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Monday, November 28, 2016

Building With Bricks

Journal Opinion Nov.23, 2016
TWO OF MANY: These two brick houses on Main Street in Orford are just two of the numerous brick structures built in the region during the 19th century. The house on the left was built in 1831 by Orford's first lawyer Abiathar Briton after his previous house burned.  The one on the right was built in 1835 as his office.  Both are built using bricks from the Brick Hill brickyard on the Orfordville Road.

RYEGATE BRICKYARD:  During most of the 19th and early 20th centuries brick were manufactured in Ryegate.  Taken about 1910 this photo of the Ryegate Brick Company plant in East Ryegate. Bricks from this plant were used for local buildings throughout the region. (UVM Landscape Change) 

The two photos above are of the Lamarre Brickyard in Woodsville and were originally
published as past of the Over the River and Through the Years series by Katharine Blaisdell. (Journal Opinion)  

“Though the material is cheap, it takes considerable care, study and experience, to make a kiln of brick that will turn out shapely, solid and handsome.” St. Johnsbury Caledonian April 9, 1880.
Brick is one of the oldest man-made building materials.  It was first used 10,000 years ago, with the first kiln-fired bricks developed about 5,500 years ago. Those bricks provided builders with sought-after  fire-proof material. 
The first known manufacturing of brick in New England was in Salem, Massachusetts in 1629. Deposits of varve clay and sand were discovered in most area towns along the Connecticut River. Left by lakes formed by the retreating glacial ice sheets, these fine-grained materials were very suitable for making bricks.  
This column describes brick making and usage in the area from 1770 to the early 20th century. The sources include town histories, historic publications and several websites.  Combining those brick makers listed in local histories with additional ones listed on the International Brick Collectors’ website, there were more than 37 individuals and companies making bricks in the region.    
One has only to travel along area roads to see examples of houses, churches and commercial buildings built with locally manufactured bricks. Brick houses came into fashion in the 1820s and their construction costs were competitive with framed ones of the same size. There is little doubt that a brick home was a status symbol of a family’s place in the community.  Some houses that began as wooden structures were augmented with major brick additions added as the homeowners prospered.
Dwellings were not the only uses for bricks. At first, bricks were used for chimneys, replacing the ones made of crude stone “laid up with clay.” Over the years, brick uses expanded to foundations, sugaring arches, brick ovens, cemetery vaults, smoke houses, fireplaces and well linings. Bricks were also used for churches, school buildings and government buildings.  
 In April, 1880 The Caledonian published a long article on brick making at the St. Johnsbury Brick Company. The following three paragraphs contain a summary of that article, but they include some additional specific terms used in the manufacturing process.
There is something more to making bricks than the digging of clay, the drawing of sand, or the forming of the mortar into shape. Depending on the demand, this company uses from nine to fifteen men and three horses. To make the mortar of the right consistency, it takes about one part sand to two parts clay mixed with the proper amount of water. After mixing in a horse-powered machine, the “soft mud” is struck or molded. It is sloppy work and the men are scantily clad.
The bricks are then laid aside for 24 hours to dry after which they are laid up in kilns ready for burning. The weather has a lot to do with brick making. The old adage is that good hay weather is good brick making weather. It requires considerable skill to lay up and burn a kiln of brick. 
For the fire, wood is used in an effort to provide an even heat.  Too hot a fire will spoil the bricks and too light a fire will result in bricks that are too soft. This baking to a “cherry red” takes 6 to 8 days.  The article concludes with: “Brick making is no boy’s play, but it takes some money, some skill, and considerable hard work.”
