Fair Games

The sun is a-rising
To welcome the day.
Come to the fair!

In “The History of the 124th Rochester Fair,” Violet Horne Dwyer and Florence Horne Smith give a fine account of the early days of the fair (when a luminary no less shining than the South Berwick, Maine, writer Sarah Orne Jewett was a visitor).

According to Dwyer and Smith, on October 7 and 8, 1874, the first Rochester Fair attracted several hundred people. “At the turn of the century, the Fair began with a … parade [which] featured floats entered by organizations, businesses and neighboring towns, and drawn by horses and oxen … and lavishly decorated with native fruits, vegetables and seasonal flowers.” In those early days, school closed for the week and special trains from “every direction” brought fairgoers to Rochester. In 1905, the fair ran for four days and Rochester, then a town of 1,900 residents, played host to 30,000 people.

The first Rochester Fairs offered humble pleasures: livestock exhibits, arts, needlework, some food and simple contests. There were “baby shows, kite contests, plowing contests, baseball games … tugs of war made up of shop and mill employees.” There were more spectacular features as well. In 1898, W.H. Barnes of Sioux City, Iowa, brought his two diving elk that jumped from a 40-foot platform into a tank of water 12 feet deep. The Wright Brother’s “flying machine” set down in center field in 1910 for a few days. In the same year there was also an automobile exhibit. From the late 1800s to the 1930s, hot air balloons and parachute jumps had people all over Rochester gazing skyward. And in the ’20s and ’30s, “five or six barnstormers would dog fight above the fairgrounds and then land on the racetrack’s infield to take passengers for a ride, at $5 per ride.”

In the ’20s and ’30s, “freak shows” were a feature of the fair: “Lobster Man displayed his deformed hands … sword swallowers, fire-breathers, two-headed calves, a six-footed horse.” When the “girlie shows and tattoo tents made the midway too raucous, the Fair [authorities] removed them in the ’80s.” Over the years, there have been vaudeville acts, chorus lines and the Miss Rochester Fair contest; celebrities such as Pat Boone, the Coasters, Tiny Tim and Kitty Wells have entertained the crowds.

Today’s fair has something for everyone. There are the agricultural barns, all manner of 4-H livestock contests, a 4-H baking contest, arts and crafts exhibits (photography, painting, quilts, woodworking), giant pumpkin and best-produce contests, tractor and oxen pulls, harness racing and wrestling. At the 2005 fair, Gary the Silent Clown delighted the kids, the kiddie tractor pull and the children’s pig scramble tickled everyone, and Random Play (“Blues, Rock, Funk … Damn!!!”) and other groups offered musical entertainment for all tastes.

At every Rochester Fair there are kiddie rides, a funhouse of mirrors, a ferris wheel and a roller coaster. For high-spirited teens, who pour into the fair after school lets out, there is Freakout, a wildly popular ride which swings thrill-seekers into the air, turning and twisting and dropping. Younger kids get thrills aplenty, bouncing in bungee-jump harnesses.

No midway at any New Hampshire fair outdoes the midway at the Rochester Fair. Last year there was a stall selling colorful Bolivian clothes. In another booth, Larry Tibbetts, a woodcrafter from Hudson, demonstrated his scroll saw art. There were Charles and Peta Byrne from The Wool Shed in Loudon, selling their toasty hand-knit mittens, scarves, afghans and sweaters. While there is no longer a plethora of “freak” shows (drat!), the 2005 fair boasted the “world’s smallest horse” and Mrs. Helen’s Temple of Knowledge, where you could get “advice on all affairs.” And there was a tiny blue and white house where, if you paid your dollar and walked around to the back, you could see and chat with “The World’s Tiniest Woman — only 29 inches small.”

Perhaps best of all is the glut of food stalls along the midway, where it is impossible to resist the mingled, mouth-watering perfumes of fried dough, onion rings, hot dogs and hamburgers, cotton candy and candied apples, popcorn, pizza and sausages slathered with fried peppers and onions. And how to resist lobster rolls, steaming cups of lobster stew and soft-serve ice cream with a choice of a score of toppings? Many Rochester Fair fans happily admit that the main reason they go to the fair is to pig out on the food, and throughout the day, they drift from stall to stall, stuffing themselves on all the tasty things they know they “shouldn’t” eat.

Last year 125,000 people attended the Rochester Fair. This year it runs from September 15-24 and promises to be all that the previous fairs were — and then some.

So lock up your house,
There’ll be plenty of fun,
And it’s heigh-ho!
Come to the fair!

Rochester Fair, September 15-24
(603) 332-6585, www.rochesterfair.com

Lancaster Fair, August 30-September 4
Agriculture activities, a large midway, 4-H exhibits, diverse musical entertainment and motorized competitions. Located on Route 3, one mile north of the junction of Route 2 and Route 3, Lancaster. (603) 788-4531, www.lancasterfair.com.

Hopkinton State Fair
August 30-September 4
Exhibitors, horse and ox pulling, tractor pulling, demolition derby, midway and much more. The Hopkinton State Fair is located west of Concord in Contoocook. From I-89, take Exit 7. (603) 746-4191, www.hsfair.org.

Hillsborough County
Agricultural Fair, September 8-10
Located in New Boston, this fair is in its 49th year. There will be horse and tractor pulls, a giant pumpkin weigh-off, 4-H shows, a horseshoe pitching contest, amusement rides, square dancing, fireworks and lots more. Located on Route 13 in New Boston. (603) 487-3837, www2.new-boston.nh.us.

Deerfield Fair,
September 28-October 1
Annual horse show, first-ever demolition derby and entertainers galore. One of this year’s highlights includes a visit and competition by The National Anthem Project. Located on Route 43 in Deerfield. (603) 463-7421, www.deerfieldfair.org.

Sandwich Fair, October 7-9
Parade, pig-calling contest, a hand-milking demonstration, arts and crafts, a farmers market, 4-H shows, live music, rides, clowns and a magic show. The fairgrounds are located in Center Sandwich. Follow Squam Lake Road (called Bean Road in Center Harbor) through Center Sandwich and directly to the Fairgrounds. Routes 113 and 109 will also take you into Center Sandwich. (603) 284-7062, www.thesandwichfair.com.