said McMillen.

Projects totaling $450,000 are to be complete by the time the fair opens next week, she said.

McMillen detailed some of the improvements: a new 80-by-200-foot cattle barn, newly paved roadways, an improved drainage and water-collection system, and painting and repairs for many of the fair’s buildings. The repairs and painting for most the buildings are being completed under the direction of building supervisor Mark Traverse, said McMillen.

Bob Santorelli, president of the fair’s board of directors, told The Enterprise earlier that money for the improvements has come from grants, sale of property, the fair’s annual budget, and a short-term $160,000 loan from the Bank of Coxsackie.

Santorelli said the board will have spent about $600,000 over the past few years in capital improvements.

"I believe it is the most put into the fair in the history of the fair," he said.

The $50,000 grant for the Fine Arts and Flower Building is from the Wright Family Foundation, which Philanthropy Northeast says provides grants to support "community development, the arts, education, health care, and civic renewal."

"It’s great to make our oldest building on the grounds look new again," said Santorelli.

He also said, with the new cattle barn, the fair expects a significant increase over the 190 livestock entries last year.

The board will remain focused on agriculture, he said.

"We are different from most county fairs because being near the Capitol, we are more metropolitan," he said. "Ninety percent of the families come here to see the animals."

McMillen envisions many uses for the grounds. "The Flower Building would be a gorgeous setting for a wedding," she said.

And the entire grounds can be rented out for special events by large groups, she said. Traditional events on the fairgrounds have included the Old Songs Festival, the Capital District Scottish Games, the Irish Fest, and the Apple Fest.

The fair is starting something new this year, said McMillen, with a group arriving from California "Moritz, promoters for the car industry, are going to have a Honda Ride and Drive here," she said. "It’s a new chapter for us. We will do a full turn-key activity — right down to the food and the linen."

In a way, the fair has come full circle. McMillen referred to a history of the village of Altamont, written by the late Arthur Gregg, Guilderland’s town historian, in 1965, the year Altamont celebrated the 75th anniversary of its incorporation.

Gregg wrote of the attraction the little village at the foot of the Helderbergs held for nearby city dwellers and of how it provided a commercial center for the rural countryside.

"The Village of Altamont would have developed near the new rail line, even if there had been little beauty in its environments," Gregg wrote in 1965. "But fortunately, it was a site which has enthralled travelers ever since the weary Palatine refugees, toiling toward their ‘Promised Land’ of Schoharie in 1712, paused, spell-bound, and gave the name of ‘Hellebergh’ or ‘Bright Mountain’ to the beautifully wooded rampart that forms our western boundary.

"The more than a hundred thousand patrons annually filling the grounds of the Eastern Regional Exposition in our village, enthuse over a setting unexcelled in this country.

"In the early days, reporters for Capital District newspapers were eloquent in their descriptions of the place. One reporter wrote in 1888: ‘What a pretty village, said a fair-faced girl of 17, as the Western Express stopped at the Village of Altamont the other day. What a lovely park and beautiful flowers! What quaint cottages and how grandly those magnificent mountains seem to protect the place.’

"‘It is a fact,’ he continued, ‘the village gives every evidence of a steady growth with promise of being a summer resort of no little note. There are many desirable spots for summer houses. The houses being put up by retired farmers and other people of means, are of modern design, some of them teeming with gables and brilliantly colored nooks and corners, and the streets are objects of beauty.

"‘The Kushaqua, the mountain hotel of Colonel Church, has been enlarged to accommodate 175 guests. Governor Hill and his secretary, Colonel William Gorham Rice, have found this a congenial spot and may frequently be seen pacing the piazzas that look out upon what is considered the longest uninterrupted view in the country.’

"The prophecy," Gregg continues, "that the village would become the center of a summer resort, was well founded. The two large village hotels were soon filled, as were the private boarding houses.