Asa Low was Bradford’s most important brick maker. From his yard above the village he produced the bricks to build for himself a brick store in 1835 and a grist mill in 1847.  His bricks were also used to build a number of the homes that still line the village’s Main Street.
Builders used harder face bricks for the outside of structures where they would be exposed to weathering.  Softer bricks were used in sheltered locations.  Low used both in his brick store, the former American Legion building, on South Main Street.  Looking at the rear of that structure today, one can see the softer bricks exposed when an addition was removed. 
South Newbury and Wells River were the centers for brick making in Newbury.  John Mills had the earliest kiln in South Newbury. Benjamin Atwood followed and, in 1833, produced bricks for $3 per thousand. He supplied most of the homes during that period in Newbury.
Seaborn Eastman and his son George Eastman manufactured bricks in South Newbury, with the latter purchasing Atwood’s operation. A newspaper reported in November, 1874, Eastman was “ready to count out” his latest production. Two other brick makers listed are Charles Barrett and William Webber.
In 1915, Dwight S. Stone opened a brick yard in Wells River on the road to South Ryegate.  It operated for about 10 years. In 1981 Theron Carbee spoke to the Newbury Historical Society about his work at  Stone’s brickyard in the early 1920s.  He described a more mechanized operation than the St. Johnsbury brickyard described above. Carbee said blue clay was mixed with lime to promote hardening.
With about 40,000 bricks being fired at a time it took 300 or 400 cords of wood burned over 13 days to complete the process.  An expert supervised the firing. Some of the bricks were in demand for ornamental use. “As they melted on the ends, they acquired the texture and color of green glass,” Carbee explained. When finished, the bricks were loaded on railroad cars for shipment.
In Thetford, there were several brickyards. The one operated by Hezekiah Porter in Thetford Center in the 1820s and 30s produced bricks for the Town Hall in 1830 and Thetford Center Church in 1836 as well as a number of homes, including his own. The New England Business Directory of 1856 lists Thomas G. Sanborn of Thetford Center as another brick maker.    
George C. Taplin began his East Corinth brick business in April 1876. The local newspaper reported that in 1880 he fired 160,000 bricks in kilns “almost a century old at the time.” Ananiah Webb also produced bricks in South Corinth.
Of all the structures made from brick, the most intriguing was “Chapman’s Folly” in East Corinth.  Begun by John Chapman after 1820, it was modeled after a mansion he had seen in Philadelphia. It was said to contained 100,000 bricks from local kilns. Costing over $15,000, it was the only brick house in that village. 
It was the Chapman’s “pet project,” and as he became elderly “the mansion was still unfinished, only one or two rooms being habitable.”  When it was sold in 1871, an article in Bradford’s National Opinion reported: “Uncle John and his house appear somewhat alike, dilapidated by years, and well might he say that ‘All this is vanity and vexation of spirit.’” The house was used as a short time as a hotel, but burned in 1899. The original Blake Memorial Library was built on the site. 
In Fairlee, Milo R. Jenkins was a brick maker from 1882-1888. Another firm under the name Jenkins & Carr was listed in 1883. In West Fairlee there is a mention of C. L. Houghton in 1872. Perhaps the bricks for the West Fairlee District 4 School came from his yard.
 The St. Johnsbury Brick Company was established in 1871 and manufactured common and pressed bricks as mentioned above. In 1877, it was producing 200,000 “good bricks, at prices to suit the times.” In 1881 it was owned by N. P. and T. H. Bowman and within a decade was producing 1 million bricks each year at its operation in Paddock’s Village in St. Johnsbury.
Bricks were first manufactured in Ryegate from 1825 to 1859 by John McLure.  In 1890, Martin Gibson opened a brickyard in South Ryegate and his company was a competitor of the St. Johnsbury firm. According to the Ryegate history, Gibson produced about 1.5 million bricks yearly for the first six years. In 1896 he put in a steam brick plant and greatly increased his production.  
