A Unionville high school agriculture teacher, John Corman, launched the Unionville Fair and Farm Show in 1924. Back then, the entire event could fit on the grounds of what is now the Unionville Elementary school, for a total budget of $18.
By the late 1920s, Pierre S. duPont grandly offered to match any and all funds raised by the local fair community. Nowadays, the budget is considerably higher—about $90,000, made up of grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the Kennett Square Mushroom Association, as well as donations from sponsors, local businesses, and families.
The money goes to renting tents and equipment, and paying small cash awards for the numerous prizes. No one gets a salary. No admission is charged, and parking and all fair events—from the hula hoop contest to the cow milking competition—are free. More than 11,000 visitors from as far away as New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, New York, and even Texas attend.
The fair popped up annually through the years except twice: once during a polio epidemic, and again during World War Two.
But in January 2008, Jayne Shea, a Unionville interior decorator and the Fair’s volunteer president, held a meeting of her executive committee and said the Fair was going to die from natural causes.
She and the other dozen or so unpaid committee members could not continue to work more than full time for a whole year on the fair without some help, she said. Either more people got involved, and the fair found a new location, or it would go.
“I guess people had been taking it for granted, like it was a regular thing that would happen every October all by itself,” Shea says. “It had certainly been that way for 84 years.”
Shea fell in love with the fair when she moved to Unionville from the West Chester suburbs. “My parents had had a farm near West Chester, but they sold it before I was born, so I never knew what [farm life] was like. When I moved to Unionville, I took my daughter to the fair, and it was the most amazing thing to me. It was a part of life that I had never experienced.
“It wasn’t a carnival; its purpose was to teach kids about the importance of agriculture outside of what they got in a classroom. I got involved and I stayed involved. When they asked me to be president, I decided I’d give it a try. Little did I know, I’d be the one who would have to pull the plug.”
But—in a last-minute save, when people heard the Fair was going to expire, they stopped taking it for granted. Volunteers stepped forward and Dixon Stroud, the renowned polo player, donated the use of Landhope Farms for the weekend.
Shea decided it was time to “reinvent an 84-year-old wheel.” She held the fair on the first week in October instead of the second or third week, as had been customary. She moved events around (but not the most popular: the Saturday evening crowning of the Fair Queen), and also incorporated the Unionville Horse Show, previously a separate event.
She did one more thing that, for this reporter, made the Unionville Fair one of the best I have ever visited.
She changed the rules for what the kids call a “hocus pocus”—a collage of fruits and vegetables, and maybe a hard-boiled egg or two, bound with twine or stuck together with toothpicks.
Most of us imagine other things when we hear the words “hocus pocus.” The word, with its associations of stage magic and circus acts, derives from the old Latin Mass referring to the consecration of the host: hoc est (enim) corpus (meum), “this is my body.”
Nobody remembers exactly how the custom began, though turning vegetables into art is a feature of other farm fairs. They are entered and judged in a variety of categories, and are a draw for youngsters, who enjoy seeing their creations on display.
Last October, well over a hundred hocus pocus were arranged in the long, low horse stables at the southeastern corner of Landhope Farm. There, among ribbons hanging from numerous examples of produce, and carefully baked and meticulously decorated cakes and pies, was a hocus pocus that, in my opinion, was as moving and emotionally expressive as any great work of art.
“For as long as this fair has been in existence, you were not allowed to have anything in a hocus pocus that wasn’t natural,” Shea told me. “We made an exception in this case.”
We were looking at a section the exhibition area devoted to hocus pocus made by children with disabilities.
“I have a child who is disabled and he loves the fair. But a lot of families with disabled children feel they can’t bring their children with them to public places like a fair. It can be the social situation, or maybe they’re worried about how the child might react to other people. Or they’re concerned with getting around in the kind of crowded conditions we got when the fair was at the school. Whatever the reason, you can tell them to come, and promise them that everything will be okay, but they”ll still stay away.”
Shea decided to invite children with disabilities to submit any kind of hocus pocus they wanted, and promised them that there would be a place for them at the fair. “I said no matter what they did, we’d show it. And this is what they made.”
What I saw, among other, smaller, hocus pocus, was a life-sized evocation of a child, sitting proudly and confidently, in a real, metal wheelchair, as if to say, “Here I am!”
At last year’s Unionville Fair, I also saw, among the antique tractors and animal displays, a sign of the region’s dominant suburban culture in the form of landscape contractors exhibiting various materials that could be used in suburban patios and decks. One of the fair’s competitions, in a nod to the suburban home/office trend, involved shredding paper.
Of the more than 40 family farms that used to exist in and around Unionville when the fair began, only six remain within the school district.
One of them belongs to Bernard Baily. His family has farmed 102 acres on the Lenape Unionville Road since 1874. He is proud of the fact that there has been a Baily at every Unionville Fair, usually accompanied by several cows.
“I can’t get over the thrill these kids have that have never seen one. ‘Is that a real cow?” they ask me. I tell them it is. When I tell them they can touch the cow, and even milk one, they just can’t believe it.”
Baily is also responsible for “cowpie bingo,” the Unionville Fair’s most uproarious event, in which Cricket, a lineback cow, is loaded up with feed and “right before I turn her loose, I give her a drink of water.”
Cricket is then directed toward a fenced enclosure laid out in a grid. Participants who have bought different sections of the grid (the event is a fundraiser), win a prize if Cricket should answer a call of nature in their section.
“Everybody has a big laugh about it, but for me, I”m always a little worried that Cricket will go too soon. Then what am I going to do? I don’t have a back-up cow.”
Fortunately, such an event has not occurred. But, a decade ago, Baily was faced with one of those decisions we’ve heard about far too often. “Mine is the last of two dairy farms in the Unionville school district. I needed to fix up the buildings and I wasn’t making a living wholesaling milk anymore. I had an offer from a developer and was going to take it. What stopped me was my daughter Becky. She’s been going to the fair since she was a baby and now she helps me with the cows. She said she wanted the farm to stay in the family, right where it was.”
Baily ended up selling off a portion of his land, but kept the majority for his cows. He used the sale proceeds to repair the buildings and build a pasteurizing and bottling shed. What was left went into a dairy store that he plans to open this year right in front of his farm on the Lenape Unionville Road.
“I can’t tell you how many people at the fair asked me, once they’d seen and milked the cows, if they could buy some milk from my cows. Now I can tell them where to get it, and ice cream and butter, and cheese, too, all of it made right here in Unionville.”
Will he sell some at this year’s fair? “I hope to,” he says with pride.”