CHATHAM – The exhibition buildings, barns and grandstand have gone silent after another busy year, but behind the scenes many hands are working to plan events at Chatham Exhibition Center in 2022.
Owned and operated by the nonprofit Columbia County Agricultural Society, an organization almost as old as the 180-year-old fair itself, an eighteen-member board of directors is responsible for managing the property.
The fairgrounds are privately owned, although they are open to the public for daytime use as well as special events.
“This is perhaps one of the most common misconceptions,” said Agricultural Society board chairman Nelson Alford. “Although named after the county, it is not owned or operated by Columbia County.” Proceeds from its use—particularly the profits made at the annual county fair—keep the buildings and grounds in pristine condition. Although dogs are not permitted on the park-like grounds, the public is welcome to use the peaceful park-like setting for exercise during business hours, seven days a week.
The largest and most visible event held on the 82 landscaped acres is the annual Columbia County Fair. It is one of the oldest county fairs in the country and has always maintained an authentic agricultural and community spirit.
Visitors to the fair may notice a group of men and women in light blue polo shirts present on site throughout the six days of the fair. They are members of the board of directors, who are behind the scenes to manage all aspects of its operation. These men and women are lifelong members of agricultural society whose backgrounds and experience represent the worlds of farming and agriculture, as well as finance, public safety, local affairs, law and even the field of design. “This diversity of skills and expertise is one of the board’s greatest strengths,” said Alford. “Some of them are even descendants of members who served in the past.”
Last year, the fair was canceled for the first time in its 180-year history. The fair’s director is Angelo Nero, who joined the board in 1976. “The pandemic shut down all county fairs in 2020. It was great to get back to a more normal schedule this year,” a- he declared. Although the precise economic impact on the county is not known, it is clear that the influx of visitors during the duration of the fair leads to increased seasonal employment and traffic for local businesses.
The Board of Directors meets monthly and members work throughout the year on projects to modernize the property and improve the experience for everyone who attends. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but it is an effort that, according to Nero, is “truly a labor of love”. Work on the next fair begins shortly after the end of the previous one, when an assessment of infrastructure needs is carried out and a search for the best events and entertainment begins in earnest.
Although the annual fair is undoubtedly the most important and elaborate use of the property, it has also served as a venue for other events and special occasions.
The 1884 Fairhouse has been the scene of weddings, proms and other celebrations. Chatham High School graduation ceremonies have been held there for the past two years to meet the need for social distancing, a change that has been embraced by faculty, students and families.
The grounds also hosted the Columbia County Youth Theater summer camp, Boy Scouts and Boy Scouts troops, a car show, and PeeWee football. As part of a cooperative arrangement, the annual Open Horse Show took place in the days leading up to the last county fairs. This gives riders a chance to compete in a location that allows spectators to enjoy the show from the grandstand.
Storage space for boats, trailers and RVs is also available each winter on the Fairgrounds property.
Most recently, the Chatham Fire Department sponsored a “Trick or Treat drive-through” for a second consecutive Halloween. Other local fire departments and their auxiliaries, along with Chatham Police and the Village Council participated. Mayor John Howe said he was delighted to hear so much positive feedback from Chatham residents about the event. “We hope to do it every year,” he said.
The Agricultural Society’s Board of Directors also supports the future of the many students who are part of 4-H programs or who are otherwise involved in livestock projects or exhibits at the annual fair. An annual scholarship is offered to county residents who will be enrolled in agricultural college programs.
This year’s winner is Caroline Lafferty of Schodack Landing. She graduated from Maple Hill High School and is currently studying Animal Science with a concentration in Dairy Management and a minor in Business at Cornell University. Caroline has been present at the Salon for a long time and participated in the 4H program.
Information on qualifications and an application are available on the show’s website: www.columbiafair.com.