That production reached 2.5 million bricks annually worth about $14,000. Gibson called on Congress to set a higher tariff on imported bricks because of the unfair competition posed by cheaper production costs abroad.  He reported that he employed about 25 men for a 60-hour week at wages between $1.50 and $4 per day depending on skill levels. In 1893, it was reported that the brick works “was alive with Frenchmen” and, at least once, Gibson was cited for hiring illegal Canadian workers. 
The company’s bricks were of superior quality and used in a number of buildings in northern Vermont and New Hampshire. Local buildings that still stand include the old bank building in Bradford and Tenny Memorial Library in Newbury. In 1904, the brickyard was leased to Nelson and Wallace.
Bricks were also manufactured on the New Hampshire side of the river. In Orford, the first brickyard dates from the 1770s. In 1828 it was reported, “The Orford brickyard was busy producing a large quantity of bricks for James Dayton.” Later the name of Abner Powers was connected with the brickyard in 1856 and  thenThomas Mann in 1861. Isaac Hartwell owned it for a time and then sold it to John Carr in 1883. The Olcott Fall Corp. purchased it in 1885. In 1904 J. S. Hastings purchased “the old brick yard” from Henry Wheeler.
This brick yard, located on what was known as Brick Hill, is near the present Rivendell School on the Orfordville Road. Wendell Woodward of Orford grew up in a nearby home and recently told me that he recalls piles of brick left over from the operation.  A number of remaining village homes were built  with bricks between 1822 and 184.  These including two on the Ridge. The former Universalist Church (1840) and the Orford Academy (1851) were also constructed of locally-made bricks.
Brick making took place in Piermont as early as 1789. In 1832, Isaac Bickford of Piermont manufactured the bricks used to build his own house just south of the Piermont town line (now Ariana’s Restaurant). At one point a large commercial yard was operated by Arthur Runels.
The first mention of brick makers in Haverhill was a firm owned by Eli, Newhall and Asher Pike in the 1820s and 30s.  Bricks from their operation were used in the construction of the Brick Church and old county buildings at Haverhill Corner,now the Haverhill Library and Alumni Hall. 
Other individuals mentioned as having connections with brick manufacturing in Haverhill are Harvey Wilmot (1860), John Lawrence (1875), Elisa Meader (to 1876) and the North Haverhill Brick Company (1877-1883). There were also Woodsville yards operated by Charles C. Smart (1878) and Ira Whitcher (1886) on Mill Street in Woodsville. Smart also operated a yard in Rumney from 1875 to 1893.
Eustache Lamarre started a brickyard in Woodsville around 1894.  He had worked at Martin Gilson’s in East Ryegate and Ira Whitcher’s in Woodsville.  He hired a number of French-Canadian workers including four of his own brothers. His company’s bricks were used to build a number of local buildings including Woodsville High School, North Haverhill Library and two blocks on Central Street.  They were also shipped by train to Massachusetts. The company later moved to Bath and continued to operate until 1922. 
There were different types of bricks depending on intended use. These varied from front bricks to ornamental and fire bricks.  Some yards produced both water struck bricks and sand struck bricks, terms that referred to the method used to remove the unfired brick from the molds, the former being more desirable despite being more expensive to manufacture.  Over the years, the entire process became more mechanized with horses being replaced with steam or electric machines and trucks and railroad cars replacing wagons. Those who are interested will find additional materials online.
 As you drive around the region look at the brick structures that can be found in every community.  While some have disappeared, others can still be seen on village streets and rural roads. Whether graceful as an elegant mansion, as utilitarian as a commercial building or sturdy as a church, they stand in tribute to the brick makers and bricklayers of our past.  Honor their work with your appreciation. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

