When America’s oldest, continuously held agricultural fair opens in Brooklyn, Conn., on Thursday, fair-goers can be certain Doug Smith and his American Cream draft horses will be there. These rare and gentle giants—only 300 exist worldwide—will be among the many attractions at this popular fair.
Smith, a firefighter and owner of Ye Plain Ole Farm in nearby Canterbury, will be doing what he’s been doing since he was 10, showing off the beauty, strength, and agility of his draft horses. The breed attracted Smith’s attention in the 1980s for their cream coats, amber eyes, and gentle, adaptable dispositions. The fair provides him a chance to educate fairgoers about the “Cream,” and it also reaffirms a deep connection to farming felt by Smith and others who show their livestock, their produce, and their skills. “For a lot of the old-timers, there’s a feeling of pride in the town because of the fair,” Smith says.
Reflective of northeast Connecticut’s reputation for being “The Quiet Corner,” Brooklyn (pop. 7,173) conjures up its agricultural past at every turn. Country roads, mostly devoid of traffic, roll over wooded hills and past fields lined with stone walls. A visitor is as likely to encounter a tractor, lurching along the pavement to get to the next field, as a car.
For four days in August, the town shelves its “Quiet Corner” image and hosts the Brooklyn Fair. Some 20,000 fairgoers a day crowd the 20-acre site to watch oxen compete in pulling contests, horses perform in the show ring, and women show off their skillet-tossing skills. “Some women have their husbands stand out in front of them for inspiration,” quips former selectman Don Francis, now in his third stint as fair president.
Begun in 1809, the fair was held in a different Windham County town each year—even during war years. The current fairgrounds were purchased in 1850 and the fair made its permanent home in Brooklyn. While other fairs evolved into carnivals dominated by amusement rides, Brooklyn’s fair has remained firmly focused on its agricultural origins.
That means fairgoers can watch steers, draft horses, pigs, sheep, and chickens compete for honors that reflect the husbandry skills of their owners. And homemakers still vie for the rosettes that proclaim their pies superior to all others, their quilts more finely crafted.
From oxen and tractor pulls to arm wrestling duels and chainsaw contests, the fair is steeped in farming tradition. Cow-herding skills are put to the test in the hilarious “Cows Are Out” event, while competitors throw, stack, unload, and re-stack hay bales in the bed of a truck in “Boys Night Out.”
It’s not that change hasn’t found the fair. Entertainment, from country-western performers to Vermont’s renowned Circus Smircus, grabs an increasing slice of the fair’s budget, and two years ago fair officials halted harness racing, a decision necessitated by the sport’s general decline.
“People used to come to watch because they knew the drivers or trainers,” Smith says. “Most would come from within a 10-mile radius. But the old-timers are gone now.”
He also feels the loss of the “old-timers” in the pulling sports, even as interest in draft horses remains high.
“There’s a different way of pulling now,” Smith says. “You used to do it like you were pulling in the woods, going around things. Now they hitch up the horses and just go straight.”
Perhaps new traditions are in the making. But as long as farm life remains at its core, Brooklyn’s fair will continue to draw those who value their agricultural heritage.