"During the Altamont Fair in earlier years, almost every private home opened to judges, concessionaires, and entertainers. From the hourly trains poured guests for not only Altamont and the Kushaqua, but Thompson’s Lake, Warner’s Lake, Berne, East Berne, and White Sulphur Springs...."

"People now can stay right on our campgrounds," said McMillen. "The exhibitors and the vendors stay there during the fair. And people can stay there during events," she said, as they have traditionally at the Old Songs Festival and as a group from Florida which as rented the grounds will do shortly.

"We’re on a mission," said McMillen, "to bring the fairgrounds back to being a beautiful spot under the great Helderbergs."

Fair scarecrows are not for the birds

By Nicole Fay Barr

ALTAMONT — Harold Hahn hasn’t seen a crow at the Altamont Fair since 1993. This tells him that perhaps scarecrows work, he said.

It was that year that the Guilderland farmer started the scarecrow contest at the Altamont Fair. Hahn saw scarecrow contests at other fairs, so he suggested it, he said.

It’s been a big hit ever since.

Usually there are 20 to 25 scarecrow entries each year, Hahn said. People bring their scarecrows in to be judged or make them right there, he said.

The contest has three categories: one for adults, one for ages 16 and under, and one for groups or organizations.

"It’s one of the best things to enter at the fair because there is no entrance fee," Hahn said.

The scarecrows can vary in size, he said, and adult entries have to be bigger than the youth entries.

Asked what the scarecrows are made out of, Hahn said, "Anything durable." Old clothing stuffed with newspapers, rags, hay, or straw will do, he said.

But, because scarecrows are meant to be outside, they must be able to withstand severe weather conditions.

They must also be self-supporting, Hahn said, such as with a piece of wood.

Hahn organizes the contest and chooses its judges. He does not judge the contest because, he said, "I’ve got too many other things to do."

The entries are judged on durability, originality, and creative use of material, Hahn said.

"People dress their scarecrows up as all sorts of things," Hahn said, adding, the more creative the better.

The best scarecrow he’s ever seen was one of a fisherman that a teenager had made a few years ago, he said. No one in the contests that followed has ever scored as high as that one, he said.

Winners receive $35 for first place; $20 for second; $10 for third; $8 for fourth; $7 for fifth; and $6 for sixth.

Anyone interested can show up at the fair, with their scarecrow, at the stage area near Gate 3, on Saturday between noon and 5 p.m.

No experience is required, Hahn concluded. "Just make one and bring it down to the stage area Saturday," he said.

Canadian Hell Drivers bring chills, spills, and thrills

By Matt Cook

At some point during the Canadian Hell Drivers’ show, next Tuesday night at the Altamont Fair, a man will perch on stilts, eight feet off the ground, in the middle of a ring of fire. Before the fire reaches the man’s feet, a speeding car will crash into the stilts, sending the man tumbling—minus a helmet and flame retardant clothes—to contend with the ground and burning fuel.

"I wouldn’t do that," laughed Ralph Moore, owner of the Hell Drivers and occasional stunt driver.

Moore rattled off a list of other stunts performed by his team, many of which, he said, aren’t performed in any other stunt-driving show: rollovers, dive bombs, T-bones. Motorcyclists will jump 20 cars. A man in a flame suit will be set on fire. A jumping car will explode in mid-air.

Then there’s the precision driving. Multiple cars will drive bumper-to-bumper, door-handle-to-door-handle, going over ramps and crisscrossing, at 70 miles per hour.

"It’s a thrill show," Moore said, as if it needed saying.

The Canadian Hell Drivers is an Ontario-based team of stunt performers. Most of the shows are in Canada, Moore said, but the Hell Drivers are on a swing through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York.

Though the drivers seem fearless, Moore said fear has nothing to do with it.

"I wouldn’t say fearless, but trained," Moore said. "Fearless is when you get into trouble. This is highly trained. Highly trained is calculated. Everything is calculated."

