In 2003, filmmaker Joe Myers took his camera crew to Centre Hall, Pennsylvania and documented the eight months leading up to the 130th Annual Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair.
Although there are many large and thriving agricultural fairs held in the United States each year, the Centre County Grange Fair is unique in being "an encampment fair." Each year, nearly 1,000 families create a temporary tent city on the grounds of "Grange Park" for the eight days that the fair runs. That number is doubled by the families who are accommodated in over 1,300 RVs on site.
It sounds like great fun — a Heartland version of Burning Man, Rainbow Gathering or the best of the Pagan gatherings I used to attend. Like these events, Centre County Grange Fair means far more to its regular members than a mere vacation. It is a vast family reunion that has been carried on for generations. The paved tent sites, equipped with square canvas army tents, are owned by families who inherit them. Tent Secretary Darlene Confer has a waiting list of five hundred names for any site that becomes available. At the beginning of the film, several Centre County residents describe a local divorce in which the most bitterly contested piece of community property was the couple's Grange Fair tent site.
In 1874, when the Grange Fair began, farms were isolated and transportation was difficult, costly, and slow. Encampment fairs provided a rich opportunity for farm families to socialize, share news, exchange shop talk, transact business, and even do some courting and matchmaking. All that still happens at fairs, but fairgrounds are now a reasonable daily commute for most attendees, farming and otherwise. The Grange Park tent city is a tradition of love, not necessity.
Like modern farming, the Centre County Grange Fair combines tradition with twenty-first century amenities. Campers outfit the basic tents provided by the park with furniture, refrigerators, televisions, video game sets, DVD players, and light fixtures. Some families build "additions" to their tents. A tent decorating contest inspires attendees like Betsy Forsythe to craft elaborate facades resembling a candy house or a log cabin. Camp kids deliver a daily newspaper. A quick check of the 2007 Centre County Grange Fair's official website reveals that the Fair now offers live webcams and free WiFi. But the Fair Midway, produce displays, canned goods, fine crafts, livestock barns, tractor pulls and entertainments are comfortingly familiar. To keep the Fair "family friendly," alcohol and inappropriate language are prohibited from the Fair grounds.
The Grange Fair – An American Tradition begins in January. Like the farming year, the film methodically measures time through three seasons of anticipation and hard work. The diversity of individuals profiled in the film illustrates the Fair's multi-generational quality. The narrative begins with the words of 87-year-old Ruth Wolfe, who was taken to her first Grange Fair in 1916 when she was six months old. Now she faces the possibility of missing her eighty-sixth consecutive Fair because of health problems. Her voice carries us through the stories that weave the film together.
At the other end of the spectrum, we meet several young 4-H members as they prepare stock animals for competition and sale. We watch in fascination as these very young people struggle to handle animals that sometimes are not very cooperative, and we hear them talk about their love for farming, despite the hard work involved. The Grange Fair follows these young men and women, and their parents, through the nerve-wracking process of presenting their animals to the judges. We also meet people like Martha Dietrich, who gardens and cans and makes lace for competition, and Pam Walker, who has waited for a tent site for seventeen years.
The Grange Fair – An American Tradition is superbly filmed and edited. The pace is leisurely, but the photography is beautiful, filled with heart-tugging images. The profiled individuals are captured so naturally, they often seem unaware that a camera is present at all. There is no voice-over narration. Even the "hand written" font used for the title cards adds to the overall mood. I was mesmerized throughout two viewings of the film. I have only one minor criticism. The historical information about the Grange Fair at the very beginning seems rushed. Both the narration and the vintage photographs zip by, in contrast to the pace of the rest of the film. Some additional history and old photos or footage are worked into the film as it continues, but I would have liked a little more context to begin with.
Several speakers in the film make points about the importance of farming, and of the family farm in particular. They touch on an issue that has personal and political significance for me. My mother was born on a farm, and I have never lived farther than walking distance from working farms of some kind. I grew up going to agricultural fairs, and I still love them. I've grown vegetable gardens, canned produce, picked apples, studied beekeeping, and even raised chickens. I have a shelf full of books on homesteading and a keen interest in preserving heirloom seeds and livestock.
Given current political and economic events, I foresee small-scale local food production becoming much more important in American life. Here in New England, there are countless agricultural fairs every year, ranging from Topsfield, the longest running fair in the United States, to town grange fairs that set up for one weekend. The number and continued popularity of these events prove that Americans of all backgrounds and lifestyles remain keenly interested in the skills required to produce food and clothing. Family farms, co-ops, and homesteads may soon be vital to our survival. The skyrocketing cost and diminishing availability of oil will raise the price of transporting food long distances to unsustainable levels. The economics of production will change, and the regions that prepare for this farthest in advance will suffer the least.
"Encampment fairs," as the film's description says, may be "a vanishing piece of Americana." But small-scale food production itself will not disappear so easily. The Grange Fair – An American Tradition presents an honest and inspiring picture of farming life, both realistic and lyrical. As a film, it is touching, entertaining and educational. But if it moves a few suburban young people to investigate 4-H, or a community to support its local small farms, The Grange Fair – An American Tradition will do more good than most documentaries can hope to achieve.
The Grange Fair – An American Tradition is a Penn State Public Broadcasting Production and part of the Minutes of History® series. The DVD has a feature running time of 86 minutes with color, stereo and 6 x 9 anamorphic widescreen. Because this is a television documentary, the DVD does not include many extras. English subtitles are available, and there are trailers for six other Inecom Entertainment films, including Westinghouse, EXPO – Magic of the White City, Horses of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Train Stations – Restored and Revitalized, Johnstown Flood, and Silent Wings – The American Glider Pilots of WWII. I want to see them all.Powered by Sidelines