River Crossing and Recrossing: Ferries and Toll Bridges

 Journal Opinion Oct. 12, 2016

The Connecticut River has been a reoccurring topic for “In Times Past.” I have written of its role in the settlement of area towns and of the times it flooded those towns.  Columns have included log drives, dams and the shipment of local products to down-river markets. 

There have been numerous mentions of cooperation and competition between the valley towns that border opposite sides of the river.  While it has been a unifying feature of the valley, it has also been a barrier.

This column deals with the efforts of local residents to bridge that barrier. It surveys the earliest ferries and bridges through the early 20th century. Sources of information are the late Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book One, local town histories and historic periodicals. 

Blaisdell gives very complete descriptions of early ferries and bridges in Book One of her series and those seeking additional information are urged to consult that source. Her book series was widely distributed and is readily available in private collections and local libraries.

There were early bridges built over the Ompompanoosuc, Waits, Wells and Ammonoosuc rivers as well as larger streams and gullies, they will not be covered in this column. Neither will the bridges built by the railroad as it snakes up the valley in the 1840s. 

From the earliest years of settlement, residents of the valley have needed to cross the river. While canoes may have served first, commercial ferry operations soon followed.

 In 1772, just a few years after settlement, a petition was submitted to the General Assembly of New Hampshire for the “privilege” of a ferry between Newbury and Haverhill.   By 1773 at least two ferries were established there, one at Wells River and the other near Newbury village. 

In 1775 a ferry was operating between Orford and Fairlee with the charter being granted in the name of King George III. There were at least three ferries operated by Bradford or Piermont residents before the end of the 18th century.  
After independence, ferry rights were granted by the state governments. Charters generally established boundaries of several miles in each direction on the river in order to reduce conflicts between charter holders. The first ferry in North Thetford, established about 1780, actually operated without a charter for four years and then, upon petition by 89 men from Lyme and Orford, a charter was granted. 

 Those seeking and holding ferry rights included some of the significant members of the communities.  Capt. Ebenezer Green of Lyme and Thetford, Richard Chamberlin of Newbury and General Israel Morey of Orford are just three of these substantial citizens who saw economic promise in ferry operation.     

In March 1900 New England Magazine published an article by Max Bennett Thrasher entitled “A Connecticut River Ferry.” Thrasher described a typical ferry operating between the Vermont and New Hampshire shores during the 19th century.  

A typical ferry boat was up to 40- feet long and 11-feet wide and built of “hard-pine planks.” They were built with square ends for running up to the sandy landing areas. They were often tied to a cable and pulley system stretched from shore to shore. While larger ones were used for transporting loaded wagons as well as small herds, there were often smaller crafts for carrying walking passengers.  In some cases, where traffic warranted, a second large craft was available.

Passengers approaching the ferry landing from the side where the toll house stood would often find a painted sign board of toll charges. Those who approached from the opposite bank might find a tin horn to “hail the ferryman.”  

By the mid-19th century, a typical charge might be ten cents for a wagon and two cents for a passenger.  Cattle might be one to two cents per head. The fees varied with higher fees during rough weather or for night crossings. Ferries were not allowed to charge more than the legal fee, but could charge less. 

Once loaded, “the ferryman, standing at the end of the boat farthest from the shore, took hold of the stout wire rope to which the big craft hung.” He would walk back again and again using the attached pulleys to move the ferry across the river. Sometime the ferry scows would be maneuvered by a paddle attached to the sides or rear or by simply pulling on a rope to guide the craft to the opposite shore.  

After traveling throughout northern New England, President Timothy Dwight of Yale College wrote the following observation in 1796:  “Crossed the river at the ferry above the Great Oxbow. The boat was managed by two children smaller that I had ever seen entrusted with such employment.  But the expedition and safety with which we crossed the river, proved their perfect competency for their business.” 

Transporting livestock  sometimes created problems. One ferryman explain the difficulty of ferrying sheep: “sheep are the meanest things to take over. They’s jest as likely as not get scairt and jump overboard, and then its’ nigh impossible to catch them.”

Ferries usually ceased operation when the river froze. The boat would be drawn up beyond the flood zone for storage. In the early years this might take up to ten teams of oxen, but as new pulley systems became available, it could be done with one team of horses. 

The crossings were not without danger. In the spring there was floating ice or logs from the great log drives. There was always the danger of floods, freshets or uncertain currents. Extreme drought brought changes in the level of the river, creating problems for the ferryman.

Ferries served the area until bridges began to be built. As with ferries, the earliest bridges were business enterprises owned by individuals or groups of stockholders. Often ferry operators themselves were  major promoters. 

The first bridge between the two states was built at Bellows Falls in 1785.  By 1797 there were thirteen bridges across the river, including one at Newbury village built about 1796. 

One of the new bridges was built between Fairlee and Orford in 1802.  Dwight, the Yale president,  described it as “a neat bridge, consisting of one very obtuse arch supported by trestles.” This bridge was swept away by a “freshet” in April 1809.  The next year a new bridge was built, “supported by three wooden piers and extending unarched across the river.” 