That includes how close the drivers can get to the spectators, Moore said. In the team’s 15-year history, no spectator has even been injured by flying car parts, shooting flames, or anything else.

"There’s absolutely no danger to the spectators," Moore said. "The only danger is to the stuntmen themselves."’

Most of the drivers are veterans and have been with the Hell Drivers for 10 or 15 years.

"It takes years of practice," Moore said. "One mistake could cost a life."

The Canadian Hell Drivers are not the only team of its kind in the world.

"This type of show has been around for a long time," Moore said.

A few years ago, the Imperial Hell Drivers came through Altamont on its final tour after a half-century of driving. Its members saw themselves as the last of a dying breed of old-time stunt performers.

The Canadian Hell Drivers, then, are a new breed. The team’s shows are all choreographed to pounding music, Moore said. Still, though the tone is set to appeal to a generation bred on extreme sports, video games, and special-effects blockbusters, the concept remains the same: drivers pushing their vehicles to limit of safety.

"It’s a show of chills, thrills, and spills like you’ve never seen before," Moore said.

Baking at the Fair

By Holly Grosch

ALTAMONT — Sue Petrosino remembers as a small child pressing her nose against the glass case in the food building at the Altamont Fair. She peered in at a layered and decorated wedding cake, thinking that it was the most beautiful cake she had ever seen.

Now, at the age of 37, she runs the Arts and Crafts and Food Building at the fair. The women who bring in their baked goods every year don’t look so old anymore, Petrosino said.

Home-baked goods, have historically been made mostly by women, and have played an important role in women’s recognition and status. Families continue their traditions, entering great-grandma’s recipe today in fair competitions. For many people, said Petrosino, "It really is a competition — it’s a big deal."

Each region of the United States has its own food flair and foods that are culturally ranked as more prestigious and important for a person to prepare well. In America’s South, for example, the prize-winner of Best In Fair is often reserved for a cake. In Southern Living magazine’s annual collection of recipes, cakes have appeared on the front cover more than any other food item.

For the Altamont Fair, Petrosino said, the cooking contest that generates the most interest is pies.

"There is more pride in pies," she said.

When people come into the building, one of the most common inquiries is who won best pie this year. It seems to catch the most attention, Petrosino said.

Thinking of the significance of pies to this region, what comes to mind, is all the apple orchards and the ideal weather for berries, including strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries.

Petrosino thinks pies are popular and significant to Altamont Fair-goers and contestants because: county fairs, apple pies and Uncle Sam go hand in hand, she said. Apple pies are considered all-American and are patriotic, she said.


But there are a huge variety of food categories at the fair — 88 classes in all. The food competitions are broken down into canned goods and baked goods.

Under baked goods, the subdivisions are breads, cakes, cookies, pies and pastries, and candy.

Canned foods are divided into vegetables, fruits, pickled vegetables, spiced fruit and pickles, and condiments. Relishes, chutney, and minced meat fall under condiments, Petrosino said, adding that minced meat went in this category out of default because it doesn’t really fit in with any of the others.

Classes under candy include fudge, maple candies, and marzipan, although the fair has not had a marzipan entry in years, Petrosino said.

There are then separate youth divisions as well for cooks under 10, age 11 to 14, and age 15 to 19.

As for the adults, Petrosino said, she sees the same people every year and, when a traditional entrant doesn’t show up on Sunday to drop off her product, "we wonder what happened...and worry." A lot of the stereotypical "granny types" enter, she said, but also women from a broad spectrum of ages and men as well.

The number of entries have decreased every year, Petrosino said; the fair receives fewer and fewer entries in the adult food contest. But, at the same time, the fair has seen a lot of growth in the youth division.

"I think that’s encouraging," Petrosino said. It introduces the craft to kids early on, she said, and then hopeful it "becomes important to them and something they continue to be into," Petrosino said.


Contestants and judges aren’t bound by too may rules, she said. Contestants must bake from scratch and they have to hand in the full recipes with their products for the judges to compare the recipe with the actual taste. And the food has to be removed from its baking container, unless it’s a pie.

