By Bill Thornbrook
It seems people can find almost any excuse to throw a party. And a party is even more fun when the whole community is invited. That’s the principle behind fairs and festivals. Celebrations begin with “first night” events in January, followed by ice carnivals and similar wintertime galas in the North. Then come the rites of spring, festivities often centered around blooming flora. Whether it be daffodil days or a cherry blossom festival or maybe an event to welcome the lilacs or dogwoods or azaleas, some local chamber of commerce has probably staked its claim.
The warmer months bring an exhaustive variety of events. May fairs, summer fests and fall foliage frolics provide more seasonal excuses for year-round merrymaking. Creativity takes center stage at craft fairs and festivals honoring film, music, and other arts throughout the year. Local or ethnic foods as diverse as enchiladas or lobsters, mushrooms or horseradish, chili or chowder, garlic or Whoopie pies provide the main courses for their own dedicated festivals, as do brews like wine and beer.
( 2 ) A luscious postcard announces Strawberry Day in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on June 18, 1910. (That same Saturday, across the continent, New York City held its first-ever ticker-tape parade to welcome former president Theodore Roosevelt home from his year-long African safari.) Begun in 1898 to boost local fruit growers, the festival today claims to be “the oldest, continuously held civic celebration west of the Mississippi.” Now expanded into a weekend-long event, Glenwood Springs Strawberry Days includes a parade and entertainment together with free strawberries and ice cream.
( 3 ) New England’s Indian-made ash splint baskets were favored for storing clothes and other household goods in the mid-nineteenth century. Housewives customarily lined a basket’s rough interior with sheets of newsprint to shield delicate fabrics from splinters. The Boston Courier newspaper lining this basket carries an advertisement for the Essex County Agricultural Society’s October 1829 Cattle Show and Exhibition of Domestic Manufactures. Then in just its ninth year of operation, what would become the Topsfield Fair—now nearing its 200th anniversary season—featured a “Ploughing Match.”
Even in our contemporary virtual-reality era, fairs and festivals still offer their own unique experiences. The commercial purposes that underlie most of them are usually embedded in an enjoyable and stimulating social atmosphere that provides entertainment and educational opportunities or even spiritual benefits that can linger for the rest of the year.
For many New England families, as well as those in other regions, the excitement of attending a country fair remains an annual tradition. Several North American fairs were first held in eastern Canada by the late 1700s. New England fairs can boast a long history as well. Among the earliest was a September 1811 cattle show sponsored by the Berkshire Agricultural Society in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Prizes awarded to the best farm animals shown at the fair proved to be popular incentives for local husbandmen. The organizer, Elkanah Watson, was encouraged to set up shows for other agricultural societies in the region, earning him the title “father of U.S. agricultural fairs.” Within just a few years, most counties in New England took pride in annual exhibitions of local livestock, farm produce and domestic crafts all vying for recognition.
Tops in its field in New England, at least in terms of its longevity, is the annual Topsfield Fair in northeastern Massachusetts. A prominent Salem resident, congressman Timothy Pickering, who had served as George Washington’s secretary of state, proposed the fair as a function of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture. Chartered in 1818 as the Essex Agricultural Society Cattle Show “to promote and improve the
agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County,” it was first held in October 1820 and has since opened annually except for several years during the Civil War and World War II. The fair has reopened in the same location north of Boston since 1910.
Through the decades local fairs around the country have produced quantities of colorful advertising flyers, giveaways and souvenir items that may be preserved in an attic or trunk or scrapbook. While generally of little monetary value, such keepsakes recall long-ago events that brought people together for all the right reasons.
( 4 ) This bright orange cardstock pass to the October 1857 Oxford County Agricultural Society admitted the “Bearer, one Lady and not exceeding three minor children.” Founded just fifteen years earlier, in 1842, the fair continues even now as one of the premier attractions of its type in the state of Maine. The central cut illustrates a stand of agricultural implements, including a plow, harrow, hoe, rake, fork, sickle, scythe, flail, and winnowing basket against a sheaf of wheat.
( 5 ) The reverse side of a small trade card depicting a yoke of sturdy oxen carries this advertisement for the September 1893 Inter-State Fair in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “A Mammoth Fair, eclipsing all former efforts,” the event featured races, balloon ascensions, parachute descents and daily band concerts. So, as the card admonishes, “Don’t overwork your Horses, Wives and Children;” instead, “Bring Your Family And Have a Jolly Good Time.”
( 6 ) The back side of this postal mailing envelope maps an upcoming Southern New England Country Fair to be held in September 1919 on the Lincoln Park grounds at Dartmouth, midway between Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts. With “Something Doing Every Minute,” the fair operated between noon and 11 p.m daily, Tuesday through Friday, but closed by the weekend. The event took place at this location just one more year before the corporation was dissolved in 1923.
Local fairs have individual flavors that reflect regional interests and products in each section of the country. During the election cycle every four years, for example, presidential primary candidates seeking to impress Iowa voters are to not only obliged to attend the state fair in Des Moines but also duty-bound to publicly consume a corn dog or some other form of fried food on a stick. Fair-goers get to decide which future president best handles the greasy fare!
Further west, the counterparts to the eastern agricultural fairs are the cowboy and Indian-themed rodeos and roundups.
( 8 ) Among the most famous of the rodeo events are the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon, which began in 1910, and the Miles City Roundup in Montana. Today’s Miles City Roundup serves as a marketplace for most of the bucking broncos used on the western rodeo circuit. An envelope featuring a cowboy astride a blindfolded mustang promoted the event in its debut year of 1914.
( 9 ) The annual Navajo Fair at Shiprock, New Mexico, advertised itself in 1935 as the “only one in the world exclusively for, by and of Indians.” Welcoming visitors today as the Shiprock Northern Navajo Nation Fair, it considers itself the “oldest and most traditional of the Navajo fairs.” Exhibits then as now showcase local products and livestock as well as native arts such as woven rugs, silver jewelry and beadwork, with a parade and rodeo events thrown in. This envelope highlighting a Navajo man with his hair bound in traditional chongo style bears an autograph of Jacob Casimera Morgan (1897-1950), the first elected Navajo tribal chairman and an outspoken critic of the New Deal’s Indian policies.
The ultimate in fairs is unquestionably a world’s fair. Literally the entire international community is invited to participate. Many of these lavish enterprises have taken place across Europe and U.S. since the 1800s, but a few are better remembered than the others. Some highly regarded world’s fairs on American soil were the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Several thousand fairs and countless festivals occur each year in our country. There always seems to be a celebration going on somewhere. The parties never end!
So it’s only fair to ask, What’s on your calendar?
( 11 ) Finely engraved entry tickets for the Chicago fair in 1893 include an Indian chief in full attire and a Lincoln portrait. The American Bank Note Company printed these and several other intricate engravings on special patented paper to prevent counterfeiting. The tickets rest on a Columbian Intramural Railway brochure that promotes “the first and only Electric Elevated Railroad in the World” for navigating the extensive fairgrounds along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Passengers who spent 30¢ at the French Bakery had their 10¢ trolley fare refunded and could enjoy the Royal Hungarian Band for free all day.
( 12 ) Flushing Meadows in Queens has been the site of two world’s fairs hosted by New York City, in 1939 and in 1964. This special edition northeastern U.S. road map issued by Sunoco offers an artist’s interpretation of the modernistic Trylon and Perisphere structures that symbolized the earlier fair.