Moody Bedell and other subscribers raised $3,800 to finance a new bridge at South Newbury in 1805. Other bridges were built between Lyme and Thetford in 1822 and between Bradford and Piermont in 1825.  

The bridges that replaced ferries were, at first, built as open uncovered bridges. As floods swept them away or weather took a toll on the exposed wooden timbers, they were replaced by covered bridges.
If a bridge failed, as they often did, ferries were re-established until replacements could be built. In several cases, the need for temporary replacements lasted ten or more years. When the bridge at South Newbury was swept away by a flood in 1841, ferry service was resumed for 18 years before a new bridge was opened. 

As with ferries, tolls were collected for all of these bridges. A toll house sat adjacent to one entrance to the bridge and the toll-keeper and his family were on constant guard against those who would sneak across without paying. A fine could be levied against trespassers, one that might be shared with someone who reported the transgression.

In The Vermonter magazine in 1906, Gilbert Davis of Windsor commented on the existence of toll bridges between the two states. Davis was a member of a state commission charged with studying the issue. 

Davis stated these toll bridges were, as a general rule, “very profitable investment.” He reported the corporation that owned the Lyman Toll Bridge between McIndoes and Monroe declared a 14 percent annual dividend to its stockholders. “The rates were exorbitant and even the ministers have to pay.“  

 Davis called for the abolition of the 10 toll bridges that remained between the two states. He concluded “the sentiment against the collection of tolls was strong.” “Locals,” he wrote, “occasionally asserted a sportive independence by chopping down the toll-gate.” 

After 1860, residents in both states began to call for free bridges, for freedom to travel across the river without paying. They sought to follow the 1858 example of Hanover and Norwich’s purchase of the Ledyard Bridge and turning it from toll to free. When this transformation occurred the toll bridges were sometimes purchased and sometime replaced.  

In March 1895 Orford voters appropriated funds so that the bridge would “now be owned by the town as a free bridge.” Fairlee voters appropriated $500, their share of the $5,400 price. The United Opinion later reported “double the number used the bridge once it was made free.”

The North Thetford Bridge was purchased by the voters of Thetford and Lyme in 1897. The local Lyme reporter commented “for a time, taxes will be higher, but in the end beneficial.”  

Davis was one of those who encouraged the legislatures of the two states to come to some financial arrangement to purchase the bridges. He believed it was unfair to leave the financial burden to just the two adjacent towns when the services were provided for all.  The states were somewhat reluctant to fully meet the financial commitment required and attempts to get appropriations often met with failure.  

In 1906 Henry Keyes of Haverhill purchased the Haverhill-Newbury Bridge and gave it to the towns on condition that they make it a free bridge. In 1911, after years of discussion, Bradford and Piermont purchased the connecting bridge. Bradford’s share was $1,100. 

By 1916 the toll bridge between Woodsville and Wells River became unsafe. The decision was made in each town to finance a new bridge just south of the old.  Articles in The United Opinion described the decision in Haverhill where it was “widely discussed and the outcome so anxiously awaited.”
The vote in Newbury passed at its annual town meeting. A special train was commissioned by the Boards of Trade of Wells River and Woodsville to carry Woodsville voters to the Haverhill town meeting in North Haverhill.  The bridge question was passed by “practically the unanimous decision of the voters of Haverhill.”  A new bridge was dedicated in November, 1917.  

In the years since, older bridges have been outmoded by modern transportation needs, damaged by flood or replaced by newly designed structures. This column has described in other articles the impact of 20th century floods and hurricanes on the Connecticut River bridges in our region and those articles can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot. com or in the Journal-Opinion archives.

The Connecticut River in our area is bordered by towns that have historic connections with towns opposite them. One has only to think of Wells River and Woodsville, Bradford and Piermont, Fairlee and Orford and Thetford and Lyme to recognize these cross-river connections.  

