MARSHFIELD — In his 1859 address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Abraham Lincoln said agricultural fairs were becoming a national institution.
“They are useful in more ways than one,” Lincoln said. “They bring us together, and thereby make us better acquainted, and better friends than we otherwise would be.”
This week the Marshfield Fair celebrates its 147th anniversary, with between 160,000 and 165,000 visitors expected to pass through over the course of 10 days, said Leonard LaForest, president of the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society, the fair’s sponsor.
Many of the annual event’s original agricultural aspects haven’t lost their staying power in nearly a century and a half, even as they’ve become less of a central attraction in recent years. According to LaForest, people still come from all over to connect with a more agrarian lifestyle.
“It’s important for the fair to maintain that aspect,” he said. “It’s the Marshfield Fair, but it’s still the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society that sponsors it every year. ‘Marshfield Fair’ is just an easier name for people to say.”
Still, LaForest admitted that the fair has undergone a significant evolution over its 147 years, as many of the family farms that once made a verdant patchwork of Southeastern Massachusetts have long since given way to cities and suburbs. For a number of visitors to the Marshfield Fair, livestock competitions and horticultural lectures have taken a backseat to motorsports and carnival rides.
“There has been a change,” LaForest said. “Life has changed. I was born in 1947. I grew up in Marshfield when there were probably less than 6,000 people living here; now we’re in the 30,000 range. I can remember a lot of farms that aren’t here anymore — a lot of them turned into new housing developments.
“Per capita, there used to be a lot more vegetables and animals brought into the fair,” he added. “As time went on that still stayed strong, but there were fewer. In this age you’re relying more on the 4-H clubs. They’re starting to come back now, but they’re not getting the support from the state government that they used to.”
During the fair, local 4-H clubs compete with one another in various animal shows and performances, providing a showcase for dogs, pygmy goats, and other animals. Meanwhile, farmers and gardeners unveil their best crops of the season in the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society Museum on the fairgrounds.
“All the 4-H and arts and crafts events have pretty much stayed the same,” said Carleton Chandler, the society’s secretary treasurer. “You know, who’s got the best tomatoes. But the entertainment aspects have changed.”
According to Chandler, motorsports have become some of the most consistently popular attractions in recent years. The fair holds five demolition derbies as well as two nights of motocross.
The fair has increased its efforts to provide more music, though Chandler admitted that getting big names has proven to be a challenge for a fair that charges just $10 for admission.
“There’s so much competition on the music end of it with other venues across the state,” he said. “All our entertainment is free once you get past the gates, and we’re not going to change that.”
This year’s fair still boasts an impressive roster of performers, including Hanson native Kristen Merlin, a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice.” The entertainment schedule features four Battle of the Bands competitions as well as the 19th annual North River Blues Festival, which will be held on Saturday and Sunday.
For LaForest, the best part of the fair isn’t a new ride or attraction but rather something that has been a constant through the ages.
“I’m a people-watcher,” he said. “Right outside our office is the petting zoo, and I like watching the kids and the parents walk through there. It’s the same with the 4-H. You have families spending 20 minutes standing out in the hot sun just to watch the dog show and the goat show every year.”
The fair’s agricultural exhibits still draw a crowd. Last Friday afternoon the bleachers were packed at the ox-pulling competition, while foot traffic through the livestock exhibits was steady all day. Arts and crafts demonstrations have proved popular as well, with colorful, handmade quilts hanging from the rafters of the Agricultural Hall.
“It’s kind of an old-school concept,” said LaForest. “It’s pitting your skill and your artistry against someone else. When this fair started, it was a gathering at the end of the growing season for farmers to show off their crops and their animals and to compete with each other. It was always a community gathering. I think that’s the key word here: community.”
The Marshfield Fair ends on Sunday. General admission is $10, while children ages 6 and under enter for free. For more information, call 781-834-6629, or visit www.marshfieldfair.org.