Why Crozet? is a monthly feature that focuses on the reasons people choose to live in the Crozet area. Although the region is experiencing tremendous growth, it remains home to many people with the important skills that allowed families to thrive. We celebrate these skills at the Albemarle County Fair, now in progress after a two-year pandemic break.
There was a time when families might live or die according to their ability to coax enough food from a patch of rocky soil, or create warm quilts from scraps and feathers, or keep their livestock healthy and strong. Survival wasn’t the only goal, though. The rural arts embody a moving testament to the human thirst for beauty and accomplishment. The men and women who mastered these skills also cared that the fruits of their labor were pleasing to the eye, their baked goods delicious, their needle work skillful, and that all compared favorably to the cabbages, furnishings and goats of the family on the next farm over.
The Albemarle County Fair, now in progress at James Monroe’s Highland, celebrates these ancient arts and our local harvest. It also gives a bit of inspiration to anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of what they can grow for themselves, said Trisha Costello, the master gardener coordinator for the fair. “We want people to consider growing their own food and to see what’s possible,” she said. For years, Costello helped with the vegetable garden at Innisfree, and she’s seen firsthand the wonder and satisfaction of new gardeners with their first produce.
Costello has always loved the novelty vegetables, too. She’s seen her share of funny-shaped tomatoes, deep purple potatoes, and enormous cabbages. “Entwined carrots that look like they’re hugging are always a hit,” she said.
There’s more than vegetables to celebrate, of course. Sharon Helt has entered African violets, sunflowers, cross-stitch needlework, flower arrangements and honey as well as produce over the years. She promoted the idea to her sons, Matthew and Mark, and between them, the family has grown bushels of tomatoes and watermelons, raised chickens and hogs, woven baskets and embraced photography, all with the best examples ending up at the fair.
Matthew may have gone a little over the top with his love of gardening, she said. “He once planted 90 tomato plants, and we ended up selling them to local restaurants.” To prepare himself for a stint in the Peace Corps, he brought home five pigs and 26 chickens so he could see firsthand what was needed for them to survive. He still manages a large garden on the family property at the end of St. George Avenue. “The trouble is,” his mother said, “we have to water them when he’s not around.”
As a child, Matthew sold the fair judges on having a child help judge the junior baked-good submissions. They accommodated the ambitious young boy, and his mother was proud, although she said there may have been a bit of a sugar crash afterwards.
Mark introduced the family to bees, whose honey is judged by taste as well as appearance, and the hives are still producing.
None of this was by accident, Helt said. “I wanted my sons to know where their food came from and that they could be the ones to grow it,” she said. “And after they grew up, I always tried to come up with something to enter. I want to support what the fair does for the community.”
Alice Scruby remembered going to the fair as a child. “We were a rural household, so our gardens were a big deal,” she said. Like the Helts, she became fascinated with bees and honey, and added beekeeping to her list of skills. She has a young granddaughter who submitted art work, and the whole family found the experience rewarding.
Scruby’s yearly harvest includes flowers as well as honey and vegetables, and she always tries to participate in the fair. “I’m a passionate gardener,” she said. “If people like me don’t support the fair, then who will?”
The Albemarle County Fair is at James Monroe’s Highland. It is open Thursday, August 4, from 4 to 9 p.m.; Friday, August 5, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, August 6, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The market animal auction is Saturday at 2 p.m. For a complete schedule, visit albemarlecountyfair.com.