Fair games: Montpelier hosts rollicking good time

Thomas Jefferson called him “The Best Farmer in America,” so it seems only fitting that the Orange County Fair should be held at James Madison’s estate at Montpelier.
It’s not a bad spot. With the Blue Ridge Mountains on one side, the salmon-colored mansion on the other, and rolling fields all around, the estate is also home to some of the most magnificent trees in the area: towering walnuts and tulip-poplars that have probably been there since the days when the fourth President’s father built it up as a profitable tobacco plantation.
But from Thursday, July 24, to Sunday, July 27, Montpelier’s grounds will lose some of their bucolic tranquility as they play host to parading chickens, racing Jack Russells, competitive goat-milking, hay-bale tosses, a cow obstacle course, and the usual livestock– not to mention Civil War reenactments and an all-day car show with  NASCAR-esque races.
Of the bands, one of the most intriguing is “Cooter’s Garage,” led by Ben Jones, the former Dukes of Hazzard star (and later a congressman from Georgia) who now lives in nearby Rappahannock County.
Roomy white tents dotted across 2,700 acres of pasture create a distinctly feudal feel for the fair. Yet a more modern innovation is Montpelier’s race track, almost as well known here today as its most famous owner. In keeping with that equestrian tradition, the fair features gymkhana classes, a draft horse and mule competition, and a troupe called the Hi Horse Cloggers.
An added bonus of the Orange County Fair is that you can visit the mansion at the same time. For those inclined to add some culture to their agri-, the house will be open all day for half the usual admission price.
One side appears as it was in Madison’s time– including a mock-up of a dinner party in honor of General Lafayette’s triumphal tour of the United States in 1824-– while the other shows what the house looked like almost a century later, when it was home to chemicals magnate William duPont, his wife, Annie, and their horse-loving daughter, Marion.
Two noteworthy exhibits are currently on display: “James Madison: Secretary of State in an Age of Expansion and Exploration,” commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition, and Madison’s handwritten will.
Madison once described his home as “a squirrell’s jump from heaven,” but sadly, not a single squirrel is mentioned in this year’s fair program.
The 35th Anniversary Orange County Fair takes place at Montpelier, July 24-27, with most activities on the weekend (most events Saturday). $5 adults and children over 12. Visit the house and grounds at the special discount rate of $5. 540-672-2271 or orangecountyvafair.com. (The Albemarle County Fair is coming August 26-31. 434-293-6396.)

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