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Riverhead prepares for 37th country fair

Storefronts on Main Street in Riverhead.

Storefronts on Main Street in Riverhead. Credit: Erin Geismar, 2011

For the next week or so, Pat Mulcahy will be in the parking lots behind the stores on East Main Street in downtown Riverhead with his can of spray paint, marking spaces.

By the time he finishes, 450 spots will be marked for vendors and tents, display stands and vehicles, everything that will be needed to hold the biggest single event of the year in town -- the Riverhead Country Fair.

This is the fair's 37th year, and it's free. When it opens at 10 a.m. on Oct. 7, so many people will show up that the crowd will likely reach about 73,000, Mulcahy said, more than twice the year-round population of 33,000.

"It's organized chaos," said Mulcahy, an event organizer.

If the weather is good -- and he said that is almost always the case -- visitors will park at the nearby Suffolk County Center and near the court complex on Griffing Avenue, fill the side streets and the back roads.

"I once gave a ride to some people who parked at the hospital," said Claire Latour, one of the fair organizers. That was more than a mile and a half away.

Town police close East Main Street and also shut the Peconic Avenue bridge that links the town to Southampton.

Other places on Long Island hold old-fashioned country fairs, but the Riverhead Country Fair -- with people competing for blue ribbons in more than 400 categories -- is by far the biggest around, Mulcahy said.

The crowds swarm through the parking lots overlooking the Peconic River, listen to music, watch tractor pulls and examine the entries.

They go everywhere, that is, except for the tightly guarded Carriage House behind the East End Arts building. That's the secret place where no one goes in or goes out except the judges, and the fair's biggest secret is who they are.

"People can take offense," explained Susan Young, who is among those responsible for choosing the people who pick the best pies and needlepoint and other entries.

It's easy to select the largest sweet potato (category 105) or the tallest corn stalk (category 108). Some of the more subjective competitions, such as best vegetables, have a formal evaluation procedure where five categories are considered.

But not every contest has a winner.

That's why the identities of the judges are kept secret. People don't want to think their lovingly baked creations do not meet the standards of their neighbors or friends, Young said.

"Just because someone says there are three pies, it doesn't mean they are worthy of a prize," she said.

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