August 19, 2013

Fair Territory

I don't begrudge fair-goers their
fried foods...
This morning’s Boston Globe features a photo spread on the Marshfield Fair, which opened this past weekend and runs through August 25.  The photo on the front page shows the Midway with its Ferris wheel and other carnival rides; the interior photos are of other fun events such as a glass-blowing exhibition and a llama at a petting zoo.
... but 'my' fair is the one that harkens
back to its original purpose
I had the pleasure to be at the Marshfield Fair this weekend, but it was the one that exists in an alternate universe; the one that harkens back to the original Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society.  I don’t begrudge fair-goers the thrill of discovering that Snickers bars can be deep fried or of seeing glass geegaws be
Agricultural Hall, then and now
created before their eyes, but I think my fair is a lot more fun.
New England lives in a state of grace when it comes to fairs.  Once upon a time, agricultural expositions were a staple around the country.  The Marshfield Fair, for example, got its start in 1862 when three local farmers formed what was then called the Farm and Garden Group to discuss ways to improve farming.  By 1866, returning war veterans going back to farming needed a means of pooling their ideas and formed the South Marshfield Farmer’s Club.  A year later, the club’s annual summer event had grown so large it was attracting the manufacturers of agricultural implements, while club members showed off their best farm animals and produce.  By 1869, a piece of land had been purchased for a permanent exhibition site and a fine building, Agricultural Hall, was under construction.  In the following decades, the Marshfield Fair ruled the South Shore of Massachusetts.
Quilts and crafts in the
Agricultural Hall
Here’s a description of the fair, circa 1890:  “Before the children saw the flag even, they often heard the band. Coming through the pinewoods, by train, by horse-drawn carriage of every description, and on foot, just before they emerged into sight of the Fair grounds, they heard that joy-thrilling music of the brass band. Here was where Fair really began. Anticipation had reached its height and was soon to give way to the actual joys of Cattle Show. And reality can never touch anticipation…”
But times changed.  The Great Depression killed off many fairs, World War II caused others to suspend operations, and the great Suburban Diaspora of the 1950s and 1960s rendered most of the rest obsolete by converting exurban farmland into subdivisions.  In their place came the state fairs; soulless, antiseptic behemoths that sprawled over a square mile of land and were totally bereft of any sense of their rural origins and purpose.
A display in the holiday mantel
Remarkably, a number of expositions that still look and feel a lot like their century-ago forebears have survived in New England.  In addition to the Marshfield Fair, the Woodstock Fair in Connecticut traces its origins to 1860 and will be held over Labor Day Weekend.  The Fryeburg Fair in Maine dates to 1851 and will be open this year from September 29 to October 6.  And the granddaddy of them all, the Topsfield Fair, which held its first event in 1818, opens October 4 for an eleven-day run.
I spent the bulk of my time at the Marshfield Fair inside that venerable Agriculture Building.  Upstairs, there are displays of quilts; some quite old and others brand new.  There were hand-knitted sweaters – not for sale but, rather, submitted for judging in hopes of securing a blue ribbon.  The whole floor was a tribute to creativity and skill with fabric.
Betty's tri-color
award winner
The real fun, though, was downstairs.  There, Ronnie Lehage presides over what is simply known as ‘Horticulture’, the evolution of the Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society’s original mission.  Gardeners are invited to bring in their best examples of zinnias, cleomes, and anything else that flowers on their property.  There’s a proper ’standard’ flower show hosted by the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts (point of pride:  my wife, Betty, not only won the ‘blue’ first-place ribbon, but the ‘tricolor’ ribbon for the best floral design within several classes). 
There are competitions to design a small grouping of container gardens and another for holiday mantel arrangements.  There is a horticultural competition for the school-aged set and categories for flower arrangements in purses, watering cans, and recycled objects.  In short, the competitions going on within Horticulture is about skill and creativity.
A 'Books in Bloom' display.
I think I've read that book...
I first came to these fairs as an adult.  As I wrote earlier, I think everyone ought to have the opportunity to try that deep-fried candy bar but, personally, I’ll take a pass.  Ditto the funnel cakes and cotton candy.  But you have never had French fries until you’ve tasted the ones at the Fryeburg Fair.  The potatoes are freshly dug, still with clods of dirt on them.  They’re washed, put through a hand-cranked machine that turns them into strips, and put in a deep fryer.  In less than five minutes, a potato is turned into its finest incarnation.

If you live in New England and have given up on fairs as corny relics, it’s time to give them another look.  And, if you’re thinking of a vacation in New England this fall, keep in mind the dates of those upcoming ones.


  1. Congratulations to Betty, but I can't say that I am surprised. She always has a wonderful eye when it comes to design. And those fries sound fabulous!

  2. Love the true heart of these fairs: the agriculture contests judged weeks before the fair but proudly displayed despite the natural mold appearing gradually, and yes, the textile displays of quilts, sweaters, hats, mittens and all things New England! Our library has regenerated an interest in local quilts and will have its second annual quilt display this fall.