Fear and Loathing at One of America's Oldest Agricultural Fairs
All photos by the author.

Fear and Loathing at One of America's Oldest Agricultural Fairs

Agricultural fairs once allowed farmers to engage in the fruitful exchange of information and innovation. Now they're just an excuse to gorge on fried dough and overpay for worthless crap.
October 28, 2016, 6:00pm

For several years of my youth—say, from five to 12, those salad days when finances weren't yet a concern and $9 didn't seem an unreasonable price to pay for a hot dog, and, "Oh, by the way, I'd really like a $13 bucket of French fries, please, Mom"—attending Massaschusetts' Topsfield Fair in early autumn was my favorite thing to do. The pot belly pig races made me laugh; the square slice slung by "Famous Boston Garden Pizza" made my mouth water; the chance to win ten pounds of nonpareils and malted milk balls from Dan the Candy Man—whose game involved throwing a dart at a grid of numbers—scratched an early itch for gambling. The Topsfield Fair was my Arcadia.

The first annual Topsfield Fair was organized by the Essex Agricultural Society and was held in October of 1818. According to its charter, the fair was intended to "promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex county."

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All photos by the author.

Timothy Pickering, who'd served as secretary of state under George Washington and John Adams, and who was born and later died in Salem, Massachusetts, was the Essex Agricultural Society's first president and the fair's first organizer. Call it an inside job, but at the inaugural fair, Pickering was awarded first prize for having the best plough in Essex county. Not bad for a guy who sympathized with his British oppressors and who criticized Adams for wanting to make peace with the French. Washington's face wound up on Mount Rushmore; Adams got an HBO miniseries; Pickering won an award for having a superior plough.

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Things at the Topsfield fair are a bit different now. Sure, there are vestiges of its original mission—poultry people can gather in the poultry barn and talk about whatever it is poultry people talk about in poultry barns with other poultry people; cattle and dairy people can gather with other cattle and dairy people and discuss the most humane ways to rear and then slaughter their male populations (divorce yourself of the notion that most of these baby male cows are being fed off of mother's milk before having their throats slashed—before they're plated up as $27 veal cutlets—which is the only way to humanely "deal with" baby male cows); pig people can gather with other pig people in the pig tents to chat cheap pig feed and the mathematics of squeezing their massive pig populations into pig pens that should definitely house fewer pigs than they're housing in their undersized pig pens.

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While the fair retains some of its agricultural innovation roots, it's mostly all Italian sausage carts (there are, like, 17 in total) and haphazardly assembled amusement park rides and insincere carnies hawking false hopes of 60-pound stuffed Tasmanian Devils. Timothy Pickering would be appalled.

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Do you want to spend $43 on a bedazzled hat that says "Ross" across the crown? Do you want your four-year-old daughter to wait in line for 83 minutes to have a bad artist paint a poorly rendered lion on her face? Do you want to watch a bunch of Massachusetts state police officers trot their perfectly groomed German shepherds around a circle of grass as though they're performing in the fucking Westminster Kennel Club dog show before using those perfectly groomed German shepherds to sniff out small amounts of drugs in the trunk of your car?

Go to the Topsfield Fair.

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The Topsfield Fair is terrible in the ways I'm sure most county fairs are terrible, and I'm convinced the only reason anyone attends their county's fair is to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. We go for what we remember, not for what they are. Nostalgia is why I keep going back to Topsfield, and the carnies, cheaply made leather goods, and overpriced fried dough are why I always leave disappointed.

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This disillusionment meant that, up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't been to the Topsfield Fair since 2008. I only decided to go this year because my friends asked if I'd like to go with them and their four-year-old daughter (she didn't wait in line for 83 minutes to get her face painted, thank Christ). I hoped seeing the look of excitement on the child's face as she rode an elephant or whipped around a carousel atop a plaster unicorn might stir something in me, make me remember what it was I once found so alluring about the whole affair.

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Instead I was just reminded that "Famous Boston Garden Pizza" tastes like day-old Ellio's, and the German fries—which are just French fries cut like thick potato chips instead of wedges or matchsticks, and which I used to love as a kid—are soggy and flaccid and served in disposable dog bowls. In fact, a lot of things at the Topsfield Fair are apparently now served in disposable dog bowls. Picture that—a bunch of overweight New Englanders wearing New England Patriots gear or faux-leather NASCAR jackets sucking fried potatoes and Italian sausages out of disposable dog bowls.

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Oh, and I was informed that Dan the Candy Man is dead, so I didn't even get to throw a dart at a grid of numbers in the hopes of winning 8,000 malted milk balls.

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Agricultural fairs once functioned as a way to gather a region's farmers so they could engage in the fruitful exchange of information and innovation. These fairs were predicated on optimism and the betterment of society. But over the years they've mutated—I'm sure Topsfield is no outlier—into vulgar bazaars where people might spend $20 for the chance to shoot ten basketballs at a hoop that's been bent so that no basketball can possibly fall through its net, or where one might spend $13 for the opportunity to eat cheap meat out of a dog bowl.

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Look on the bright side, though: If you paid an extra $25 this year, you got to see KC and the Sunshine Band perform in a barn designed for tractor pulls. Timothy Pickering would be proud as hell.