By Michele J. Kuhn
FAIR HAVEN – When the lawn at 684 River Road begins to sprout colorful lights, whirling machines, and a big Ferris wheel and the sound of hammers ring with regularity, the annual Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair can’t be far behind.
This year’s edition of the fair begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, and ends 11 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1. In between, thousands of borough residents and fair-lovers from beyond will ride the rides, hope their 50/50 ticket is a winner, and consume thousands of hot dogs, hamburgers, ears of corn, sodas, eggplant, and clam chowder.
The fair is a labor of love for the 30 to 40 volunteer firefighters who have spent hours each day since early August preparing for the department’s main fundraiser.
For fair chairmen John Feeny, Jim Butler, and Alex Good, coordination is a year-round project. “The fair begins when the fair ends,” Feeny said without exaggeration.
The eight-night event engenders a sense of pride and history that is nurtured from generation to generation.
“I think the kids look forward to it the most,” said Doug MacFarland. “Grandparents love to bring their grandkids. Then they become teens and the rides are the big thing. Then they get married and have kids of their own who they bring to the fair.
“You stay here long enough and you see three, four generations in a family here. It’s not unusual for us to have four generations. It’s a tradition,” said MacFarland, who has lived in Fair Haven since 1981, began working as a fair volunteer in 1992, and has been a member of the fire department since 1994. “Once you move into town, you get involved.”
The fair has its roots in a firemen’s fair held in 1906. It was discontinued during both World War I and World War II and also after New Jersey gaming laws changed in 1954. It was brought back when the laws changed again in 1960, according to the department’s history.
Saying it’s a “community” fair is no exaggeration. Every morning local kids volunteer to shuck the corn. The corn comes from Sickles Market – organizers try to get as many of the provisions from local merchants as possible – and kids start arriving at about 8 a.m. to husk it.
“You see the kids line up back here each morning … They work for ride tickets,” MacFarland said.
“Sometimes we have to turn kids away when we have more than we need,” Feeny said.
While the kids are outside shucking corn, there’s a group of women inside – in an upstairs air-conditioned room – slicing eggplant, breading crabs, and preparing fresh seafood for the evening’s menu.
The fair is known for its food. “The food is phenomenal. It’s really, really good,” Good said.
In July, volunteers begin gathering to open clams and make the chowder. The eggplant and corn are fresh each day. Some nights, the line of patrons waiting to get in stretches down the street a few hundred feet before the fair and its dining tent open.
Food prices can’t be beat – and haven’t been raised in three years.
In addition to the dining tent, there is the “Out Back” concession stand. Hot dogs and hamburgers are $3, French fries are $2, and soda is just $1. The snow cones that Feeny remembers costing 25 cents when he was a kid are now $1. MacFarland estimates that the fire department sells 1,200 to 1,600 hot dogs each night.
Another fair tradition is taking youngsters for a ride on one of the department’s firetrucks.
The rides and games are contracted through a vendor, the same vendor the department has hired for many years. The rest of the operation, however, is manned by the all-volunteer crew. “The volunteers really do all the work,” MacFarland said.
“We haven’t changed [the fair] much over the years,” said Andy Schrank. “I love the tradition … I want it to still be around when I have great-grandchildren.
“This is a small town and there aren’t many left like this,” he said.
The fair will be open from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and 6 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. There is no fair on Sunday.