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Fryeburg Fair was born in 1851 at Sam Stickney's Inn in Brownfield

Maine's 2010 Blue Ribbon Classic runs Oct. 3 through 10

The Fryeburg Fair has grown considerably since its founding in 1851, and harness racing has been one of its most popular attractions almost since its beginning. Photo Courtesy Fryeburg Fair. (click for larger version)
September 30, 2010
The men in Brownfield had their own agenda, which would also require legislative action. March 27 was likely a chilly day, the kind of early spring day in rural New England that can change from warm to cold in minutes, depending on the speed of the clouds passing overhead. Too soon for planting on the broad intervales of the Saco River, the group of businessmen had time on their hands to sow the seeds for something that would continue to grow long, long, after they gave up this mortal coil. They were there to discuss forming an agricultural society.

At that meeting Peleg Wadsworth of Hiram was elected president, and Samuel E. Merrill secretary. A committee of three was chosen to come up with a list of names of likely society members from the towns of Hiram, Brownfield and Fryeburg. According to the book "Fryeburg Fair First 150 Years 1851-2000," produced by the Fryeburg Fair Book Committee in 2000, the committee came up with 173 names.

The men quickly went to work to make their organization official. The new trustees applied for an Act of Incorporation from the Maine Legislature, which was granted a day after the governor signed the temperance law. On June 3, 1851, the West Oxford Agricultural Society became a reality, with the group of Wadsworth, Samuel Stickney, E.L. Osgood, John W. Dana, H.D.E. Hutchins, D.R. Hastings, James Walker and their associates incorporated as the West Oxford Agricultural Society, established for the towns of Hiram, Porter, Brownfield, Denmark, Lovell, Stow, Sweden, Waterford, Stoneham and Fryeburg.

"The object of the Society shall be the improvement of the Agricultural and Horticulture, practical and scientific, and also of the Mechanical Arts," reads Article 2 of the Society's constitution and bylaws, written in 1851.

In fall of that year, Wadsworth called a meeting, the first under the Society's recently state approved charter, and on Oct. 23 in Hiram the very first cattle show, exhibition and fair in West Oxford County was held. The fair was at the very core of the Society's mission, addressed in Article 19: "A Cattle Show, Exhibition and Fair shall be held at such a time and place, and under such regulations, as the Trustees shall order."

THE SOCIETY'S QUICK success was no doubt due to the template the trustees had to follow. Fellow New Englander Elkanah Watson organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society and created an event, then known as a Cattle Show, in 1811 in Pittsfield, Mass. Watson was a Johnny Appleseed of sorts, spreading the gospel of agricultural societies and fairs and being so successful at it that by 1819 most counties in New England had societies, which were putting on fairs.

From the very beginning, the events offered the appeal of being a competition, with the best example of cattle, sheep, swine and oxen winning prizes that came with money attached. The fairs brought together far-flung neighbors who could enjoy the catching up with others involved in similar farm and home occupations. Farmers could pick up ideas on how to improve their crops and livestock, the ladies could admire the best handiwork in wool and linens. That they all could enter the products of their best efforts, whether a crocheted afghan or a highly productive cow, was an added bonus.

That first year the Fair was only a day-long event. Wadsworth was a successful competitor at the fair that year. He won the plowing competition by plowing an eighth of an acre in 22 minutes.

By the second year it had grown to two days, and after a decade it went to three days, staying that long until after World War II, when it grew to four days. Each decade following 1945 the Fair added a day, reaching its present eight-day length in 1978.

It took awhile, in those early days, for the Society to find a home for the fair. The event was held at the South Meeting House in Fryeburg in 1852. In 1853 it found a place at the Methodist Church in Lovell. In 1854 it was held at a schoolhouse in Denmark, the next year at the Methodist Church in Porter. In its sixth year the fair was located near the Congregational Church in Brownfield.

By 1857, after the fair was held at the Fryeburg Vestry, Society trustees decided to get serious about finding a permanent place for the fall event. Starting out with the purchase of a lot near what is now Fair Street in Fryeburg, the Society was now able to put up buildings and improve the grounds. And improve the grounds they did. By 1860 the Society had a 36- by 40-foot exhibition building that was two stories high, and a market building that was 240 feet long, which included four eating saloons and space for merchandise sales. There were stock pens and a trotting course, too. Farmers bragging that they had the fastest horse were given the opportunity to prove it.

Fair attendance was boosted by the coming of the railroad to Fryeburg in 1871, bringing those from more populated areas out to the country for a day or two of leisure activities and fair fun.

After nearly three decades of success at that location, the Society purchased 25 acres for $133 at its present location. Subsequent land purchases allowed the Fair to grow to what it is today, to almost 100 buildings on the 185 acres. Some of that land is reserved for parking lots for the automobiles, a land use which Peleg Wadsworth and his colleagues, as forward looking as they were, didn't foresee. In 1924 the drivers of 2,000 cars paid $.50 each to park during the three-day fair. Overall attendance grew to almost 7,000. In 1945 the fair was expanded to four days, a move which had been delayed due to the war.

BY 2009, OVER $335,000 was given out in awards. Among the livestock on exhibit or competing for ribbons were more than 600 dairy and beef cattle, 500 sheep, 233 goats, 92 swine, 175 horses and ponies, not to mention the 313 poultry, 245 rabbits, 302 pairs of oxen, steer and pulling cattle, and 113 pulling horses.

When the 160th Fryeburg Fair opens this Sunday, Oct. 3, farmers, gardeners, craftspeople, cooks, 4-Hers, and others will show off the results of their industriousness, whether in competition for the best pig, tastiest dried bean recipe, grandest beef cattle, or strongest draft horse team. The more than 300,000 expected fair attendees and participants can look at exhibits that stretch back to the very beginning of agriculture in the state of Maine, taking in displays of antique farming implements at the Farm Museum, while checking out the latest in alternative energy technologies along Energy Row.

Some exhibitions and shows that were a part of the show are gone now. It's been awhile since the girly shows were welcomed, and Miss Electra no longer entertains the audience by sitting on a copper-plated chair and lighting bulbs as The Human Dynamo. The Human Blockhead no longer amazes the curious by pounding five-inch nails into his head. But the smell of home-cooked food still wafts through the air, the fancy roasters in the Poultry Barn still strut their stuff, and little children still look, bug-eyed, up at the massive draft horses.

Though the Fryeburg Fair, Maine's Blue Ribbon Classic, has grown considerably over the years, it remains a celebration of all that is good about rural life, a chance to catch up on the latest in farm and home goods while eating traditional fair food. Walking around and bumping unexpectedly into your friends and neighbors remains a draw, too, as almost everyone from Oxford County, Maine, and Carroll County, N.H., will spend a day or two at the fair.

Some of the surnames of the trustees, staff and volunteers who have diligently taken care of the details of running a successful state fair haven't changed much over the years. Hastings, Eastman, Andrews, Hussey, Weston…. not all were represented that cool March day in 1851, but those with those surnames and others stretch back through the generations of Fair Trustees, officers, livestock superintendent and others. It takes a lot to run the largest fair in Maine, second only in New England to the Eastern States Exposition.

The fair opens on Sunday, Oct. 3, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 10. Admission is $10 a day. Children under 12 are admitted free of charge. On Tuesday, seniors 65 and older get in for free. Parking at the fairgrounds is $5 and gates open at 7 a.m. Building hours run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. A complete listing of events, performances, demonstrations, exhibitions and more can be found at www.fryeburgfair.com.

Martin Lord & Osman
Martin Lord Osman
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