Organizers confident Tunbridge fair will go on despite flooding

Bob Gray, who manages the maintenance of the fairgrounds, moves debris into a ditch left by floodwater near the sheep barn at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. “I think we were pretty fortunate,” Gray said of the relatively limited damage. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to bring it back to where it was, but it’s all work that can be done.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Bob Gray, who manages the maintenance of the fairgrounds, moves debris into a ditch left by floodwater near the sheep barn at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. “I think we were pretty fortunate,” Gray said of the relatively limited damage. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to bring it back to where it was, but it’s all work that can be done.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Stalls are filled with a layer of dirt and mats are strewn around as a result of flooding at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. The corners of two ox barns, which are some of the closest structures to the river, washed out and were repaired by the fairgrounds’ maintenance team. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Stalls are filled with a layer of dirt and mats are strewn around as a result of flooding at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. The corners of two ox barns, which are some of the closest structures to the river, washed out and were repaired by the fairgrounds’ maintenance team. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Peggy Sherlock, Tunbridge Worlds Fair secretary, looks at remaining floodwater outside of an ox barn at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. Sherlock walked around the property taking photos of damage to be used in a FEMA report. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Peggy Sherlock, Tunbridge Worlds Fair secretary, looks at remaining floodwater outside of an ox barn at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. Sherlock walked around the property taking photos of damage to be used in a FEMA report. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

A portion of the racetrack remains flooded at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A portion of the racetrack remains flooded at the fairgrounds in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-16-2023 6:23 AM

TUNBRIDGE — In Friday morning’s bright sunshine, Gordie Barnaby surveyed the flood-damaged Tunbridge Fairgrounds and said it could have been worse.

In fact, it has been worse, as recently as 2019, when ice jammed the First Branch of the White River and caused flooding that damaged several buildings.

“We’re lucky,” said Barnaby, who became president of the Union Agricultural Society, the nonprofit group that runs the fair, in December. “It didn’t take any buildings out.”

But the river gored a trench inside the larger of the two oxen barns and scored the ground along the backstretch of the harness racing track. Parts of the grounds are strewn with debris deposited by the river, and long stretches of grass are covered with water, a thick layer of dirt, or both.

While the fair’s shareholders and friends have work to do, there is no question about whether the fairgrounds will be ready to host the fair, which is scheduled for Sept. 14-17.

“We’ll make this work,” Barnaby said.

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While the ground under the oxen barn was damaged, the building is “still straight as an arrow,” Barnaby said. Marked on the outside is a 1978 high water mark, about head-high on Barnaby. That was another ice-dam flood, he said.

Regular flooding is a hazard of the fair’s location along the river, and organizers have learned to live with it. People moved picnic tables to higher ground before the flooding Monday.

Bob Gray called Hatch Crane Service, a Bradford, Vt.-based company, to move a footbridge spanning the river by the oxen barn. They sent a crane from a job in Berlin, Vt., and removed the bridge around 2 p.m. Monday. By 3:30, the water was up over the bridge abutments.

“If he hadn’t done that, we’d have lost our bridge,” Gray said. “That’s 20- or 30,000 dollars. When I called him, he never hesitated.”

The agricultural society will take a hit to its revenue. The Woodstock Dog Club’s annual show was set for this week, Thursday through Sunday, but had to be postponed. Other events, right up until two weeks before the fair, will likely be canceled, too.

Not everyone got the memo that the dog show had been canceled. Barnaby spoke to a couple from Indiana on Friday morning who’d arrived for the show. And an RV with Rhode Island plates was parked on high ground.

“I called the president of one of the two clubs that were putting the show on on Monday at 11:30,” Jon Sowa, who drove up from the Ocean State with his wife, Pamela, and their 13 Havanese dogs, four of which they’d planned to show.

When the show was called off, “unfortunately, I didn’t get the word,” Sowa said. Not that it wasn’t sent out, he added, he just didn’t see it.

Sowa, who’s retired, said that they can’t go home, as their hardwood floors are being refinished while they’re away. “We’ll have to go someplace,” he said.

Work on repairing the fairgrounds is expected to be steady but not lightning-quick, with people occupied helping flood victims elsewhere in the state. A crew of half a dozen people were taking a break from the heat in an office under the grandstand Friday morning.

“I think we had it pretty easy compared to some of the rest of the state,” said Gray, a retired school administrator. The flooding at the fairgrounds was worse than in Tropical Storm Irene, in 2011, Barnaby noted.

Most of the work involves moving dirt back to where it belongs. While the crew sat in the shade, Matt Loftus, a Tunbridge excavating contractor, stopped by.

“I’m going to bring my excavator down,” he told them. “I can scrape the dirt better with that.”

A road project on which he was working on the Strafford Road was held up for the afternoon, Loftus said, so he was switching gears. “It’s dry enough out there,” he added.

The fair is two months away, Barnaby noted, and there are enough people who care about it to turn out and get the work done. Not that the fair workers would turn down volunteer help, but there are folks with bigger problems right now.

“I think there’s more important things for people who lost their houses and stuff,” Barnaby said. “Help your neighbors.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.