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Fair Season: Crops, Livestock, and Entertainment

Catalog of Maine State Fair, Portland, 1856
Catalog of Maine State Fair, Portland, 1856Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Fryeburg Historical Society, Maine Historical Society, Nylander Museum, Pejepscot Historical Society and Waterford Historical Society

North Waterford World's Fair, 1906
North Waterford World's Fair, 1906Item Contributed by
Waterford Historical Society

North Waterford holds its "World's Fair" every July, with the notation, "This annual event may be the world's smallest world's fair."

Skowhegan and Bangor both hold "state" fairs, probably holdover titles from the days when a state fair rotated among communities. Skowhegan calls its annual August event, which began in 1818, "the nation's oldest continuously run agricultural fair." Bangor's fair, held at the beginning of August, is "the largest state fair held in Maine."

Fryeburg's Fair, which began in 1851 and is held in October, is "Maine's Blue Ribbon Classic" and the state's "largest agricultural event."

Holstein and Ayrshire bulls, Caribou Fair, ca 1922
Holstein and Ayrshire bulls, Caribou Fair, ca 1922Item Contributed by
Nylander Museum

Agricultural fairs began in Maine in the early 19th century, held to promote new techniques, better farming methods and thus better crops and livestock. Most early fairs featured shows of cattle and crops, with premiums paid for the best of each. Fairs stressed education and a speaker usually delivered a lecture.

West Oxford Agricultural Society fair, ca. 1880
West Oxford Agricultural Society fair, ca. 1880Item Contributed by
Fryeburg Historical Society

County agricultural societies sponsored most of the fairs. The Maine State Agricultural Society, a revival of an earlier such group, was incorporated in 1855 and sponsored a state fair that rotated to different communities, until settling in Lewiston in 1881.

Farm machinery, fruits, vegetables, canning, baking, sewing, plowing matches, pulling matches and other events were common activities at fairs.

After the Civil War, harness racing became popular at fairs, as Maine encouraged farmers to raise trotting horses. Sideshows, carnival games, and entertainment also arrived in the later 19th century. Carnival rides became popular in the 20th century, following Ferris' triumph at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

Exhibition Hall, Topsham Fair, ca. 1890
Exhibition Hall, Topsham Fair, ca. 1890Item Contributed by
Pejepscot History Center

"Gradually," historian Clarence A. Day wrote, "the public proved that it preferred to be amused rather than educated. Long before 1900 the fairs had lost much of their educational value."

Although the educational aspect became less direct, fairs continued to serve as community gathering points and introductions to new technologies and new agricultural techniques.

Maine still boasts more than 25 agricultural fairs that offer adult and youth agricultural events and exhibit halls, along with the midways, food, and entertainment.