The Nutmeg Festival: An old-fashioned church fair for fun and charity

Dr. George Cohen will pipe the opening of the 2016 Nutmeg Festival.
Dr. George Cohen will pipe the opening of the 2016 Nutmeg Festival.

A magician will mystify, musicians will set feet a-tapping and a Country Grill will tantalize this Saturday, Aug. 13, at the 110th annual Nutmeg Festival in Ridgefield.

Sponsored by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church  at 351 Main Street in the heart of this beautiful village, it’s the oldest church fair in town and among the oldest in the state. The something-for-everyone event began at least as far back as 1906 (some say possibly late 19th Century) as an Apron and Cake Sale by the Ladies Guild of St. Stephen’s to raise money for charity.  Since then, the event has evolved considerably, and in the mid-50’s the name was changed to Nutmeg Festival. But one thing has not changed: It remains the church’s “single-largest source of moneys for missionary work,” according to historian and parishioner Dirk Bollenback, author of a history of St. Stephen’s. (The parish itself dates to 1725.)

Now one of the highlights of summer in Ridgefield and neighboring communities, Nutmeg Festival welcomes visitors to the sound of bagpipes as it gets under way at 10 a.m. From then until its closing at 4 p.m. there is plenty to do for all ages. Features include food, entertainment, games for teens as well as children, antiques, a White Elephant sale, children’s toys, books, art, jewelry, the Garden Spot, a raffle, a silent auction, face painting and, new this year, a photo booth for posing in fantastical costumes.

By tradition, all raffle proceeds go to one or two non-profit organizations. This year the single beneficiary is IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), a program established in 1982 by the Episcopal Church in Connecticut that helps refugees and other displaced people establish new lives in the state; it is now an independent agency. The grand prize is a one-week stay for up to eight people in Wilmington, Vt., near the Mt. Snow ski resort.  Second prize is a $500 gift certificate from Craig’s Fine Jewelry in Ridgefield, and third is a Weber Gas Grill from Ridgefield Hardware.

Last year’s raffle proceeds were divided between two recipients. Half went to Bedford Hills Prison Children’s Center for repairing and updating playground equipment, and the other half went to Homes for Hope of Westport, which supports the homeless and those at risk of homelessness in local communities. Other past beneficiaries include St. Luke’s/St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bridgeport to support its outreach ministries, including to the Latino/Hispanic community, and the Haitian hurricane aid efforts of Episcopal Relief & Development, the worldwide relief agency of the Episcopal Church.

All proceeds of the silent auction are distributed to multiple local charities.  A partial list of past recipients includes Housatonic Habitat for Humanity, the Women’s Center of Danbury, Dorothy Day Hospitality House, the Interfaith AIDS Ministry, TBICO (The Bridge to Independence and Career Opportunities) and ARC (the Association of Religious Communities of Danbury).

Visitors to Nutmeg Festival make all of the event’s good works possible while having fun. They’ll be entertained by the magic of Ben Nemzer, a noted New York magician who performs all over the tri-state area and has been at Nutmeg Festival every year since 2010. In addition to his show, attendees can also watch him up close as he walks the grounds doing his balloon artistry. The Catoonah Street Jazz & Blues Society, noted for their lively Dixieland sound, will play throughout the event.

And what’s a church fair without lots of food? It will be in abundance all day, from cookies and pies at the Saint Stephen’sville Cookie Monster and Pantry booths, to hot dogs, hamburgers and other specialties served up at the Country Grill. A conservative estimate is that some 130 people will make all this happen – from the initial planning that started months ago to clean-up at the fair’s conclusion. Volunteers come mainly from the St. Stephen’s parish, but they get much-appreciated help from teenagers from Lion’s Heart (the national volunteer organization for teens) and members of Boy Scout Troop 431. “St. Stephen’s uses its collective effort to respond to the needs of a hurting world, and the Nutmeg Festival is the primary way it raises money to respond to basic human needs: food, shelter, clothing, and education,” said the Rev. Whitney Altopp, rector.  “We hope that many come, have fun and know that they are helping to make a difference in the lives of so many people.”

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