Topsfield Fair — America’s Oldest Ag Fair

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on September 14, 2008
Ej Hersom

Dozens of giggling schoolchildren jostle for position to get a glimpse of several llamas behind a fenced enclosure at the Topsfield (Mass.) Fair, which is billed as America’s oldest agricultural fair. Meanwhile, a similar scene is taking place in the sheep, cattle and pig barns, as wide-eyed students pet and feed the animals.

“The kids are always enchanted with the animals,” says Jim O’Brien, general manager of the fair, which dates back to 1820. “For many children, this is their first exposure to farm animals.”

For other children, such as Hannah Miles, 11, of Boxford, Mass. (pop. 7,921), the fair is a chance to show off their ducks, chickens, goats and other farm animals. During various contests, livestock owners are awarded ribbons, trophies and money for their animals in categories that include superior breed, dairy characteristics, grooming and showmanship.

“I help out with trimming the goats’ hooves,” says Hannah, who spent months readying her animals for the fair. “And, of course, you have to feed the animals every day.” Last year, her efforts were rewarded when she received two first-place ribbons, including a Best of Breed, during the 4-H Goat Show.

“Hannah was so excited that she won,” says her mother, Jennifer, 43, who used to show animals at the fair when she was a young girl.

The fair is a long-standing tradition in Topsfield (pop. 6,141). Hosted by the Essex (County) Agricultural Society—the same organization that established the first event 188 years ago—the fair has been held every year, with the exception of interruptions during the Civil War and World War II. As recently as the 1950s, Essex County was filled with family farms, particularly dairy farms, according to O’Brien.

“In the beginning, the fair was an educational tool for local farmers to exchange ideas,” says O’Brien, 51, who first attended the fair as a little boy. In recent decades, however, the number of Essex farms has decreased, and the fair has expanded its mission. “Now, we want to educate the public about local agriculture,” he says. In particular, the agricultural society is encouraging families and schools to bring children to the fair.

Elizabeth Rogers, a science teacher at Nathaniel Bowditch Elementary School in Salem, Mass. (pop. 40,407), has taken her third-grade class to the fair the last two years. “It turned out to be such an excellent trip that I took another class back the following year,” says Rogers, 41. “The students love all the animal exhibits, especially the baby animals.”

She says that the fair allows her students to see first-hand things they’ve discussed in class. “In second grade, we study insects, so I have all the students visit the beekeepers’ building,” she says. “This experience makes it all real for them.”

In addition to buzzing insects and fascinating farm animals, the fair also features other eye-opening events, such as the New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Last year’s winner, Joe Jutras, 53, of Scituate, R.I. (pop. 10,324), set a world record with his 1,689-pound pumpkin. Jutras, who has competed at the Topsfield Fair for a decade, says he knew he had a special pumpkin and that there was only place to take it. “Topsfield is where all the growers go to showcase their pumpkins,” says Jutras, whose prized pumpkin was displayed throughout the 10-day fair. “You work hard all summer tending to your pumpkin, pruning, watering and spraying. You want to have as many people see it as you can.”

O’Brien hopes that giant pumpkins, farm animals and other attractions will educate and entertain visitors for generations to come.

“As more and more people have less exposure to farming life,” he says, “this fair becomes even more important for maintaining a tie with the public and local farms.”