by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Late summer and early fall is Agricultural Fair season in New Hampshire, but the fair I looked forward to attending as a child and teenager and is imbedded in my memory is no longer on the list. It is no more and is relegated to the realm of history; however, it is worth remembering.
That is the Plymouth State Fair which had graduated from being the Union Grange Fair. This at one time popular fair, which was advertised as being the oldest one in New Hampshire, was held in late August or September and was a major event in central New Hampshire.
My family’s preparation for the fair began a day or two before the actual several days of the event because we exhibited vegetables and other items involved with our 4-H Club and Grange projects. The exhibits were judged and the exhibitors were awarded ribbons and premiums (money) corresponding with the grade received with the goal of receiving a grade A and a blue ribbon. Our vegetable offerings had to be harvested and examined in an effort to present the best we produced. So the first stop at the Fair was the day before opening day to deliver the items to be judged. The first stop at the Fair once it began, though often a quick one, was to find out what color ribbons had been placed on our exhibits.
It appears that the first fair held in Plymouth was in 1820 under the sponsorship of The Grafton County Agricultural Society which was incorporated in 1818. Fairs were not held at the same location every year. The 1858 Fair, held in Plymouth was labeled the 11th Annual Fair by the Society, and the 1859 and 1860 fairs were held in Littleton. Annual observances didn’t begin until 1871 when the Society purchased land that came to be known as “The Fairgrounds.” The Plymouth Fair Association conducted the fair each year from 1896 to 1902 when the Association was dissolved. Apparently the Grange had control of the fair in the first half of the 1900’s with the Union Grange Fair Association being organized around 1910 and taking legal possession of the land and buildings in 1927. Under the ownership of the Grange Association (at least during some of their ownership) stock shares were limited to “duly organized Granges”. The Association ran the fair until 1955 when the property was transferred to the newly incorporated organization called The State Fair, Plymouth, New Hampshire.
Agricultural fairs, as the name indicates, were intended to promote and improve the quality and quantity of farm products in the areas where they were held. Farmers and those involved in producing products derived from agriculture were given the opportunity to learn from one another as well as displaying their goods. Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, swine and poultry were displayed and judged, giving incentive for farmers to strive for excellence in what they produced, and allowing the non-farmer the opportunity to learn some about what goes on at the farm.
That was one aspect of the Plymouth State Fair. Competition was prevalent at the fair including horse and oxen pulling contests.
The 1938 Plymouth Fair was arranged by the Union Grange Fair Association and ran for three days, September 13,14, and 15, all week days, though afternoon and evening events were scheduled for the previous Sunday. Lester E. Mitchell of Plymouth was the General Superintendent. Tuesday was “Farmers and Homemakers Day, promoted as the best day to see the exhibits; Wednesday was “Governor’s Day” (the day to meet all your old friends), and Thursday was “Grange Day” (The Day for a Good Time). A fair was meant to be fun, and the 1938 fair featured McClure’s Student Band of Monroe, New Hampshire, Herbert Robies trained steers, and five vaudeville acts supplied by a New York company. The acts included Dainty Ann Howe, an aerialist who “dangles by her teeth in mid-air”, a bicycle act, a comedy bouncing bed act promising to create “screams of laughter”, and Merle’s Cockatoos claimed to “ show real human intelligence”. The 1938 admission price was 50 cents on Tuesday and Thursday and 75 cents on Wednesday with children under twelve admitted free.
My experiences at the fair took place before and after it became the State Fair. The midway with the Ferris Wheel ride touring above all other structures was perhaps a more popular part of the fair than the exhibits. The thrill of the various rides attracted many, though I was more interested in the games of skill with the chance to win a big prize. My skill was such that after paying a dime or so to play an enticing game I would walk away with some small trinket or nothing at all. In many ways the agricultural fairs have not changed through the years except for the modernization of everything.
Commercial exhibits were a part of the Plymouth State Fair as were exhibits and demonstrations by charitable and educational organizations. Polio was the dreaded disease of my childhood years with the March of Dimes project initiated to raise money to combat it. I have never forgotten the display at the fair one year where you could view an iron lung, a machine designed to breathe for polio victims. This iron lung was a working one with a real person lying in it, a scene that comes to my mind at times decades later.
Much more could be said of the Plymouth Fair, including the horse races and woodsmen’s contests, and a lot more. The Plymouth State Fair was an event that central New Hampshire people could attend without traveling long distances and meet their friends, some of whom were officials running the fair or exhibitors of some sort.
Other fairs have survived the changes of time, new ones have been added, but the Plymouth State Fair property was purchased (assuming a note I found is correct) by the Plymouth Area Recreation Association in 1996 and the State Fair was officially dissolved on October 16, 1998. Fairgrounds Road in Plymouth remains as a reminder of what once was, not so long ago.