 Many readers will acknowledge that they frequently work, play, worship, shop and seek medical assistance on the opposite side of the river. They cross and recross the river so often it loses any sense of a barrier it might otherwise pose.  Ferries and bridges have historically played a significant role in creating that state of mind and bridges still do. 

Hail the Ferryman.  Flat-bottomed ferryboats similar to this one were a major mode for crossing the Connecticut River in our area during the first 50 to 75 years after settlement.  Often a traveler could hail the ferryman from the opposite side of the river by blowing a tin horn.  Smaller scows were sometimes available to transport a single passenger on foot.  

Toll Gate Stands Guard.  The toll house and toll gate at Woodsville is pictured here around 1900.  The double-decker bridge carried railroad traffic on the upper level and road traffic on the lower.  In 1916 the towns of Newbury and Haverhill voted to replace the toll bridge with a newly-built free bridge.  (Katharine Blaisdell, Book One)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Early Agricultural Fairs: Farmers' Showcases

Journal Opinion September 7, 2016

HORSE SHOW. Horse racing and exhibitions were a major draw for local fairs. In 1906, the local newspaper reported that there were 10,000 in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair. The grandstand was built into the hillside and offered a great view of the race track. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society.

CROWDED FAIRGROUNDS. The Bradford Fairgrounds. located on Fairground Road, offered what was called "the most natural fairground in the state." The midway featured several "eating houses." Despite the temperance movement, beer was being offered in the middle tent. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society. 

AREA-WIDE FAIR.  The Waits River Valley Agricultural Fair was held between 1890 and 1908 at the East Corinth Fairgrounds.  It drew both organizers and spectators from Corinth, Topsham and other area towns. The 1893 three-day fair was typical with a band concert, balloon ascension, races and exhibits. Courtesy of the Town of Topsham.

“The county fair is about the only legalized good time left to the county people….on one short day, at the county fair, we live and forget, happy in the company of the county-side, absorbed in a common pleasure.” Charles R. Cummings, The Vermonter, 1910. 

The period from mid-summer to early October is fair time in Vermont and New Hampshire and has been since the early 19th century. This column explores the history of agricultural fairs in the region from that to the early years of the 20th century. Information was gathered from local histories, several internet sources and newspapers of the period. The book Agricultural Fairs in America edited by Julie A. Avery was helpful.  

The town of Nutfield, now Londonderry, NH, clams the first agricultural fair in America. Local farmers held a fair to exhibit their best in 1742.  Other sources cite the fair sponsored in 1811 by the agricultural society of Massachusetts’s Berkshire County as the first. New Hampshire town charters, including that of Haverhill’s, specify that as soon as there were 50 families in town two fairs should be held annually.  It is unknown if  Haverhill met that early directive. 

While each of the fairs mentioned below had their own particular features, most of them had much in common. They were sponsored by agricultural societies and organized to promote the best cattle and crops that farmers had to show. As they evolved, domestic arts were included along with new machinery and farming techniques. 

The New aHam Hampshire Agricultural Society was organized in 1812 and the Grafton Society followed in 1818. One of these may have been involved in the earliest local cattle shows held at Haverhill and Plymouth in 1820 and Orford in 1826.  

The first fair sponsored by the Orange County Agricultural Society was held in Chelsea in 1847. Until its demise sometime after 1890, the Society’s fairs were held in either Chelsea or Bradford, with some competition with the two communities competing to be the host.

 Bradford’s fairgrounds, located on Fairground Road, offered what was called “the most natural fairground in the state.” McKeen’s History of Bradford included a description of the three sections of the fairgrounds: a lower level with a half-mile track which was used for horse racing and the exhibition of cattle; an upper level for exhibitions in permanent buildings and tents ; and a grandstand built on the hillside between the other two sections. It had been the site of fairs sponsored by the Connecticut Valley Agricultural Society between 1850 and 1866.

Because the Orange County Fair was held so frequently in Bradford after 1870, local newspapers referred to it as the “Bradford Fair” or “the fair at Bradford.”

