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

The Altamont Fair Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 17, 2006

A mother’s view
A fair lesson learned from baking eyeball cupcakes

By Jo E. Prout

The Altamont Fair, modern and high-tech" That’s the first impression entrants receive, when they log onto altamontfair.com to download entry forms and read the premium book on-line.

Fair entries have been available on-line for several years, but we at The Enterprise office missed the milestone. We weren’t the only ones: Robert Santorelli, the president of the fair board, told The Enterprise last week that he’d only logged onto the site this year, himself.

When I visited the website to get a fair entry form for my young son, I expected to see pictures of cows and sheep. Instead, the site’s banner is of a young, glitzy couple, who look as if they’re on their way to Saratoga, not Altamont.

"It used to be all agriculture," Santorelli said. "Now, it’s trying to be more younger families."

Santorelli, like many of the fair board members, grew up attending the fair every year, and eventually came to work there. "I started there as a food guy," he said. He does not handle agricultural events for the fair, he said — that is fellow board member Andrew King’s job.

"My job is to keep everyone happy," Santorelli said. "I like it. It’s my hobby, I guess."

He said that the 146 acres of fairgrounds require a lot of maintenance, with their many buildings. When asked about its financial troubles in the past, Santorelli said that the fair’s woes were in the 1990’s. "It’s over with. It’s done," he said.

The board has "put $600,000 back into the fairgrounds," said Santorelli, part of which included installing continuous blacktop.

"The place is really looking good. No one gets paid to work there, except maintenance," he said.

The fair’s "biggest small event" is still the racing pigs, he said. "It’s packed for every single show," Santorelli said.

The biggest fair attraction is the demolition derby, he said. This year’s derby is billed as the largest in history.

The two people-packing events highlight the dual facets of the fair: agriculture and technology. The fair website offers this history:

"Our emphasis will continue to be on agriculture. This becomes more difficult each year, as we see the surrounding agricultural community shrink and give way to housing developments and industry. We want to continue to maintain a family atmosphere during our Fair to make"the Altamont Fair the best that it can be in terms of entertainment, as a an educational experience and as a showcase for our history and traditions."

Mary Bayham, of Bethlehem, has made entering the fair one of her family traditions. Her son made a "Santa’s belly" pillow by overstuffing red fabric and leaving some of the stuffing poking out of the seams. Bayham’s children also made a sewn nativity set with a background stable and individual animals. A pinecone turkey kept the menagerie company.

"Every year, I say it’s too much work, but they have so much fun, I just have to do a craft," Bayham said.

As Bayham labelled her work last Friday at the fairgrounds, B.J. Lazarou, of Colonie, checked in her own crafts with Violet Whitbeck, of Duanesburg.

On Sunday afternoon, my son, who is seven, turned in his own entry: eyeball cupcakes. I didn’t let him take the baking tin out of the oven, but I watched him do everything else. I asked him why he entered the fair.

"One: so I can win a prize. Two: to get money," he said.

"And, because it’s fun, right" Even if you don’t win a ribbon"" I prompted.

Yeah, he finally agreed, because it’s fun. And when his paintbrush became globbed with frosting, and his arm ached from decorating his cakes, he said, "This is hard work."

The Altamont Fair really is an educational experience and a showcase for traditions.

Bluegrass music
Bains grow music with bare hands

By Tim Matteson

ALTAMONT — For 20 years, Al and Kathy Bain have made the Altamont Fair a part of their musical experience.

Whether it be on the little gazebo outside the Arts Building, on the Northrup Stage, or in the 1890’s Building, the Bains have shared their traditional country-western, bluegrass style of music with fair-goers in Altamont.

"It’s so much fun," Kathy Bain said. "We have played for thousands and thousands of people."

The duo, who hail from West Hebron in Washington County, play at a few fairs but mostly play at bluegrass festivals. Next weekend, they will play in a bluegrass festival in North Creek, in Warren County.

Kathy Bain said that she and Al have played together for over three decades.

"We’ve played forever," Bain joked. "I’ve been with him for 34 years. He did a lot on his own and started early. We do this for a living. We play a lot of places."

Al and Kathy Bain will be playing at the fair all week long. They put on three shows a day — at 2, 4, and 6 p.m.

"All week long people will come out and find us," Kathy Bain said.

What makes the band fun is the interaction with the crowd. In the midst of a performance on Tuesday, they talked with a group of travelers from Granville — in Washington County — who knew the some of the same places they did. The Bains later talked to a woman who was eating a blooming onion that was "undercooked." And finally, they closed the show by playing a song for a young girl to dance to.

A family affair

Their song list included "Amazing Grace" and the theme to the old Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road, which Al Bain called the greatest black-and-white movie of all time.

