A Fair to remember

County Fairs used to celebrate the end of summer

now, they often signal the end of a way of life.

September 08, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. - This year at the Three County Fair, one commercial apple grower came away with a slew of blue ribbons because his Northern Spies, Macoun and Cortlands had no competition. Grannie's Racing Pigs, a traveling novelty show, drew dozens of spectators while the home-grown livestock contests played to a few farm families and friends. Scores of fairgoers only used the Farm Museum, where artifacts such as a sauerkraut masher, lard press and antique tractor were displayed, as a route to the Ferris wheel and other midway attractions.

At least Zippy Chippy didn't disappoint. During a sudden downpour at the fairgrounds, the hapless gelding extended his record losing streak to 99 races.

The Three County Fair, which opened in 1818 with the formation of the Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden Agricultural Society, is said to be the country's oldest county fair held without interruption. Once, the fair was a 10-day spectacle where hundreds of farm families came to exchange knowledge, boost livestock blood lines and compete for premiums in categories ranging from the best bread and butter pickles to the best udders.

Today, the Three County Fair, down to just five days, has the raggedy feel of a tradition past its prime.

Like other county fairs across the country, it perseveres even as the small family farms that were its backbone are eclipsed by agribusiness. Cuts in state funding and increased competition from other forms of entertainment also have taken a toll on county fairs over the years. Some manage to stay healthy; some are limping along. Some stick to their agricultural origins; others ramp up the pop culture quotient. As a whole, their fate is as uncertain as the outcome of one of Grannie's pig races.

In the past, the Three County Fair, located about 100 miles west of Boston, "was the showplace to go for the best" breeds, says Joyce West, superintendent of the fair's cattle show.

"It hasn't changed in that sense. What's changed [is] there's very few of us here," says West, who lives on a working dairy farm, but makes ends meet as a dental assistant.

Need to adapt

Even a promising uptick in attendance from 27,000 in 2003 to 38,000 at this year's fair and the concurrent horse races didn't rid the fairgrounds of its desultory air. During the sparsely attended event over Labor Day weekend, though, vestiges of the fair's former vitality emerged in picturesque and timeless tableaus: the little boy clutching his pet bunny during the youth rabbit show, the stately yet freakish giant sunflower presiding over lesser blooms in an exhibit hall, the teenage girls giving their sheep and cattle a loving brush before a show.

In an age when gene splicing and other agricultural breakthroughs occur in labs and canning the season's produce is no longer routine, the Three County Fair has struggled to survive, even as it gradually relinquishes its original purpose.

"Fairs are going to have to adapt; they have to maintain some relevancy to what's going on in the community," says Arthur Troyer, who as executive director of the nonprofit corporation that runs the Santa Clara County fair in Silicon Valley, Calif., wrestles with his own event's relevance in a region where farming has virtually disappeared. And yet, Troyer asks, "If you don't have a strong agricultural base ... if you get too far from that, what's the point?"

As farmland gives way to subdivisions and edge cities, the mission of many county fairs has changed. While studying county fairs in suburban Los Angeles, University of North Florida sociologist Krista E. Paulsen found that they were no longer geared primarily to farmers as they once were. Today, the purpose is "to teach the urban population what agriculture is all about. Not to teach them how to do it, but remind them that it exists as part of their economy and part of their cultural heritage."

Debra Carson, a resident of suburban Connecticut, came to the Three County Fair with her husband and young daughter for that very reason. The daughter of parents who grew up in Georgia, Carson, 46, wanted to expose her child to that "country world attitude that I grew up with in folklore and talk."

Yet, even at the fair, the slow-paced country feeling is outgunned by newer attractions - clattering kiddy rides, BMX bike shows and endless performances by the Russian American Kids Circus. The number of actual farm families at the core of the Three County Fair has dwindled to a scant half dozen, says Sharon Parsons, who lives on a farm in nearby Hadley, where her family grows corn, hay, hogs and sheep. "Our family tends to think of it as `our fair,'" she says.

Agricultural roots

Most of those families, including the Parsons, have been involved in the fair for generations. Her husband, Earle M. Parsons, is a past president of the fair, as was his great-grandfather. Sharon Parsons, 50, is superintendent of the youth sheep show, a task inherited from her grandmother.

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