In 1935, the Cheshire County Farm Bureau staged its first Agricultural Field Day. The morning included a baseball game — it was, after all, the national pastime — and horse and oxen pulls. The August afternoon consisted of speeches by representatives of the state Farm Bureau, UNH and the Department of Education. Somehow, the event was still a success, with local stores exhibiting their wares and attendees eagerly offering suggestions for future such events. If the weather were as seasonably warm as this week’s we’d guess a few of the suggestions had to do with not staging so many speeches throughout the afternoon.
The next year it expanded to two days, included a speech — delivered by radio in the rain — by the governor, and had moved to Safford Park in North Swanzey — what’s since become known as the Cheshire Fairgrounds. The following year, it again grew by a day, having added agricultural and forestry exhibits.
By 1938, the event had been renamed the Cheshire Fair, with support from the local grange, businesses, farmers’ organizations and others.
By 1939, it was one of seven such events garnering state funding and was actively advertising its midway, shows, contests and exhibits. That year’s three-day schedule included coonhound run trials, horse races, auto races, vaudeville acts, fireworks and “a girl BURIED ALIVE!” We trust it was just an act.
That was 80 years ago, and what had started as a simple day celebrating local agriculture had already morphed into an entertainment spectacular. Along the way, it’s changed with the times. Major country music acts, midway peep shows, artery-clogging food and nausea-inducing rides have had their turns as the main draws. The demolition derby, tractor pulls, magic acts and rodeos have become mainstays. The fair had grown to a six-day affair by the turn of the century, then shrunk back to the four-day event it is now.
But through the years, flora and fauna have remained the heart of the fair: The various baking, canning, floral and vegetable contests; the horse, sheep, pig and cow exhibits; 4-H ribbons and more. There are a few agricultural events big enough to fill the arena grandstands — tractor pulls, the pig scramble, trick riding, rodeo and oxen pulls, but in recent years, the crowds have thinned in the exhibit barns.
That agriculture is not as big a part of the region as it once was is no secret. Though there are some fresh faces looking to change that dynamic, lots of farms have closed in recent decades, their land sold off for development. The 4-H and FFA — formerly Future Farmers of America — programs that fostered an interest in agriculture among youngsters still have a core audience, but aren’t as popular as they once were. And as for entertainment, while the fair was once the highlight event of the summer months, it now competes with not only myriad destinations and events, but also home entertainment and online options. Kids and families just aren’t as much in need of a break in routine as they once were.
There is still an interest in the Cheshire Fair. It remains a draw to many in the region and beyond. In recent years, we’ve talked to attendees from across the country.
Three years ago, Steve Taylor, a lifelong farmer and longtime state agriculture commissioner, gave a talk in Walpole on the history of state and county fairs. He noted the rising costs of putting on a fair, including insurance and facilities upkeep, have all of them in a financial bind. They are, seemingly, always on the precipice.
Yet they endure. And Thursday, when the 81st annual Cheshire Fair opens its doors, thousands will again flock to the fairgrounds, seeking both the new and unusual, and the old and familiar. It carries with it the region’s history as well as its present.