Students attending school in Danbury received a major perk. Every year on a Friday in October, school was closed and each pupil was given a free ticket to attend Connecticut’s “greatest show on Earth”, The Great Danbury State Fair.
The Fair lasted for over 100 years. It began as an agricultural showcase in the early 1800s and then continued as a regularly scheduled event in 1869. As the years went by, during good times and bad (including a major fire), it evolved into something more, greatly aided by the vision and leadership of Danbury’s premier showman, John W. Leahy. Mr. Leahy became the major owner of the Danbury Fair during the immediate post-World War II era, and brought to the Fair new ideas and innovations. The Great Danbury State Fair was a circus, Wild West show, agricultural exhibit, theme park, carnival, and race track all rolled up into one. Located on 100 acres in the southwestern corner of the city, near the state border with New York, the Fair drew crowds numbering in the 100,000’s from all over the East Coast every year.
There was the Big Top where farmers competed with their vegetables and fruits for blue ribbons; Gold Town, an Old West replica of Dodge City with saloons, good guys and outlaws; the New England Village featuring a one-room school house and old country store; dozens of permanent buildings housing pigs, cows, horses(including the Budweiser Clydesdales), assorted poultry, and various home improvements salesmen; the Dutch Village, a New Amsterdam era New York with windmills and other amenities from that time period; a giant Mid-Way with carnival rides, arcades, side shows, and Hoochie Koochie girls; auto-racing daredevils on the racetrack near the Grandstand; huge towering fiberglass figurines of Paul Bunyan and Farmer John; a Pirate’s Cove, Cinderella-land, and musical performers; dozens of food vendors serving hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, pizza, sausage and meatball grinders(subs), Bavarian waffles, cotton candy, candy apples, snow cones, and full-course restaurants; and last, but certainly not least, the daily Fair Parade headed by John Leahy himself.
The night before Fair Day was like Christmas Eve, each child so excited by what they would see and do the next day that sleep was nearly impossible. My sister, Sara, and I were no exceptions, dreaming about riding the “Tilt-a-Whirl”, playing in the Fort at the Dutch Village, and smacking our lips just thinking about “Jack’s French Fries (a pre-cursor to McDonald’s), and the meatball grinders at the VFW booth.
I attended the Danbury Fair from about age 3 until age 24, approximately 20 years. The only one I missed during that time period was the Centennial year of 1969, and that was due to my involvement in college with the Vietnam Moratorium. The last year I went was in 1974, right before my wife, Donna, and I moved to Arizona.
The Great Danbury State Fair was part of my heritage. I had the unique experience of seeing it from different perspectives than the average Fair attendee. In 1965, my father, Camp, began working for John Leahy’s fuel oil company. He was employed there for about three years, working for the fuel oil business during the winter, and working as part of the Danbury Fair paint and labor crew from spring through fall, including the 10-day run of the Fair in October. The Fair was immense with many permanent buildings and displays that took the crew all spring and summer to re-paint, fix, and maintain from the wear and tear of Fair week, and the ravages of winter weather.
Back then, my family had one car. My mother, Martha, who was a bookkeeper, often got done with work before Dad, and I would accompany her on late summer afternoons when she drove to the Fair Grounds to pick him up. It was always a thrill to ride through the gates and drive to the paint building, located near the pond in the New England Village. However, it was an eerie experience as well. All of the temporary tents were not there. One could look across a flat expanse and see the Grand Stand and Big Top as if they were a stone’s throw away. It was hard to imagine that every October the same area was so thick with people, tents, and food vendors that on a busy Fair day it might take 30 minutes to walk the same distance. Often, while we waited for Dad to get done at work, I would wander around the Fair. I felt like the last person on Earth walking around all those empty acres. And yet, I treated those happy, yet hallowed, grounds with the reverence only a Danbury kid could know.
In 1972, I had the opportunity to work at the Fair. My next door neighbor, Fred Najamy, ran one of the few sit-down restaurants, “Freddie’s Country Kitchen”. His daughter, Gilberte ran the Breakfast part of the restaurant called “Bunny’s Ham ‘n’ Egger”. Fred was a caterer by profession, but his real money maker was the restaurant at the Fair. That summer, out of college, no job, and recently engaged, I got my feet wet by working with Gilberte at a few clam bakes. When she asked me if I wanted to work at her breakfast place at the Fair, I jumped at the chance.
