All photos/art by Hesh Johnson
There’s already a ticket line 20 deep when I arrive at the Topsfield Fair at 10 a.m. on an early-October day. Sun filters through the trees, and I’m hit with the smell of warm pine needles, kettle corn, and fried dough as I walk through the gate.
A woman plays an amplified electronic zither, and beyond that, I hear bells, whoops, a calliope. Around me I see at least a dozen strollers, people eating strawberry shortcake, signs for elephant rides, face painting (with free glow bracelets), and a lot of Red Sox hats, sweatshirts, T-shirts. A kid asks his mom if they could please go on the “Terrace” wheel, and another cries at the sight of a passing clown.
Having strolled around my share of county fairs, I’ve seen more than a few with once-proud agricultural pedigrees diminished to exhibits of cookie-chasing pigs, surrounded by a lot of carnival–so I wasn’t sure what I’d find at New England’s oldest county fair, set 20 miles north of Boston, an area I knew had changed dramatically over the last century.
The Essex County Agricultural Society, which still runs the Topsfield Fair, was formed as an offshoot of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture (founded in 1792). Its goal was to gather information from progressive farmers and share it with every grower in Essex County. In October 1820, the Society held a “Cattle Show” in Topsfield, featuring working oxen, cattle, and swine, along with Indian corn, potatoes, and manure. A prize was awarded to one Timothy Pickering, the agricultural society president, for “superior performance of his plough.”
To find the agricultural heart and soul of any fair, a good place to begin is the poultry barn. Here, outdoor cages house the turkey flock–all prizewinners to one degree or another, dozing through the cacophony coming from the barn.
The hen-flying and cock-crowing contests are about to start, and around the oval are faces of all ages, looking through and over the rails in anticipation. The announcer lays out the rules for the first competition: Each hen will be tossed in the air by her handler, and whether she’s so inclined or not, will be expected to fly some distance. Some have soared 40 feet–about 260 feet short of the apparent world record (who knew?). Some drop like stones. Young girls stand with large nets, ready to snare grounded hens eyeing the exit.
A dozen or so roosters are lined up in cages, coached by their owners into an unnatural activity: crowing long after dawn. “If they’re not saying anything,” suggests the announcer, “just whisper ‘chicken soup’ in their ear.” This elicits an instant group laugh, and, judging from the head shaking, it’s possibly the 20th time many of them have heard it in as many years. Nevertheless, it seems to work, and the bantam in the first coop sounds his alarm.
Nearby, children listen as a man explains the workings of an active beehive. Signs boast of “Thirteen Seasons of Beekeeping” and advertise “Pure Native Honey” and “Beeswax Candles.” Then, maybe because I’m feeling hunger pangs, all I see are food signs: “Jerry’s Pastries,” “Burgers,” “Baked Potatoes,” “Cannolis and Cappuccino.”
“How is it?” I ask two women sitting at picnic tables outside “Learned’s Hot Apple Pie & Apple Crisp.” “Really good!” they say in unison. Marjorie Killam and Nancy Smith introduce themselves. Marjorie, whose father was a farmer, says she’s come to the fair just about every year since she was a child. “I started working at the Grange [exhibit] when I was 16,” she adds, “and now I’m 73.”
Nancy, who’s been volunteering at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge booth, is impressed with “how much has changed, but also stayed the same.” She tells me that the Grange was formed as a fraternal organization for American farmers after the Civil War and for many years served as the center of rural life. Membership in most local granges has fallen off. But recent efforts to get people back in seem to be paying off. “It’s not just a bunch of old farmers,” she says. “Whole families, kids, come to meetings. Maybe it’s the economy, and people growing their own food. We might be seeing an upswing.”
Sally O’Malley, who handles public relations for the Essex County Agricultural Society, tells me later that this trend is real, confirming my sense that the farm exhibits–more than the neon-lit amusements–are what bring people together here: “We’re in a part of Massachusetts that’s lost a lot of farmland, so we’ve been working with local people to preserve the culture. We like to see the Society, and the fair, as a real center of education. We find that people are going back in time in a way: finding that it’s fun to have a vegetable patch and chickens in their backyards. We tell them, ‘We want your animals and your vegetables! Bring them to us!'” Essex County youngsters have listened. “We have so many kids bringing in the vegetables they’ve raised,” she adds, “that we’ve had to put a limit on it.”
I pass another barn, where girls are parading trained goats around an oval in front of a quiet audience, while other goats look on, chewing in unison. The biggest lines are at the animal barns. So many people want to see the pigs that traffic moves in a one-way pattern.
At the vegetable exhibits, I find carrots made (by 4- to 6-year-olds) to look like caterpillars, and gourds painted by 7- to 9-year-olds. The admiring crowd is five deep around the giant-pumpkin contestants, who are hoping to smash the all-time Topsfield record of 1,689 pounds, set by Joe Jutras of North Scituate, Rhode Island, in 2007. There’s a “Live Pumpkin Carving” exhibit, too, and a poster describing how to get a pumpkin into a bottle. Just as crowded is the “Support Your Local Grower” stand.
In the “Ed Lombard Cattle Building,” I finally see the bovine legacy of New England’s oldest county fair. There are well-attended milking demonstrations, a lecture on how to check for mastitis, and “Bob the Bull,” with horns about four feet long, whose enclosure bears a sign saying “PLEASE KEEP OFF BOB’S CAGE!” (as if we needed the warning). A mom lines her kids up in front of “Whiskers the Hereford”; she takes their picture with an iPhone and says, “I’m going to e-mail this to Daddy!” Now that makes me chuckle–turns out people really are still sharing information about cows at the Topsfield Fair..
The 2014 Topsfield Fair is set for October 3-October 13. For daily schedules and other details, visit: topsfieldfair.org