No more Nutmeg: Church fair receives fond farewell

Letting go of a tradition is never easy.

But parishioners of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church are looking forward to the future while preparing to say farewell to the Nutmeg Festival, a 112-year summer tradition that started in 1906 when the church’s Ladies Guild staged its first fair.

“The congregation was at peace with the decision. In fact, it came from the congregation,” said the Rev. Whitney Altopp. “We had multiple conversations together over a couple of months and finally we said, ‘we’re going to try something new this year.’ And the people said, ‘OK.’ ”

The “something new” is the Nutmeg and Neighbors event that will feature a barbecue and country line dancing. Nutmeg and Neighbors will be held at the church on the night of Sept. 28 — more than six weeks after the Nutmeg Festival’s traditional date on the second weekend of August.

“The Nutmeg Festival has been repurposed,” said Rev. Altopp. “We’re not doing the way it’s been done before on the second Saturday of August. ... We’re not just moving the date, we’re doing a whole new thing. The quintessential items that people would come looking for, the white elephant sales with the knick knacks —we’re not doing this year.”

Is there a possibility the Nutmeg Festival tradition ever returns?

Rev. Altopp wouldn’t rule it out but emphasized that the congregation was at peace with the decision to go forward without hosting its major summer event.

“It’s an unknown at this point,” she said of the future of the festival.

“We love traditions and we love to honor them but the fact is that times are changing and we’re living in a different world,” Rev. Altopp said.

“...We’re not afraid,” she added. “The future is full of possibility, and that’s where we’ve landed. We can miss this tradition while anticipating what comes next. Both of those things can be true.”

Strain on volunteers

Rev. Altopp estimated that more than 200 man hours were dedicated every year toward the one-day festival, and that 75 to 80 percent of the work was done by a group of three dozen volunteers.

“Most of the work would fall on the shoulders of a few,” she said.

The organizing and setting up process tended to begin in the middle of July, according to Rev. Altopp, and volunteers often dedicated an extra week after the festival to take everything down and clean up.

“It’s a whole month in the middle of summer and they’re tired,” the reverend said.

“... Not only is there a ton of work leading up to the day of the festival, there’s a lot of work to do afterwards with the stuff that didn’t sell,” she said. “It takes a week to complete getting rid of items — donating them to places or organizing to have a delivery truck come and pick them up. ... Some parts are accepted at some places, other parts are not accepted. It’s a long process.”

Nutmeg Festival volunteers tended to be people with time to spare, mostly retirees, Rev. Altopp said.

“We usually had three or four Saturday drop-off times throughout the summer,” she explained. “All of the donations had to be sorted through and put in the right area. Some of the time we’d have to clean items before putting them out and then we’d have to price them. ... Anyone who’s done a tag sale knows the amount of effort that goes into it. This was on an exponential level.”

Summer vacations

While Rev. Altopp credited the immense dedication of the festival’s past volunteers, she admitted that most parishioners are away in August when the festival is held.

That fact made the decision to do away with this year’s festival a lot easier.

“At least half of population is away,” she said. “It’s gotten harder and harder to pull off with nobody around to help us. ... Fewer and fewer people have the time to donate, and a lot of people just aren’t comfortable giving up their summer vacations to make a one-day festival happen. ... As much as people don’t want to give up tradition, you can’t pretend you’re going to be here.”


What exactly is the tradition that St. Stephen’s losing?

“All of the women of the church were asked to cook, bake and make things to sell,” said Bob Haight in his 1975 history of St. Stephen’s Church. “This fair appears to have been the beginning of the Nutmeg Festival in which all of the church organizations and members now take part.”

While the fair might date back to the early 1900s, Rev. Altopp believes the flair around the festival dates back to the 1950s when the Rev. Aaron Manderbach took over the church.

“The number 112 — I’m not really sure that’s the right number,” she said. “[Rev. Manderbach] institutionalized it in the 50s and it became an annual festival during his reign. Sometimes things in our lives take on a life of their own.”

She said that the Nutmeg Festival — as it’s become known to Ridgefield residents in the 21st century, with the carnival games and the white elephant sale — looks a lot different than the one that started decades ago.

“It was such a different era back then,” Rev. Altopp said. “It’s hard not to emphasis that enough. Things are different than they used to be, and it’s sad. There’s a whole different rhythm to life.”

Looking forward to fall

Rev. Altopp expects that Nutmeg and Neighbors will be a success. It’s hard to know if the new fundraising event will bring in the $40,000 that the Nutmeg Festival brought in each year — half of which was given away to local mission trips and nonprofit organizations. Nonetheless, the church knows it’ll be less taxing on those involved.

“We’re really excited about the future,” she said. “What we have planned is much more doable. All of our parishioners will be back and it won’t take 200 man hours.”

Other fairs

Jesse Lee Memorial United Methodist Church will be having its annual tag sale Saturday, Sept. 7, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., rain or shine (if it is rain, the event will be held inside the church) at 207 Main Street.

St. Mary Parish used to have an annual fair but changed it to every other year earlier in the decade. In September 2018, the church held its biannual fair.

There’s a nostalgic element to going to these types of fairs,” said Rev. Altopp. “People come from all over — New York, Danbury, and beyond. People love the possibility of getting something good for cheap, and it’s a respectable pursuit ...

“We were always working on ways to make it better; never afraid to try new things,” she added. “And that’s what we’re going to do this year and we’ll see how it goes. We’re excited about what the future holds.”