With the expiration of its fairground lease, the last Orange County fair was held in Bradford in 1888. In 1892 an area-wide fund drive raised most of the $5,000 needed to refurbish the grounds and rebuild the track and grandstand.  The fair was held in 1893 and continued until taken over by the Bradford Agricultural and Trotting Association in 1900. That association continued to hold very successful fairs until 1913, after which regular fairs were discontinued until 1948. 

The Waits River Valley Agricultural Society began holding fairs in East Corinth in 1890. In 1895 shares were sold for $10 each to provide for improvements to the fairgrounds.  It was reported that tents erected for the 1899 fair had sufficient canvas “to have sheltered a regiment of the United States regular army.” Despite ups and downs, it was said that the fair became “what Old Home Day is to other communities.”  In 1908 the fair was discontinued, but was revived in the 1930s.

As early as 1842 an annual cattle fair was held in Ryegate for the “buying, selling and exchanging of Horses, Cattle, and all other kinds of property.” Beginning in 1888 the Ryegate and Wells River Dairymen’s Association held an annual fair in South Ryegate.  The grounds featured a short racetrack and display buildings.

 In 1906 The Caledonian reported that the fairground and building had been sold to the Caledonia Park Association and “will do away with the famous Ryegate fair which was held here every year and which attracted large crowds of people from miles around.”  Fairs did continue under the new ownership until about 1912.

From 1886 to 1894 the Pompanoosuc Agricultural Association held a three-day fair at the Pompanoosuc Fairground. As with many fairs it was held mid-week as the concept of the "weekend" had not developed and holding events on the Sabbath was out of the question.

The Grafton County Agricultural Society’s fair was an example of an event that drew organizers, exhibitors and spectators from an extended community. Beginning in 1859, its leaders included men from Orford, Lyme and Wentworth. This annual fair was held in Littleton until a new fairground was purchased in Plymouth. That new location allowed the fair to grow through stages as the Union Grange Fair, the Plymouth Fair and lastly, until its closing in 1993, as the Plymouth State Fair.

As early as 1846 Vermont also had a state fair.  It was held in various locations around the state including White River Junction and Montpelier before settling in Rutland. There it was managed by the Rutland County Agricultural Society. Its stated purposes were “the practical education of the farmer” as well as the “dissemination of knowledge respecting the resources of the state.”   

In West Topsham, a short-lived but successful fair was held in 1890-91. At the second annual fair attendance was 2,000 and it was said that “the display has never been equaled by any town fair and by few county fairs.”

 Another short-lived fair was the one sponsored by the Farmers’ Agricultural Society at Haverhill Corner in 1891. Although that one “went off with a snap,” by 1893 the fair was discontinued. 

Most fairs were held for between two and three days with an occasional fourth day.  There were also one-day fairs held in West Fairlee and Post Mills and a “County Fair” held in Fairlee, all in the early 1920s. The West Fairlee event was held for a number of years, attracted up to 700 with admission of 25 cents and offered “Rest Rooms for Mothers.”   

There were also numerous church and grange fairs, but they were generally one-day events and did not feature extensive agricultural displays. 

The fairs were not without controversy. The early Londonderry Fair was discontinued when it became a “moral nuisance…with scenes of vice and folly in some of their worse forms.” In 1893, The United Opinion mentioned “a gang of sharpers are working the fairs with games, fakes, etc., and a considerable amount of counterfeit money is said to have passed around.” In 1895 a Vermont law gave fair officials the power to control horse trading and games of chance both within the fairgrounds and along the roads leading to it.  

 As the temperance movement grew there were prohibitions against the sale and use of intoxicating liquor as well as pool and games of chance.  In 1885 The Women’s Christian Temperance Union met the challenge of thirst by furnishing a barrel of ice water at the Bradford fair.  The following year it was mentioned that “if the exhibits cannot sustain [without liquor] better dispense with the shows.”

With horse racing common there was bound to be controversy.  In 1859 a tongue-in-cheek flyer appeared announcing the second annual fair sponsored by the Salt River Valley Gouging and Sponging Association to be held in Bradford.  With announced seating for 6 people, premiums of $3.50 and a prize of six cents for the “biggest Humbug,” this fair was being held “owing to mismanagement last year.” Gouging and sponging were terms associated with cheating in races.  It is interesting that the Association is named in an 1861 transaction in which a piece of adjacent land was sold.