"We mostly play country and bluegrass, and gospel," Kathy Bain said. "We fake any of the other stuff. We look at each other after we do a song that’s different and say, ‘What did we do that for"’"

Music is a family affair for the Bains. Their son is a deejay at the Lounge, a club in Albany. Their daughter, who used to travel with Al and Kathy, is now a classical and scat jazz singer in Las Vegas.

Alan Bain studied music in high school and college, but really learned to play the guitar while in the Army.

Kathy Bain had grown up singing jazz and classical songs. She met Alan at one of his shows.

"My mother made me listen to him and took me to a show," she said. "He said he needed a girl singer for a song. I did it, and, next thing I knew, I was playing bass."

Kathy Bain plays a stand-up bass while Al Bain plays guitar and banjo.

"The last thing you have in your life"

The Bains have opened for legendary country performer Chet Atkins and also played shows produced by WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va. for 25 to 30 years.

They were brought to the Altamont Fair by its former director, the late Reid Northrup.

The Bains have played all different kinds of venues. They have performed for audiences ranging from two people to 81,000.

Kathy Bain said that she prefers smaller, more intimate crowds.

"I like to look a person in the eye and really nail them," she said. "I like to look at every person in the audience."

But traveling also has its dangers.

The Bains played the Chenango County Fair in Norwich just three days before the fairgrounds there were under water.

"We left on Sunday, and by Wednesday it was under water by three feet," Kathy Bain said.

She said that she loves music and being able to share it with people.

"It’s so much fun," she said. "We’ve played in front of thousands of people. There’s a saying that music is the last thing you have in life."

A day with the Shermans isn’t dull

By Jarrett Carroll

ALTAMONT — Hurling axes and hewing logs are a spectacular part of The Sherman Family Show, but an ingrained reverence for craftsmanship underlies the performance.

Preserving the craft of post-and-beam construction through eight generations, the Sherman family brought their showmanship and skill back to the Altamont Fair for the 22nd year to keep the art they love alive.

"The most important thing we try to stress here is the value of passing down a craft"whether its chocolate-chip cookies or building a barn," said Dana Sherman, the family’s patriarch. "People will look at our tools and say, ‘My father had one of those hanging in the garage’."

Sherman’s son Don, and his two grandchildren, Kevin and Megan, all Knox natives, help run the shows.

Sherman, an extremely friendly and animated man, loves history.

"This is one of the few fairs where you can go around and see history and touch history," Sherman told The Enterprise. "The Altamont Fair has the ability to offer everything from carriages to rollercoasters; they offer a span which is hard to find at other places."

On display inside of the 1890’s Building the Shermans had antique axes, wood lathes, chisels, mallets, froes, ades, saws, draw knives, and much more. Very few of the tools are modern replicas, according to Sherman, because they simply do not make them anymore.

"I started all of this while I was working on my thesis in college on Pieter Cornelisz who was employed by Killian Van Rensselaer," said Sherman of the show’s inception. "He was a master carpenter in 1691 and it was the beginning of European carpentry in the colonies."

One could tell the nationality of a carpenter simply by the techniques he used, Sherman continued.

"Different techniques originated in different nationalities"There’s more than one way of hand-hewing," Sherman said. "We demonstrate English, Dutch, and German techniques at our show."

Barn first

The post and beam construction of the 17th and 18th centuries were extremely time consuming and labor intensive, and would be financially impractical for today’s modern construction practices, said Sherman, who added that it would take a minimum of four to six months, depending on size, to build a barn that way.

The beams created during the Sherman’s demonstrations are being put together inside of the 1890’s Building to replicate an original barn framework. Originally the Sherman Family Show was moved to various locations around the fairgrounds, but now they are permanently placed in the 1890’s building.

"When we first came to the 1890’s building, there was nothing here, not even boards on the wall," Sherman said. "The idea was to build a barn inside of the building, and it will be here forever."

However, most new building materials do not come close to "lasting forever," Sherman told The Enterprise.

"I’ve seen cedar shingles over 100 years old," said Sherman. "If you go down to the Home Depot, the best shingles they’ve got will only last about 20 or 30 years. Of course, they’re probably cheaper than hand-hewed shingles."

However, during Colonial times, farmers depended on these traditional practices to make a living out of the Northeastern wilderness.

"Being a farmer, the most important structure was their barn. So, they would live in a barn before building their own home, often sleeping next to their animals," said Sherman.

"You just start chucking axes"

Sherman said that he still looks forward to talking with fair-goers every year.

"We really look forward to this week"We don’t get out that often to actually see the fair, but the interaction with the people is fantastic"From the young kid asking a million questions about what we do to the guy that owns some of the tools," he said.

Sherman said the reason why his family got into the lumberjack competition demonstrations at their shows is quite simple.

"You get tired of hewing wood all day and you just start chucking axes and hatchets," Sherman told The Enterprise. "People really love the tomahawks."

