For my family, the Brockton Fair was a tradition that ended too soon.
My wife and I began taking our three children — adopted from her homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo — to the fair in 2018, soon after they arrived in the United States. We returned the next year, and hoped to again in July of 2020. But the COVID plague was upon us, and the annual fair was canceled that year, and as it turned out, forever.
The city now plans to acquire the fairgrounds for $55 million, then find developers to turn the 66 acres into something as-yet unspecified. There will be plenty of debate over the fate of the land — the City Council still needs to approve the deal. For now, I find myself musing about what the fair meant to my family, and what the absence of the once-glorious event means for the city.
My wife and I might have attended earlier, but we didn’t move to Brockton until we’d completed the arduous, years-long adoption process. When the children arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in January of 2018, they knew nothing about cold weather, or English, or the Brockton Fair.
We happened to move into a snug little house an easy walk from the fairgrounds, which lay mostly vacant for most of the year. The kids and I would stroll past the decrepit replica of the Massachusetts State House, which, in the past, had housed exhibits of farm equipment and shoemaking machines; walk around the barren oval where thoroughbred horses had run their last race in 2001; and scramble up the concrete stairs of the decayed grandstand.
In their first winter here, the kids would climb the huge piles of filthy snow discarded at the site by city dump trucks. I usually stayed at ground level, punching up Google Translate on my smartphone to explain to them in broken French the layout of the place. There wasn’t much evidence of the fair’s glory days, when it attracted pop singers, Hollywood stunt drivers, and in 1912, President William Howard Taft. Still, come summer, there would be a 10-day carnival right down the block — and I’d be more eager for it than the children. I was determined to make Americans of them. And what could be more American than living next to the Brockton Fair?
I had a grand time, those two years. But I had no idea how much grander the fair had once been, or how far it had fallen.
Founded in 1874, the fair began as an agricultural festival. In large, airy buildings, farmers showed off their finest livestock, while outside, sleek show horses pranced and giant draft horses hauled massive wagons over the turf in a pre-diesel version of today’s tractor pulls.
Now and then, the fair offered glimpses of the future. One of the first US-made automobiles was a star of the show in 1896. In 1910, a primitive aircraft performed flyovers, less than seven years after the Wright Brothers left the ground. In 1995, visitors could put on a set of goggles and sample a primitive virtual reality system. But agricultural themes proved more durable, and persisted throughout the history of the fair.
And of course, there was horse racing, a staple of the fair for decades, which became even more significant after gambling magnate George Carney took command in 1957. The races featured worn-out thoroughbreds and third-rate jockeys, but it was better than no horse racing at all, so thousands still came out to watch and bet.
But the last race ran in 2001, and Carney’s effort to resurrect the sport there died in its tracks in 2016. By the time my family turned up, the agricultural displays were much reduced — a petting zoo with goats and chickens, a few sheep and cattle and an immense Watusi bull.
As I watch a video I shot in 2018, I now realize that the fair had become little more than a cut-rate amusement park, with bouncy houses, Tilt-A-Whirls, and miniature roller coasters. Much of the fairground was empty, the crowds sparse, and many of the old exhibition buildings long gone.
What happened to the fair? Many things, little by little, and then all at once.
Brockton is long removed from its manufacturing heyday and has never regained its old prosperity. The city’s 2021 median household income was about $68,000, well below the state average of close to $90,000. Elsewhere in Plymouth County, meanwhile, Marshfield then had a median household income of about $110,000 — and a fair that continues to thrive.
Toward the end, the Brockton Fair had acquired an unsavory reputation. In 2002, a teenager was fatally shot following a fight that took place at the event; a double shooting marred the festivities in 2009. Fights broke out in 2017, according to a group called Operation Arch Angels, which was conducting civilian security patrols. The Angels might have made some fairgoers feel safer, but the fact they were needed surely scared others away.
Meanwhile, Brockton was becoming a different city. Long dominated by the descendants of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and France, it’s now a majority-minority city, with tens of thousands of recent arrivals from Cape Verde and Haiti. For many newcomers, a trip to the Brockton Fair was a pleasant diversion, but, alas, there was never enough time to make it a family tradition.
That’s exactly what I’d hoped it would become for my family — a tradition, raucous and distinctly American.
At the hands of my parents, some Catholic nuns, and a soft-spoken Scoutmaster, I’d learned a deep, durable fondness for my country. I believe I owe it to the nation and my children to bring these three new citizens up the same way. Yes, a certain amount of flag-waving is sometimes involved, but only on federal holidays. I prefer to teach in other ways — by cooking traditional Thanksgiving dinners, raising backyard tomatoes, telling them stories about Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers. And, of course, annual summer visits to the Brockton Fair.
Yes, there’s still the fair in Marshfield. We attended this summer and will probably make a habit of it. But Marshfield is a long way from our home, so we can’t open a bedroom window on summer nights to hear the bands, the roar of the demolition derby cars, or the rattle of fireworks.
That’s what the Brockton Fair meant to those of us lucky enough to live next door. It wasn’t just a fair; it was our fair.