In 1818, the Essex County Agricultural Society was formed “to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County.”
The founders probably never imagined that two centuries later, 450,000 visitors from around the world would flock to Topsfield to revel in agriculture and enjoy food, exhibits, and entertainment from ‘60s rock icon Chubby Checker to the Axe Women Loggers of Maine.
The Topsfield Fair — which bills itself as America’s oldest — is celebrating 200 years of agricultural and family traditions from Sept. 28 through Oct. 8.
The first fair, the one-day Essex Agricultural Cattle Show, was held in Topsfield in 1820. The town was chosen because it was a central point for stagecoach travel in the county. The Fair, as it became known, moved to its current 124-acre site in 1910.
In an age of video games and smartphones, the Topsfield Fair remains a big family draw as parents who grew up on its fried dough and bacon on a stick want to share the experience with their children. For the Essex County Agricultural Society, striking a balance of agricultural education and family-friendly entertainment is key.
“My dad loved going to the fair and would always take us kids,” said Nancy McCarthy of Salem, the fair’s 4-H liaison. Active with the fair for 32 years, McCarthy works with nearly 100 4-H kids from across the state who will exhibit animals, horticulture, and crafts at the fairgrounds this year.
“The Topsfield Fair is great because it is still about agriculture,” she said. “As kids we went on the rides, but we also toured the barns. Today you still can buy fresh vegetables from a local farmer, pat the rabbits, and there is a farm that always bring a new litter of pigs for the kids to see.”
That farm with the piglets is Colby Farm in Newbury, and it belongs to Lisa and Bill Colby, who are longtime fair volunteers. “I love pigs,” said Lisa, the current president of the Essex County Agricultural Society. “We do plan ahead so that we usually have a litter born at the fair every year.”
Nearly 700 volunteers work for months to put on the fair, and hundred of exhibitors work year round to bring the best examples of local agriculture to the public. Over the fair’s run, 15,000 Massachusetts students, many from urban communities, will visit the fair as part of the Essex Agricultural Society’s education programming.
“The fair is like an agricultural addiction and it comes at a very busy season for us on the farm,” Colby said. “I love it. It is always fun, but I know after 10 days, I will be exhausted and thankful to all that made it possible.”
Each year she makes an effort to visit the picnic area and meet parents and children.
“I always ask what their favorite thing was at the fair and I am delighted that most of them say the animals,” Colby said.
The family fun extends beyond agriculture to the midway, with amusement rides, daily entertainment, and of course food.
The food is an important tradition for fairgoers. Everyone seems to have a favorite, ranging from smoked turkey legs to Winfrey’s famous fudge.
There is serious competition among the vendors for bragging rights to the most popular fair food. Topsfield Fair Facebook followers voted Learned’s apple crisp the top treat, but the Food Network recently named The Topsfield Bake Shop’s pumpkin whoopie pies the “Best Fair Food in Massachusetts.”
There is also plenty of comfort food prepared and sold by volunteers from local nonprofits, including the Topsfield American Legion Post 255, B’nai B’rith International, and the Congregational Church of Topsfield.
Every day at the fair brings a new entertainment highlight. Crowds flock to the Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off where the winning gourd can top 2,000 pounds. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride, and the Monster Truck Freestyle and Demolition Derby, always draw a large audience. Meanwhile, the stands fill up for local talent performances that range from Beverly’s Creek River String Band to Danvers’ Decades of Rock.
For star power, fan favorite Chubby Checker will get the audience up and dancing in a free concert at the grandstand on Oct. 3. The Charlie Daniels Band is on stage Oct. 4, and contemporary country star Martina McBride will perform a separate admission concert on Oct. 6.
If that is not enough, there are always the daily death-defying antics of the Human Cannon Ball and a spectacular fireworks show on Saturday, Sept. 29, at 9:30 p.m.
To help families plan ahead, the Topsfield Fair has a daily schedule of events posted at topsfieldfair.org. To alleviate traffic near the fairgrounds, there is satellite parking with shuttle bus at Fair-View Farm on old Route 1 south of the fairgrounds. On weekends, there is a shuttle bus and parking at North Shore Community College in Danvers.
Topsfield Fair milestones
1818 — The Essex County Agricultural Society is formed.
1820 — The first Essex Agricultural Cattle Show is held.
1910 — The fair moves to its current 124-acre site.
1942 — Free admission in exchange for 50 pounds of scrap metal or 20 pounds of scrap rubber to help the war effort.
1984 — First All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off.
Sept. 18- Oct. 8, 2018 — Topsfield Fair 200th anniversary.
Linda Greenstein can be reached at email@example.com.