Hi Ho Come to the Fair!
It was rather overcast day, but that didn’t seem to bother the crowds watching the men attacking logs with chainsaws. We wanted to watch, but were too hungry to wait – we made our way through the antique car parade, past the cattle barn, and to the pierogi stand.
I do love a country fair.
One might imagine that the origins of the agricultural fair are lost in the mists of time, a natural outgrowth of ancient marketplaces and harvest festivals. That may be true of Old World fairs, but the genesis of the first New England country fair is a matter of record. In 1807 Elkanah Watson, the “Father of American Agricultural Fairs” created a small exhibition of sheep in Pittsfield, MA, the first proto-fair in the U.S. The exhibition drew crowds, so he followed it a few years later with a more ambitious exhibit of cattle. Success breeds imitation, and three new fairs followed soon after, in Worcester, Northampton, and Topsfield, MA. The latter two continue to this day. As years passed, American country fairs developed from these early exhibitions, focusing on competition in animal husbandry and agriculture, education, and music, food and entertainment.
The development of 4H youth programs in the early twentieth century strengthened the growing number of country fairs. The first 4H fair was held in 1923, and 4H competitions and exhibits soon became a bedrock feature of American country fairs. There are now over 3,200 agricultural fairs held annually in the United States, and over 60 in New England.
The fair we are attending is in Cummington, MA, just outside of Northampton. The Cummington Fair was established in 1883, and in the main exhibit hall one can admire the colorful posters that have been used to advertise the event through the years. This is not one of the largest New England fairs, not the huge tourist draw of the Big E or Topsfield. This is instead a community gathering, but a substantial one lasting several days. The midway is a big draw, of course, and the food stalls, but the agricultural roots of the fair predominate: oxen pulls still fill the events schedule, and places of honor are held for the livestock exhibitions and the displays of fruits, vegetables, baked goods and homemade jams, the best of each crowned with blue ribbons.
We finish our pierogi and head to the cattle judging. As urbanites taking a summer day’s outing stand we’re interested, but profoundly ignorant. The beasts all look handsome, shiny and brushed, and I have no idea what criteria are being used to make the judgments that bestow the blue ribbons.
We move onto the exhibit of antique farm equipment. The machines are impressive – a water pump produces a mighty torrent, while the milking machine, despite looking like a torture device, puts surprisingly gentle pressure on a cautious test finger.
It’s hard not to notice, though, that there is more antique farm equipment on display than new. There are sheep, but no goats. The 4H exhibit offers some very impressive projects, including a home-sewn coat that could pass for high couture. But many competitive categories have only one or two entrants.
Many country fairs in New England are suffering from weakened rural communities and resulting low attendance. The larger fairs, like the venerable and enormous Topsfield Fair, draw huge crowds, and attendance at such fairs nationally is believed to have actually increased in the last decade or so. But small fairs, those that depend on local farm communities for both exhibitors and attendees, are barely making ends meet. The Middlefield Fair in Massachusetts lost money for the first time last year. The State of Massachusetts has started providing some grant money to pay the prizes that draw competitors to smaller fairs, but funds are limited. Some fairs may not survive.
The loss of any of New England’s small fairs would be a pity, because they are living pieces of our cultural heritage. Fortunately, it’s easy to do your part to support country fairs, and the season isn’t over yet! Get in the car and head out to a small town. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes. Ride the Ferris Wheel, admire the prize roosters, watch the sheep get sheared, buy a raffle ticket for that elegant quilt, and, of course, don’t skip the fried dough.
Find a country fair near you.