NORTH SWANZEY — The Cheshire Fair is returning to its roots.
The annual celebration of agriculture — which has grown over the decades to include rides, games and entertainment such as live music and a demolition derby — would have marked its 82nd edition this year. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hampered plans for the fair, organizers decided instead to host the first-ever Cheshire Ag Days, a scaled-back event more focused on farming that is set to run Friday through Sunday.
“We went with Cheshire Ag Days because we waited to the last possible minute before we decided to cancel the regular fair,” said John Kenney of Alstead, president of the Cheshire Fair board of directors.
Planning for the fair — which was canceled last year due to the pandemic — began in January, Kenney added. But by April, when the Cheshire Fair Association announced plans for Ag Days, COVID-19 restrictions were still in place that would have limited the scale of the event, held at the fairgrounds on Monadnock Highway (Route 12) in North Swanzey.
“So, in order to put on a full-blown fair with everything, we just didn’t have the time to do it,” he said. “So we did pull together a lot of the favorites that people like and associate with the agricultural part of the fair for this event.”
Some of these standard features include horse and ox pulls, animal shows, and truck and tractor pulls, Kenney said. Ag Days will also have some kid-specific activities such as a cupcake-eating contest, grilled cheese competition and a pedal-powered tractor pull. However, the event will not include carnival rides and other amusement stalls, known as the midway.
“We are trying to focus on kids, family, go back to our roots — agriculture,” Kenney said, adding that the contracts for midway rides and games needed to be signed before fair organizers knew what the public health situation would be for the early-August festivities. Masks will not be mandatory at the outdoor event, Kenney said, but fair organizers will follow enhanced cleaning protocols, and hand sanitizer will be available throughout the fairgrounds.
Without the midway, Kenney said food offerings will be scaled back a bit, but Ag Days will still offer plenty of favorites.
“So you can expect the same fair food,” he said. “… We have fried dough, French fries, sausage stands, hamburgers, hotdogs. We also have our beer tent, too, for adults.”
He added that the fair association is not charging a vendor fee this year in an effort to encourage concessionaires and other merchants to set up at Ag Days.
“For any local vendor that wants to come in and set up, the space is free, and it’s kind of our hope that we’re going to get new people to the grounds and also help businesses that were struggling just by giving them a little more retail space out there,” he said. “... We want to try to help the community and be there for the community.”
For the new event, Kenney said it’s hard to predict attendance. In 2019, the Cheshire Fair drew a crowd of 28,000 people over four days.
“We have hopes and dreams,” Kenney said. “But Saturday, we’re expecting it to be our big day, similar to a regular Saturday at the fair, because we are having the truck pull, which is one of our bigger events that we have during the regular fair. So we expect to have pretty decent attendance.”
And while the human turnout for Ag Days is still up in the air, Kenney said the number of animals on the grounds will be on par with a normal fair. There may even be more horses and oxen than usual.
“We ran a couple horse and ox pulls last year during COVID, and because nothing else was happening, it got new people coming to our grounds, and they enjoyed it, and they appreciated us being able to help out the horse- and ox-pulling community,” Kenney said. “So I think we gained some following that way.”
And since Ag Days runs for three days, compared to the Cheshire Fair’s usual four, Kenney said there also may be more animals present at the same time.
“One thing that people might notice is that all the animals are here at once, because typically animals come in for two days and then they swap out,” he said.
And while Kenney said the Cheshire Fair plans to return in 2022 “bigger and better,” he said Ag Days could present an opportunity for a new tradition more focused on the county’s agricultural heritage.
“We want to see how this goes,” he said. “We’re going to see what everyone says about it. It’s kind of a trial, in some sense. Like, if it’s a huge hit and people love it, then this might be our new chance to draw ideas from. We’re always looking to see what people think.”
Cheshire Ag Days begin Friday at 8 a.m. at the fairgrounds at 247 Monadnock Highway in North Swanzey. The last event of the day begins at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the celebration starts at 8:30 a.m., with the final event, an ox pull, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, members of the military and children ages 5 to 12. Kids four and under get in free, according to the fair website. There is no charge for parking. More details and a full schedule of events are available at www.cheshirefair.org.