All’s fair in Topsfield for 200th anniversary

In 1818, the Essex County Agricultural Society was formed “to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County.”

The founders probably never imagined that two centuries later, 450,000 visitors from around the world would flock to Topsfield to revel in agriculture and enjoy food, exhibits, and entertainment from ‘60s rock icon Chubby Checker to the Axe Women Loggers of Maine.

The Topsfield Fair — which bills itself as America’s oldest — is celebrating 200 years of agricultural and family traditions from Sept. 28 through Oct. 8.

The first fair, the one-day Essex Agricultural Cattle Show, was held in Topsfield in 1820. The town was chosen because it was a central point for stagecoach travel in the county. The Fair, as it became known, moved to its current 124-acre site in 1910.

In an age of video games and smartphones, the Topsfield Fair remains a big family draw as parents who grew up on its fried dough and bacon on a stick want to share the experience with their children. For the Essex County Agricultural Society, striking a balance of agricultural education and family-friendly entertainment is key.

“My dad loved going to the fair and would always take us kids,” said Nancy McCarthy of Salem, the fair’s 4-H liaison. Active with the fair for 32 years, McCarthy works with nearly 100 4-H kids from across the state who will exhibit animals, horticulture, and crafts at the fairgrounds this year.

“The Topsfield Fair is great because it is still about agriculture,” she said. “As kids we went on the rides, but we also toured the barns. Today you still can buy fresh vegetables from a local farmer, pat the rabbits, and there is a farm that always bring a new litter of pigs for the kids to see.”

That farm with the piglets is Colby Farm in Newbury, and it belongs to Lisa and Bill Colby, who are longtime fair volunteers. “I love pigs,” said Lisa, the current president of the Essex County Agricultural Society. “We do plan ahead so that we usually have a litter born at the fair every year.”

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