North

Topsfield is the fairest of them all

Topsfield MA 9/30/16 Steve Connolly and his wife, Nancy, of Sharon MA with their first place winning pumpkin 2,075.5 lbs during the 32nd All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off at the Topsfield Fair on Friday September 30, 2016. (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Steve Connolly and his wife, Nancy, of Sharon, with their 2,075.5-pound winner last year.

Imagine the reaction of Linus van Pelt, Charles Schultz’s beloved cartoon character, walking into the Topsfield Fair’s “Giant Pumpkin” contest.

This year, the top contenders are vying to break last year’s record set by Sharon resident Steve Connolly. His winning pumpkin weighed 2,075.5 pounds.

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Thousands count the fair tops among their treasured family traditions, drawing them to agriculture exhibits, amusement rides, live concerts, pig races, and some fried dough or a corn dog along the midway. This year’s 199th edition — the country’s longest-running fair — runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 9 on old Route 1.

George and Marianne Hoomis of Ipswich are astounded at the growing girth of the pumpkins. The couple runs the All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off. George Hoomis, who has entered his own pumpkins in the annual competition, believes the contest is heading into its 33d year.

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“It started when a couple of guys entered with a variety of squash and pumpkin,” he said. “Howard Dill won in the 1980s with a 400-pound pumpkin. All these seeds are derived from that.”

A few years ago, Connolly won with a 1,000-pounder. “Now you need a 2,000 pound pumpkin to win,” said George. “To me, that’s pretty amazing.”

24notopsfield - Owner Tawny Learned delivers a whipped cream topped bowl of hot apple crisp, one of hundreds served during the 11-day Topsfield Fair, to some of her regular customers. (Learned Apple Pie)

Learned Apple Pie

Tawny Learned delivers a whipped cream-topped bowl of hot apple crisp, one of hundreds served during the 11-day Topsfield Fair.

Tawny Learned of Learned’s Apple Pie & Apple Crispin Salisbury is in her 36th year at the fair. She works in the medical field, but for 11 straight days — not counting the days of preparation — she and her family members will dish out hundreds of bowls of apple crisp and pie to those making the annual pilgrimage to her family’s stand.

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Some arrive undercover.

“Every year, a man will come and order a dish for himself,” Learned said. “He’ll say, ‘I’m coming back with my family, but don’t tell them.’ ”

Learned also serves as an unofficial ambassador.

“The fair can be overwhelming,” she said. “I try to help people out.” Her fair favorites include the flower barn, vegetable barn, cow barn, and the quilts.

“My mother’s a quiltmaker. By hand. Never a machine. I get a warm feeling whenever I see the quilts,” she said.

Girl meets pony at the Topsfield Fair.

Animal lovers love to tour the barns for poultry, rabbits, goats, cattle, and horses. Those who prefer sweeter smells flock to the flower barn.

Most fairgoers pray for a sunny day, but Learned said guests should try the rainy days. It’s usually less crowded, plus “there’s so much to do inside.”

She will walk around the grounds and exhibits in the morning before ramping up for the crowds lining up every afternoon for the classic New England dessert. A bowl of apple crisp sells for $5, more with toppings of ice cream, whipped cream, or hot caramel.

Generations of a family sometime get involved to make the fair happen every year.

Diane Krafton of Andover said she first got involved over 30 years ago when her son, Dicky, now 43, and daughter, Lee, now 37, joined the 4-H Club and someone told her about the Topsfield Fair. Growing up in a tenement in Lawrence, Diane had never been to the fair.

Over the years, her kids entered many of the contests: eggs, vegetables, sewing, baking, chickens, baking. Both kids served as honey ambassadors.

Dicky, now a firefighter in Andover, serves as head of woodworking and conservation in the 4-H building at the fair. Lee, an emergency room nurse, is head of the 4-H craft department.

In 2015, Dicky’s son Austin was named “Junior King” of the fair.

How has the fair survived nearly 20 decades filled with wars, economic crashes, and more? Diane said she knows the secret to its longevity.

“A lot of people live in cities. The only place to get up close to animals, besides cats and dogs, to hold baby chicks, pat a goat, pet a rabbit, plus see shows and more, is the fair.”

Kevin Maguire, 52, of Marblehead with his sons Casey, left and Jack right, react as they ride the Seven Seas at the Topsfield Fair. Kevin takes his family to the fair yearly and enjoys the same things he's done since he was a boy. Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

The rides offer thrills to adults and their children.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathy@kathyshielstully.com.
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