Sherman’s grandson, Kevin, impressed the crowd with his skill at the tomahawk toss during the show. Quickly grabbing three and four small axes at a time, Kevin rapidly threw all of them at the target — a red bull’s eye painted on a water-logged wooden stump.

At one point Sherman asked a boy in the crowd where he would like Kevin to throw the next tomahawk after he had already thrown two on either side of the bull’s eye.

"Right in the middle!" the boy yelled out, to which Sherman jested with his grandson that, if he missed, he would be forced to leave the show.

Right on cue, Kevin’s tomahawk landed with a dull thud in the three-inch gap between his first two throws.

The crowd cheered and clapped in delight.

According to Sherman, maintenance of antique equipment is critical to its preservation.

"One of the things we do between breaks is sharpening. There is not an electric motor back there," Sherman said, pointing to a sharpening-stone wheel on display. "You also have to know blacksmithing because some of the stuff is going to need repair"We have a forge on the farm."

Sherman emphasized the importance of preserving the lost art that his family has continued for the past eight generations.

"In order to really educate and entertain, you have to have living history," Sherman said. "When people walk through, they only see the stuff, they don’t see the history"If you know how to do something, you’ve got to show people how to do it."

The Sherman Family Show will continue through the rest of the Altamont Fair, with the last show on Saturday night. The Sherman invites all to come, watch, and ask questions about the forgotten art of post-and-beam construction.

Finding a time machine in Altamont Fair museums

By Rachel Dutil

ALTAMONT – A relaxing step back in time may be in order after a day of crowded midways, long cotton-candy lines, and a barrage of game attendants pleading for you to be the next one to win whatever prize is being offered.

The Altamont Fair’s museums can do just that – take you back in time.

From a one-room schoolhouse, to a room full of antique cars, history can be explored at the fair.

Walking past the Blacksmith Shop, you can hear the clanking of hammers and catch a glimpse of bright orange metal fresh out of the fire.

Blacksmithing is an art that has stood the test of time.

It began during the Iron Age, when man began making tools from iron. Today, blacksmithing skills are used to make repairs and replacement parts for equipment and machinery that is made of steel.

Daniel Crowther and Sarah Ritchie are a husband-and-wife blacksmith team that have traveled from Valley Falls to showcase their handiwork at the Altamont Fair.

Ritchie has been a smith for 10 years, Crowther for 17.

"We are professional smiths, but we both still have day jobs," said Ritchie.

They are both members of a blacksmithing group in Valley Falls. Ritchie is the president, and Crowther is the treasurer. The group travels around, giving demonstrations and informative talks about the trade.

Smiths only get about 15 to 20 seconds to work before they need to reheat the metal, Crowther explained. Sometimes, if they’re lucky, they might get 40 or 45 seconds. "You’ve got to strike while the iron is hot. Yes, that is where that expression came from," he said.

"Today I made 114 horseshoe nail rings," said Ritchie.

She explained that, in past years, they would get complaints about not having the rings, so this year they tracked down the materials they needed, and, on Tuesday, she cranked them out. "I hope they sell," she said.

Living history

Edna Kniffen was born in 1924, and brought up in an 18-room boarding house in the Catskills.

She has lived in Ravena since 1932, and is a charter member of the Ravena Historical Society. "That is what got me involved with the museum at the fair," she said.

On Tuesday, she sat on an old sofa in the Farm House Museum, untangling balls of yarn.

It really looks like an old farmhouse, said Kniffen. But, she explained, when you look closely, you notice things that are missing. "We don’t have a match holder, and we don’t have a string holder," she said, "Every farmhouse had those things."

Talking truck

Driving around outside of the Fire Museum on Tuesday was a bright red replica fire truck. Standing just inside the museum, was a man who held the controls, and a recording device to make the truck talk.

One little boy held an animated conversation with the truck before looking over at the man, and saying to his father, "But Dad, I can see the man talking right over there."

Further inside the museum, are old-fashioned hoses, trucks, and photographs – and Guy Comparetta, the deputy fire coordinator for Albany County.

Comparetta explained that the museum has on display a horse-drawn fire engine. It is one of only three surviving water towers that were never motorized.

The museum also has on display an old handpumper truck. The truck was hauled to a fire scene by a team of men that then hand pumped the water out of a nearby stream or lake to fight the flames.

Down on the farm

Just outside the Farm Machinery Museum is a pig-pen. Inside the pig-pen it is hard to miss "Sweetpea," a monstrous pig, who vies for space with a half-dozen or so piglets.

Inside the Farm Machinery Museum, is a plethora of old-fashioned farm machinery. Gears grind, belts move, and a thin trail of smoke rises from a working motor.

History informs the Altamont Fair – from the replica post office and barroom in the 1890’s Building, to the five-piece mechanical musician band in the Circus Museum.

[Return to Home Page]