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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 17, 2006

The Altamont Fair centers a community

Illustration by Forest Byrd

We were struck this year by the camaraderie and can-do spirit as a diverse crew labored in muggy weather to build a shelter for a new attraction at the Altamont Fair — a beehive oven.

The project reminded us of a barn-raising from a bygone era. A 17-year-old aspiring Eagle Scout, Colin Masterson, had made it his project. But it was also a project of retired hospital administrator Earl MacIntosh, whose committee oversees the fair’s 10 museums.

And it seemed every age in between was involved. The volunteers came from all walks of life with one purpose — to preserve a relic from the past so it could enlighten future generations.

A contractor, a mill owner, a landscaper, an architect, a towing-service owner, and a pair of masons all contributed.

The last remaining outdoor Italian bread oven in Voorheesville will become a permanent exhibit at the Altamont Fair. It was one of many built in the village during the early 1900’s.

The beehive oven was part of a long and proud history. While most of us Americans today buy our bread packaged in plastic and filled with preservatives, in an earlier era, the masonry oven, used to bake bread fresh daily, was central to community life.

Annie Brill remembers her grandmother baking in the masonry oven behind the family’s grocery store in Voorheesville. "When you’re a child, you don’t really understand how special something like that is," she said. "It’s just part of your life."

Earl MacIntosh shared his vision of baking bread each year during fair week. "As you come in Gate 3, you’ll be able to smell the bread," he said. "You’ll follow that smell and be able to see them baking it."

Fair-goers will sample something rare today: fresh-from-the oven bread, still so warm that it melts butter.

Both the barn-raising and the bread-making stand for what has kept the Altamont Fair alive for well over a century — it centers a community.

The community it serves is ever-larger and more diverse as the years roll on. When the Altamont Fair first opened in1893, most of the fair-goers, like most Americans, came from farms. They showed off their best — the women their baked and sewn goods, the men their animals and grown goods — as they caught up with neighbors.

Now few of the fair-goers come from farms. They come from cities and suburbs, and some of them marvel at farm animals, like goats and sheep, rabbits and chickens, as if they were exotic beasts.

They meet on a middle ground at the fair and are the richer for it.

Fairs provide diversion from the everyday. They offer fun and entertainment.

The Altamont Fair, which serves three counties — Albany, Schenectady, and Greene — is no exception. Local kids wait all year for August. Some want to try the newest rides, others want to show an animal they’ve raised. Teens find a chance at romance on a date that takes them to the top of the Ferris wheel or they like ranging the grounds in packs with their peers.

Young parents find food and acts that can appeal to each member of the family. And old folks, ranging from those staffing the grange to those baking bread at the Farmhouse Museum share a lifetime of knowledge with fair-goers.

A fair can make us realize we are part of a human community larger than ourselves. We shed for a few hours or a few days our modern ostrich-like habits. Instead of tuning in to just our own music, programmed on our iPods, we listen to the variety of music the fair offers, and we sing along with others.

We may still carry our cell phones, connecting us to those we already know, but the ring tones may be drowned out by the cacophony of the unfamiliar — the barker on the bally, urging us to watch the sword-swallower; the clackety-clack of the old farm machinery; or the bleating of a goat, competing in the ring. The unknown beckons.

Instead of focusing on the TV screen in our living room, we watch live shows with a crowd of others — performers making their debut in Altamont Idol, members of the Zoppé family acting in a circus that has been part of their Italian family for generations, daredevils crashing their cars in a demolition derby, Jason Reilly presenting his menagerie of creepy, slimy, small creatures.

The list goes on but no act is the same, because the crowd, by being part of it — cheering for their favorite performer, cringing at the sound of a crashing car, squealing on being able to hold a real, live hissing cockroach — affects what is happening.

There is give and take, interaction and growth. We’ll run into people we know, and meet people we don’t.

Sure, we’ll have fun at the fair. And we’ll also come away with a stronger sense of community. See you there.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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