August 25, 2017

Fair Territory

Tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon, my wife, Betty, will deliver a horticultural lecture on the topic of ‘Water-Smart Gardening’.  In and of itself, that’s not an unusual event; Betty will give dozens of talks on horticultural topics to groups over the next twelve months.  But this one will be unusual.  Instead of a garden club or environmental organization, Betty’s audience will be people attending the Marshfield Fair.  They’ll come into the Agriculture Building because they saw a sign outside it advertising a talk.  With luck, they’ll leave with a large dollop of education.

I have nothing against fair food,
but it's not why I go
I’ve had the pleasure to contribute at the periphery of the Marshfield Fair for the past few years.  Rather than the one most people think of when they such events (deep-fried Snickers bars, Tilt-a-Whirl rides), the one I love exists in an alternate universe; it harkens back to the original Marshfield Agricultural & Horticultural Society.  I don’t begrudge fair-goers the thrill of the Midway, but I think my fair is a lot more fun.

Agricultural Hall in the 1920s...
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.

... and today.
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…”

I had an exhibit at this year's fair...
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.

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, September 1-4.  The Fryeburg Fair in Maine dates to 1851 and will be open this year from October 1 to October 8.  And the granddaddy of them all, the Topsfield Fair, which held its first event in 1818, opens September 29 for an eleven-day run.

Quilts and crafts at the Fair
I spend 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 is a tribute to creativity and skill with fabric.

Flower Show entries
The real fun, though, is 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. 

There is whimsy all around you
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.

Where else can you see a
butterfly hatch before your eyes?
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.
A quick look around one corner of the Fair

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.