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Yesterday: History of the Agricultural Fair

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - October 7, 2013

Agricultural Fair

Oxen competition at the Cheshire County Agricultural Fair in the late 1800s.

Farming was a way of life and substantial business in New Hampshire. Every family had at least one cow; cattle were a necessity for milk, butter and meat.

As the years slid by, farming grew no less important. In the north country of New Hampshire, the idea of a fair to celebrate farming and livestock and produce on a yearly basis came about in the 1800s.

The NH Agricultural Society organized in 1812 and re-organized in 1850. In 1818, the Grafton County Agricultural Society was born. From that time onward the society held annual events around the Grafton county area, where farmers could meet and show off cattle.  After 1820, a fair was held in Plymouth under the auspices of the County Society.

The Eleventh Annual Fair of the Grafton County Agricultural Society was held in the fall of 1858. Strangely enough, the fair was held on a Monday and Tuesday (unheard of in today’s weekend/vacationing society). It made sense to gather near the Pemigewasset House, a large hotel. The lodging establishment offered rooms for those who traveled from afar to see the fair, which gained in popularity each year.

The site for the fair encompassed over 35 fenced acres, with pens, booths, a racecourse and tents; it must have been quite a sight at that time.

Elsewhere in central and northern New Hampshire, agricultural fairs were becoming very popular. In the 1800s and early 1900s, remote farm families had few opportunities to share farming techniques and to socialize with other farmers. Fairs gave people a chance to get together and catch up on the happenings of the year, as well as to share recipes, compete for prizes and generally have a good time.

Sandwich Fair started as an agricultural event,  farmers in the community had the hope it would turn into an annual market day where they could trade/sell their cattle. In 1886, area farmers exhibited 184 yoke of oxen at the fair.

By August of 1887, it was decided to hold the fair on October 11. To attract more people,  a band was hired. Judges were appointed for the various categories and a prize list announced. The little country fair was becoming as popular as its counterpart in Plymouth; the Sandwich Fair had an attendance of about 3,000 – 4,000 people.

During the summer of 1888, permanent officers were appointed and J. Edwin Beede was elected president. Fancy work, curiosities and antiques, flowers and plants were shown in the Sandwich G.A.R. hall. A contest for the most attractive baby and the heaviest and best dressed (under the age of two) was planned. Although it would add to the fair’s expenses, a program of events was printed. Unfortunately, that year saw bad weather, with  snow. Because of this, only a small number of people attended.

Those who attended the fair came from all over the area, even at the time when there was no quick transportation to reach the fair grounds in Sandwich. In 1893, a report from the Sandwich Reporter stated that Moultonboro babies won all baby show prizes, showing that people came from other towns to compete.

It was also reported that traffic was heavy and Wilfred Plummer was run over by a horse driven by Eugene Wright. Plummer suffered a fractured arm during the accident. It was estimated that 3,000 people attended the fair that year and “very little drunkenness was reported and all of those drunk were from out of town.”

At the 1894 fair, one of the unusual exhibits was a large American Eagle and the fox; shown by Dr. J. Alonao Greene of Roxmount Poultry.

Fast-forward in time to the mid 1900s. The first three-day Sandwich Fair was held on October 8-10, 1988. Good weather held for this first three-day event. The popular parade featured riders on antique bicycles. Other new features included a cover over the stage, with five musical stage shows, cow-pie pitching contests (using a manure fork) and wood pitching contests. Thirty-two categories of baked food were on display.

In Rochester, the early days of the fair meant a simple event. In the 1800s, the fair was not an elaborate production; it included grange exhibits, livestock, arts, sewing, food, and charmingly simple contests. Children looked forward to the fair because schools closed for the week. A celebratory, holiday atmosphere was felt everywhere in Rochester.

This shows how important agriculture and country fairs were in NH in the 1800s and into the mid-1900s. Families came to the fair with lunches of home cooked food and spent the day with friends and neighbors. It was a time to visit, stroll and shop and to admire the handiwork, produce, and livestock. In order to keep it a family event, the fair committee had strict rules prohibiting liquor, gambling, and smoking in the stalls.

By the late 1890s, admission to the Rochester Fair was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under 12; railroad rates to Rochester included the price of admission with the purchase of a round-trip ticket. The fair was a four-day event and children under 12 were admitted free the first day.

A description of the fairgrounds in Rochester in the early 1900s speaks to how an exciting, ornate event the fair had become. Fairgoers passed through a magnificent Gothic arch with the inscription Cold Spring Park. There was a huge Exhibition Building with large, open doors. The Floral Court was an outdoor exhibit at first, but was enclosed the year after an early frost ruined the displays. The popular Hanson’s American Band was hired for the entire week, and free concerts were presented each day.

Each fair in New Hampshire is different, due to the location and space for exhibits. The draw to the Rochester Fair is its expansive location; Sandwich is a charming agricultural event in a pretty little village tucked away  in the mountains.

While Plymouth Fair ceased operation some years ago, it too was a country fair that offered farm folk a chance to compete in agricultural events and socialize with family and friends.

It was as much a way of life as feeding the cows and planting the crops each year. Lifestyles may have changed over the years, but today, as many years ago, New Hampshire’s fairs are a way to spend the day enjoying the simple pleasures of life. 

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