Petrosino said that some people have tried to cheat, but the judges can tell right away if something was made from a box.

Also judges consult the recipe, as they figure out what makes the product unique. Petrosino said she is often amazed when a judge can tell that the contestant had used more nutmeg, for example, than the recipe called for.

Not just anyone desiring a free buffet sampling of dessert decadence can sign up to be a judge. Judges are invited to the fair, and live outside the three counties served by the fair — Albany, Schenectady, and Greene — to reduce the chance of knowing one of the contestants. Additionally, all the judges are professionals in the food industry. Many are culinary instructors at colleges, Petrosino said, and some are home and careers teachers from schools.

Some contestants get upset when they don’t win, and they come to her as the director of the building and ask, "Why did I get a third!" Petrosino said. She’s glad that she isn’t one of the judges, first of all, because she doesn’t have the expertise but also, because, when people are upset, they don’t know the person who judged them.

When a contestant is upset, Petrosino said, she goes with them to look in the judges book, and tells the contestant one way to better understand why she placed third is by seeing what she was competing against.

All the judges write comments on their cards. Sometimes, even if a person ranked second, the comments say how the chef can improve her product. "It’s constructive criticism," Petrosino said.

So, for example, she would point out to an entrant that the judge’s comment card said that the cookie was a little too moist, and a person might say, "But that’s how my husband likes them, so that’s how I’ve always made them." Petrosino said she tells the baker that makes complete sense and that she understands that preference, but, ultimately, the decision of a winner is made by the judge’s preference.

The judges receive minimum wage for coming to the fair for a day and are paid for their mileage, so they each get about $40 in compensation, Petrosino said.

The cooks pay a small entry fee of either a minimum of $2 or 10 percent of the total possible first-prize winnings, which is called the first premium, Petrosino said.

Most of the prizes are $5 for first place, $3 for second place, and $2 for third. The winning wedding cake baker and decorator gets $12.

Several companies have started sponsering bigger-money competitions at the fair as well. The largest prize of $150 comes from Fleischmann’s Yeast. Indian Ladder Farms and Altamont Orchards sponsor a $25 gift certificate for a fruit muffin competition. The New York State Apple Association awards $25 for an apple pie contest. And Hershey’s Cocoa Classic comes to the Altamont Fair for the first time this year awarding $25 for a chocolate dessert using their cocoa.

Contestants had to sign up to enter the food contest by the end of July, and will now bring their goods to the fairgrounds on Sunday before the fair starts. The judges then spend all day on Monday deliberating so that on opening day, Tuesday, pieces of the entered products are on display with their designated ribbons.

For fair-goers who yearn to be a taste-testers, in recent years, Petrosino has cut and displayed half of each good and then sliced up and frozen the leftovers on Monday, so that, throughout fair week, she puts out samples to be had for a donation.

"It’s roulette baking goods," Petrosino said, because on Monday she doesn’t have time to put out the displays and also label and keep track of which sample pieces go to what person and which samples are the winners. But people have a lot of fun trying to guess which ribbon belongs to their sample, she said.

Serious business

Money donated for sampling goes toward the building upkeep — things like Windex, Petrosino said. Also every year, the fair puts together a Blue Ribbon Winner Recipe Cookbook to sell. Entrants don’t have to share what they would consider a secret family recipe if they don’t want to, but most are happy to share, she said.

Petrosino explained that not all the recipes are traditional family recipes. Some contestants find out what the special categories are for the year and spend all winter concocting a new original recipe to enter.

The fair sponsored special contest this year is for gingerbread houses.

Some of the contestants who "cook and can know what they are doing are real serious," Petrosino said.

It’s serious business to them because they feel as though they are doing something of value for their families, she said, whether it be carrying on a tradition or, in the case of canning, preparing healthy foods for their families.

[Return to Home Page]