Remembering the Great Danbury Fair

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by Amanda Bloom

"The Great Danbury Fair - 1869/1981" by Jack Barrows, provided by Leahey Fuels. Photo: Michael Duffy / CT / The News Times

It wasn’t so long ago that October meant more than apple picking and Halloween to New Englanders; October was deemed the month of “Danbury” for well over a century.

The Danbury Fair, located where the Danbury Fair Mall now stands, would come to town mid-month, bringing thousands of people from far and wide to revel in a 10 day celebration of family, food, music and fun.  The fair ran for 112 years and remains a magical time in the memories of many – a time of horses, stunt racing, gargantuan pumpkins and old western towns.

by Amanda Bloom

 


 

It wasn’t so long ago that October meant more than apple picking and Halloween to New Englanders; October was deemed the month of “Danbury” for well over a century.  The Danbury Fair, located where the Danbury Fair Mall now stands, would come to town mid-month, bringing thousands of people from far and wide to revel in a 10 day celebration of family, food, music and fun.  The fair ran for 112 years and remains a magical time in the memories of many – a time of horses, stunt racing, gargantuan pumpkins and old western towns.
One of many figures at the Danbury Fair.
Before blossoming into the Fair, the grounds were known as Danbury Pleasure park, home to the leisurely trotting races of the 1860s.  The races were formalized in 1869, and that October the Farmer’s and Manufacturer’s Society opened the first three day fair, essentially a bountiful agricultural market for fresh vegetables, grains, animals and various goods.

In the early 1900s, the vastness and varieties of produce found at the Fair was truly remarkable.  Underneath the Big Top Farmer’s Tent, fairgoers could choose from 90 kinds of pumpkins and 30 types of tomatoes, not to mention countless pies, cakes and crafts.

It wasn’t until mid-century that the Fair became the magnificent event that earned its fame.  When America entered World War II in 1942, the fair was shut down for four years as the country focused it’s mind and its industries on the fight in Europe.  The years of neglect took a toll on the fairgrounds, but thanks to a man with the drive and the pocket change to keep it alive, the Fair reopened in 1946.  That man was John Leahy.

 

In 1955 Gold Town was built, a frontier main street complete with a fully equipped smithery, dentist and barber shop, along with a saloon that was held up twice daily.

 

"The Great Danbury Fair - 1869/1981" by Jack Barrows, provided by Leahey Fuels. Photo: Michael Duffy / CT / The News Times

Born in 1900, Leahy attended every Fair since 1905 until his death in 1974. He was always a smart and industrious person, becoming a machinist straight out of 8th grade, owning a machine shop at the age of 20 and later his own fuel company.  In 1942, Leahy received a piece of stock in the Danbury Fair as payment for oil, and three years later he owned enough of the Fair to become its proprietor.  Leahy poured $10,000 of his own money into renovating the Fair, and in 1946, he and assistant C. Irving Jarvis put together the biggest and most beautiful Danbury Fair yet seen.

Leahy always remained a little boy at heart.  On Fridays, he gave every student in Danbury a ticket to the Fair, and when the Board of Education tried to cancel “Fair Day” in 1947, the kids protested at the administrative building on West Street and marched up to the Fair, where Leahy let them all in for free.  

In 1955, Leahy built Gold Town, a frontier main street complete with a fully equipped smithery, dentist and barber shop, along with a saloon that was held up twice daily.  Leahy erected Dutch Village in 1960,  where fairgoers could pick up a pair of wooden shoes or an apple pie fresh from the beehive oven.

Around this time, Richie Butler, now an employee at Leahy Oil in Danbury, went to the Fair for the first time at the age of 5, just like Leahy.  Butler remembers Leahy as a great showman:

“[Leahy] lived for the Fair,” Butler says,  “it was his pride and joy.”

Butler’s father worked as a blacksmith at the Fair, shoeing various draft and saddle horses day in and out.  When Butler’s mother was sick one year, Richie accompanied his father to the fair and attended every fair thereafter, gathering his homework assignments and taking the week off from school.   He was part of the crew constructing the giant 70 foot figure of Paul Bunyan and has been a horseman through the years.  

 

In 1974, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas teamed up for an epic tribute to the late Danbury composer Charles Ives in celebration of Ives’ 100th birthday. The proceeds from the concert funded the construction of the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, located at  Danbury’s Western Connecticut State University.

 

Dressed in an admiral’s uniform, Butler escorted the Danbury Fair Queen Wendy Vacorino in the Grand Parade in 1971.  The Grand Parade was something of a daily afternoon miracle: somehow the marchers, animals and floats wound their way through thousands of people and around the fair, ending at the Grandstand.

The Danbury Fair race arena in 1963.

The Grandstand was the prime viewing spot for breathtaking acts and races.  The Joie Chitwood Thrill Show kept fairgoers on the edge of their seats throughout the 40s as the sleek cars wove around each other with inches to spare, tumbling over the asphalt and driving the track on two wheels.  Leahy built an aquaway surrounding the 1/3 mile racetrack in 1949 where the Ski Belle’s would perform between stock car heats, though the water was drained and paved over the following year.

Carolyn Chase and the Triple A Ranch Gang was one of many bands who supplied a soundtrack to the Fair.  Carolyn and the Gang performed in an old covered wagon for 20 years, alongwith the likes of organist Emil Buzaid, Red Brigham and the Harmony Hayriders and Victor Zembruski, the Polka King.  In 1974, Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas teamed up for an epic tribute to the late Danbury composer Charles Ives in celebration of Ive’s 100th birthday. The proceeds from the concert funded the construction of the Charles Ives Center for the Arts, located at Western Connecticut State University.

The Danbury Fair closed in 1981, a few years after Leahy’s death.  Leahy was always redesigning the fair as the times changed, and as the new millennium rolled nearer, the executors of his estate decided the grounds would be more suitable for a mall than an annual country fair.  

Little bits of the Fair still exist though.   Old photographs of the Fair can be found by the mall food court, farmer’s markets pepper the region and Paul Bunyan stands tall as a repainted “Hippie Muffler Man” on a farm in Bethel, New York.

 

by & filed under History, Local.