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Topsfield Fair | Blue Ribbon Day at New England's Oldest County Fair

Topsfield Fair | Blue Ribbon Day at New England’s Oldest County Fair
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Nancy, who’s been volunteering at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge booth, is impressed with “how much has changed, but also stayed the same.” She tells me that the Grange was formed as a fraternal organization for American farmers after the Civil War and for many years served as the center of rural life. Membership in most local granges has fallen off. But recent efforts to get people back in seem to be paying off. “It’s not just a bunch of old farmers,” she says. “Whole families, kids, come to meetings. Maybe it’s the economy, and people growing their own food. We might be seeing an upswing.”

Sally O’Malley, who handles public relations for the Essex County Agricultural Society, tells me later that this trend is real, confirming my sense that the farm exhibits–more than the neon-lit amusements–are what bring people together here: “We’re in a part of Massachusetts that’s lost a lot of farmland, so we’ve been working with local people to preserve the culture. We like to see the Society, and the fair, as a real center of education. We find that people are going back in time in a way: finding that it’s fun to have a vegetable patch and chickens in their backyards. We tell them, ‘We want your animals and your vegetables! Bring them to us!’” Essex County youngsters have listened. “We have so many kids bringing in the vegetables they’ve raised,” she adds, “that we’ve had to put a limit on it.”

I pass another barn, where girls are parading trained goats around an oval in front of a quiet audience, while other goats look on, chewing in unison. The biggest lines are at the animal barns. So many people want to see the pigs that traffic moves in a one-way pattern.

At the vegetable exhibits, I find carrots made (by 4- to 6-year-olds) to look like caterpillars, and gourds painted by 7- to 9-year-olds. The admiring crowd is five deep around the giant-pumpkin contestants, who are hoping to smash the all-time Topsfield record of 1,689 pounds, set by Joe Jutras of North Scituate, Rhode Island, in 2007. There’s a “Live Pumpkin Carving” exhibit, too, and a poster describing how to get a pumpkin into a bottle. Just as crowded is the “Support Your Local Grower” stand.

In the “Ed Lombard Cattle Building,” I finally see the bovine legacy of New England’s oldest county fair. There are well-attended milking demonstrations, a lecture on how to check for mastitis, and “Bob the Bull,” with horns about four feet long, whose enclosure bears a sign saying “PLEASE KEEP OFF BOB’S CAGE!” (as if we needed the warning). A mom lines her kids up in front of “Whiskers the Hereford”; she takes their picture with an iPhone and says, “I’m going to e-mail this to Daddy!” Now that makes me chuckle–turns out people really are still sharing information about cows at the Topsfield Fair..

The 2014 Topsfield Fair is set for October 3-October 13. For daily schedules and other details, visit: topsfieldfair.org

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Slide Show: Topsfield Fair
Recipe: Blue-Ribbon Apple Pie

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