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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.”

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