It was a very hard job, up each morning at about 4 AM, on the job by 5:00, ready to serve breakfast to all the Fair workers, the carnies, and other Fair participants by 6:00. Gilberte served breakfast all day, although mornings were the busiest. At night we put food away, cleaned up, and performed other duties, not getting done until about 10:00. However, I was only 22 years old, and had the stamina...especially for 10 days in a row.
It was quite a different view of the Fair when one worked there. You wanted to do well. There were so many people walking by and stopping in during the day. Many from far away, who had never been to the Fair before. It was a matter of pride to give them good service and make a good impression. There were moments of tediousness and boredom, but I never tired of the Fair whether I was an attendee, son of a Fair worker, or employee. The Danbury Fair was in my blood.
And then came 1981...and it all came to an end. John Leahy died in 1975, and the Fair began to decline financially. Though we had moved back East by then and it was only a four hour ride away, I didn’t make it to the last year of the Danbury Fair. I don’t know all the reasons why the Fair ended. Maybe, it was just the time period, the 1980s...there were new forms of entertainment and distractions, or perhaps with Leahy no longer in charge, there was a lack of leadership. Along came a major developer who dangled the right sum of money in front of the eyes of those who had controlling interests in the Danbury Fair, and the Fair was gone...forever. Knocked down, torn apart, never to hear the squeals of delight from children again. In its place, the Danbury Fair Mall was constructed. Just what the world needed...another mall...the 20th century’s edifice to planned consumerism.
Fast forward to 1997. My family and I were making an infrequent trip to Connecticut which took us through Danbury. We exited off I-84 to drive around, and look at my old neighborhood and stomping grounds. We decided to drive down Mountainville Avenue, which was on the other side of Rogers Park from where I grew up on Putnam Drive. I was driving when my wife told me to stop and turn around. She noticed a house with a lot of things on the front lawn....things from the Danbury Fair.
We pulled into the driveway, and marveled at what we saw...old figurines from Gold Town, parts of familiar signs and pieces of buildings from the Fair, and a large bulletin board with dozens of family photos from the Fair. We knocked on the door of the house. An older man answered. His name was Walter Dunlap. A chance drive by a house on Mountainville Avenue resulted in an hour long reminiscence of the Danbury Fair. We spoke excitedly about our Fair memories, and about people we knew in common from years ago in Danbury.
Mr. Dunlap had been a State Policeman, who worked the gates, parking lot, and security at the Danbury Fair for many years. When the Fair closed down, there was a major auction of thousands of Danbury Fair items. Many were bought by people representing other Fairs and carnivals across the country, but some were bought by average citizens, like Walter Dunlap. However, he didn’t buy the items to make money from them. Instead, he displayed them annually as a tribute to the late Great Danbury Fair during the same week in October that the Fair had run every year. It was my good fortune to be there during that week in 1997, and see his homage to days past.
Every year, Dunlap began his weekly Fair tribute by visiting the grave of John Leahy, saying a few words there, and leaving flowers. He had known Leahy on first name basis, and spoke of him with great respect
"You know what I miss most about the Fair?" Mr. Dunlap asked me, his bright eyes wide, "all the wonderful smells."
Instantly, I understood exactly what he meant. He wasn't referring only to the typical food and carnival smells. No, at the Danbury Fair there was an air of conviviality...a liveliness. Every October, the Fair became a large happy organism, and all the attendees, vendors, and entertainers contributed their joy to its existence.
To this day, there are legions of “Walter Dunlaps” who savor and keep that memory alive in their hearts.
Copyright: Marc Catone, 2011
Click below for photos from the Danbury Fair:
Click below for "Danbury Fair Song" video by Dave King:
This is the original piece I wrote in March 2010 about Danbury in 1960. I rewrote it, and pared it down for the article which eventually appeared in the Danbury News-Times(see below this article or in the Links section for that published article)
Danbury in 1960
Marc A. Catone
Click below for the abridged version of the above article, as it appeared in the Danbury News-Times in April 2010.
Below is the link to the 1960 photo of my pal, Jerry Lefebvre, and me included in the print version of the Danbury News-Times, but not in the online version