Newspaper columns often mentioned when individuals from one community visited a fair in another.  Some towns gave students a day off to attend the fairs. Railroads offered special prices for tickets to stations adjacent to fairgrounds and hundreds took advantage of this. 

Many came by horse and buggy. A Piermont elder writing in 1948 recalls going to the Bradford Fair in the early 1880s. She described “long lines of teams filled the dusty roads until we came outside the Gates.”

 Poor road conditions prompted the following Bradford comment in 1895: “We take the liberty to suggest to the town of Corinth that they get mad and declare the annual fair off until the road between there and here is put into decent shape.  Everybody would make such a kick out of the prospect of a year without a Corinth Fair as would make the voters of both towns do some hard thinking.” 

It was not uncommon for there to be up to 6,000 spectators on a single day at these local fairs depending on the weather and the programs offered.   In 1871 New Hampshire reported 100,000 attended fairs and 5,000 head of cattle were displayed. As “horse trots were the great feature” of local fairs, large crowds turned out for them.  In 1906 10,000 were in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair.  

Locals sometimes travelled out of the local region to attend fairs.  After 1835 fairs were held in St. Johnsbury and after 1880 in Tunbridge.  The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 were attractions for some local residents, some of whom wrote of their experiences for the local newspaper.   After 1916 some took the train to East Springfield, MA for the Eastern States Exposition. 
Fairs offered remote farm families an opportunity to share techniques as they socialized with others from the area. Improved practices and new equipment for both farm and home were showcased.  This was especially important as there were major innovations in agriculture by the mid-nineteenth century. These included new farm implements and improved growing techniques that drew the interest of farmers looking for ways to improve efficiency and yields. 
 Competitions among both farmers and housewives were key. Those competitions were divided into departments and classes in many fields. There was horse, cattle and poultry judging along with produce, domestic items and floral displays. There were ploughing matches, bicycle and foot races and even a baby contest looking for the “best, handsomest and smartest babies.” 

 Some fairs offered special divisions for boys and girls to show their own produce and handiwork.  In local newspapers, premiums were promised beforehand and winners announced after.  Local champion animals appeared at local fairs before being presented at larger fairs throughout New England and New York. 

Dozens of town oxen teams competed annually in early fairs.  Most fairs featured concerts by bands such as the Bradford Brass Band and the Newport Cornet Band. In 1901 a baseball game between the Woodsville and Bradford teams was “one of the leading attractions on the first day in Bradford.  It was not uncommon for there to be speeches by local dignities.  A merry-go-round was a money-making feature at several fairs.

Professional shows include acrobatic acts, mini-circuses and the popular balloon accession with parachute drop.  One frequent performer was the balloonist Professor Bonet, “a young man of rare nerve and skill.” There was no mention of a burlesque show or the type of sorted sideshow found in some larger communities.  

Why were these fairs discontinued?  There was the constant need for funds for upkeep and improvements to the fairground, a need that was sometimes overwhelming. As with many ongoing activities where the burdens of work and responsibility fall on a few, those few give up the burdens after a time.  With no one to fill their roles, the activity drew to a close. Increasingly there must have been competition from motion pictures that provided star-studded entertainment, from automobiles that could take folks farther away and radios that kept them at home. 

The authors of the History of Ryegate, writing in 1913, expressed the sadness that many must have felt when the local fair was no longer held. They  further wrote “We believe in home fairs and the  friendly competition of neighbors in prizes given for merit, when the average farmer feels at home and knows he has a fair chance to get a square deal.”  Add to that an entertaining program and an over-all good time and it makes a believer of us all.  

At local fairs today one can see an update of the early fair experience including this 1880s child’s summary of fair day. “It was a day of anxiety and fatigue for Pa and Ma, but the children rode home tired, but happy, with their hands clutching balloons, whips and candy, a large amount of the latter adorning their faces.”