In the foothills of the White Mountains, Fryeburg, Maine, is a town whose personality comes to life in a fair to remember.
By Annie Graves
Aug 24 2016
Since March 1851, the Fryeburg Fair has grown to become the state’s largest agricultural event.Photo Credit : Tristan Spinski
The Fair is everywhere, even where it isn’t.
On Main Street, Fryeburg’s public library is “Closed Due to Fair Traffic,” a masterful synopsis of the vehicles stretching to the horizon. (Too bad we’ll miss the library’s Hopalong Cassidy tribute to creator/resident Clarence Mulford.) A quarter mile away, Weston’s Farm posts a “Welcome Fair Business” sign; George Weston has just returned from helping kids with 4-H. The Congregational Church Thrift Shop (closed) invites you to “Come See Us at the Milking Parlor.” And Ray Ryan, owner of Spice & Grain, is leaving his natural-foods store to play electric guitar in a small gazebo near the harness-racing track.
All in all, the 165th Fryeburg Fair is omnipresent. It runs for eight days at the beginning of October, and on this particular Saturday, the previous day’s rain has polished the Maine foliage, the sky is scrubbed blue, and traffic is funneling toward the 185-acre fairgrounds just beyond the village center.
If you walk there (“It’s exactly a mile from here to the gate,” says Margaret Cugini, innkeeper at Main Street B&B), you’ll avoid the logjam and see a few more Fryeburg highlights. Fryeburg Academy, a brick-wrapped private school that’s been around since 1792; local students can attend free. A wide, pleasant Main Street with a few fine restaurants tucked around large antique homes. Creative parking in action: Those who live close enough to the Fair sell lawn space and bottled water.What you won’t see (though you may hear grumbles) is a place called Evergreen Spring, the source for Fryeburg’s clear tap water—the very same water that Poland Spring buys, bottles, and sells.
On the one hand, Fair Week may not be the best time to ask, “Could You Live Here?” It’s not as if 300,000 people descend on Fryeburg (population 3,349) routinely. But this once-a-year event—the largest fair in Maine, and second-largest in New England—reveals something about Fryeburg. This town knows how to celebrate farm life and good times. Hard work pays off in blue ribbons, and spectators gather to cheer skillet tosses or place their $2 bets at the track. Clint Black performs to record-breaking crowds. And somehow a little village pulls off something monumental, year after year, with great good grace. That says everything we need to know.
Fryeburg, settled in 1763, bumps up against New Hampshire, with 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest in its backyard. The Saco River snakes through, with beaches and calm waters perfect for paddling (rent at Saco River Canoe & Kayak). You can see Mount Washington and a full panorama from the top of Jockey Cap, after a 15-minute scramble up the hill behind Quinn’s Jockey Cap Motel & Country Store on Route 302. This pretty foliage road-way meanders to Bridgton, crossing Moose Pond below Shawnee Peak, the longest-running major ski resort in Maine. Just off Main Street, farmland spreads along Route 113, a State Scenic Byway that passes Weston’s Farm.
The stately brick of Fryeburg Academy holds a diverse student body of tuition-free locals and international students. “I was looking for a beautiful setting and a community with a school that would bring people to town,” says Cugini, who opened her B&B in 1997–98 and also works at the Academy’s library. The school’s 380-seat state-of-the-art Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center hosts live performances as well as the Met Opera’s HD Series, and The Pace Galleries of Art display curated exhibits. Daniel Webster taught there, too, so the provenance is good.
The Oxford House Inn, owned by Natalie and Jonathan Spak, a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef, transforms local produce into memorable meals such as butternut-squash fried rice with curry korma. “We’ve been here eight years,” Natalie says. “Town has been very welcoming.” And no wonder. The vegetable fritters are outstanding in a little puddle of sauce. And the apple–cranberry skillet crisp is a happy no-brainer. For casual goodness, 302 West Smokehouse & Tavern is buoyed by good vibes and a friendly Cheers atmosphere, plus a smoky chicken Caesar that would be a go-to favorite.
Weston’s Farm, a fifth-generation beauty, fulfills all the aesthetic requirements of a bustling farm stand, with Maine-made gifts, mounds of gourds and squashes, and super-friendly banter. But it’s also woven into the fabric of Fryeburg: George Weston’s family has been here for 215 years. “I was born in the yellow farmhouse,” he nods at the house next door, “and my mother, who’s 104, still lives there.” Son John spearheads the organics and is a Nordic ski coach at Fryeburg Academy. Naturally, its ski trails crisscross their fields. “I like to think we’ve been good stewards of the land,” George says. “That I’m passing it on to my son in good condition, and he’ll do the same.” A few more shops, like Spice & Grain and Trumbulls Hardware, serve the locals, and Northeast Gems specializes in locally mined gemstones. Just 10 miles away, bargain hunters flock to Settlers Green Outlet Village in North Conway, New Hampshire, for tax-free shopping at more than 60 outlet stores.
Besides four gloriously beautiful seasons in an area sought after by vacationers, hikers, and shoppers—plus pure spring tap water and a free private-school education for your teenagers—it’s obvious: the Fair. You don’t have to be a farm expert to appreciate a soulful look from a Jersey cow, chow down on fried-onion blooms the size of dinner plates, or covet multicolored alpaca yarns. But sometime during the eight-day extravaganza, maybe thank the West Oxford Agricultural Society for hosting 300,000 folks, maintaining 3,000 campsites, and making it all look easy.
You’ll find evidence of one-time resident Admiral Robert E. Peary on top of Jockey Cap, where a bronze monument identifies the surrounding mountains using the explorer’s original survey from when he lived in Fryeburg in 1878–79. Hopalong Cassidy’s creator lived here, too, in 1904, and Spaulding Gray attended Fryeburg Academy, where Daniel Webster taught—and wouldn’t that have been an interesting overlap?
On our visit, avid gardeners could buy a 1909 farmhouse far down Main Street, with business greenhouses and 5 acres of fields and woods, for $350,000. Two seasonal sandy-beach lakefront camps (with three storage sheds) awaited updating on Lovewell Pond for $219,000. A four-bedroom restored 1805 Colonial on Main Street, with gour-met kitchen, was listed at $389,000.
Getting Your Bearings
For a small town, there are multiple cozy options, including Main Street B&B (mainstbandb.com); the Admiral Peary Inn (admiralpearyinn.com); and the Oxford House Inn (oxfordhouseinn.com).
This year’s Fryeburg Fair is set for September 30 – October 7, 2018.