Every year in September's third week, Durham buzzes with a bit more energy and activity than normal. As the Durham Fair enter's it's 94th year, it becomes clear that the residents of this town have been embracing the event for many years now. To discover this, one simply has to walk down Main Street to see the plethora of activity. As long as the fair has existed, so has Dr. Francis Korn, one of Durham's oldest and prominent residents. For most of his 98 years, he has lived in the very heart of Durham center, equally centered between the north and south ends of town. He's seen a lot of things. As a physician, he has seen the runny noses and injuries of many of the townfolk. He has witnessed the evolution of the automobile and remembers a time when the early model Fords would share the roads with horse and carts. He has also seen Durham grow from a small farming hamlet to a larger suburban dwelling.
Despite the town's many changes, one of the things that have remained a constant in his many years is The Durham Fair. He's doesn't remember the details of his first fair, he would have been too young. Back in 1916, he was pushed in a baby pram by a relative named Ed Shelly, a Civil War veteran. They would walk the distance from his home on Main Street and he would have his first view of the exciting new fair at only 6 weeks old. He would continue coming to nearly 93 more fairs. The fair would bring all of Durham out for a day or two, and he would enjoy seeing people he sometimes hadn't seen since the previous year at the fair.
The fair was much smaller back in his youthful years, bringing mostly those from Durham and just a few neighboring towns. He recalls, "There was a long barn paralleling the cemetery for the cows. The kids would go the night before the fair and sleep in the barn. The kids would sleep up against the animals to stay warm overnight. Most everyone had a cow, to some degree, everyone was a farmer." Dr Korn looks most forward to seeing the Farm History Museum at the fair to catch a glimpse into his yesteryear.
Dr. Korn remembers being a passenger in his mom large DeSoto as they headed down to town green to see the event. Like today, their was a great buzz around town leading up to the fair. The green had been transformed into a carnival with a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel and games of chance that flanked the edges. To further explain the experience, active Fair Committee member, Malcolm Pearce Jr. recalled some of his own experiences. "The basement of the town hall would house kids exhibits. Our teacher would have us hand carry our entries from the school on Friday afternoon. On Saturday our mothers and fathers would bring us back to the town hall and the place would have been transformed into a mass of colorful exhibits and ribbons. Everyone got a ribbon, no matter how bad the project was. I got my first prize in 1936."
Mal continues, "The cow pulls were the hi-light of the fair, then at noon, the fair would come to a stop and all would all head down to the Methodist Church basement where many townswomen would have prepared a big potluck meal. Despite the busy harvest season, the two men recalled a change in the date from the second week in October to its current September date because organizers feared the vegetables were going to freeze and flowers would be well past their prime.
Even in the early day's of the fair, food played an important role. While everyone ate at the church or the grange, some had the opportunity to delve into the culinary world and judge pies that had been baked and entered into the fair. Depending on the skill of the baker, the lucky or sometimes unlucky judge would have their hand in tasting the creations and awarding ribbons. Photography, another department also grew tremendously making its way into the fair especially when Kodak's Kodachrome became available to the masses.
When asked if there were any entertainment acts that seemed memorable, they remember few in the early days. The fair centered wholly on agriculture, but both remembered a man by the name of Reggie Bolt, who worked as a sheep hand for Brewster's Farm. He would herd the sheep from where Greenbackers is today and use his 4 sheep dogs to drive 50 sheep down route 68 and take them to the north end of the green. Reggie would take the sheep, all white accept a black one in the middle and make a big tight circle. He would have one of his dogs jump onto the the backs of the sheep herd. Once it found the black sheep, it would jump down and start nipping at its heels to pull it out of the pack. Malcolm smiles and says, "I was just a kid and nobody had ever seen anything like it. Kids gathered along 68 to see the sheep come down the road. It was incredible."
The Durham fair has stood the test of time alongside the Great Depression and two World Wars. Its history is as important to this community as the people who have worked to define it. 700 community volunteers make the event possible, many which whom are decedents of the first fair goers from 1916. On Thurday, Dr. Korn and Mal Pearce will be the first fair entrants for the 2013 Fair, reminding us to cherish the fair's traditions alive and keep it close to your hearts.