GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 10, 2012

Rain drops Topsfield Fair crowds 30 percent

Alan Burke Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — TOPSFIELD — The unlucky numbers at the Topsfield Fair this year were 7 and 11.

It rained for seven of 11 days, shrinking attendance by an estimated 30 percent over last year with income likely to be off by 40 percent.

Even so, general manager James O’Brien was upbeat as the fair’s final Monday drew crowds so large it was difficult to walk down the midway.

“There are so many wonderful people who come,” he said. “Every day’s a good day.”

It was also difficult to find a discouraging word from fairgoers or staff.

“It’s been good,” said William Leavitt, who sells maple syrup harvested by his family business, Leavitt Family Maple of Sunapee, N.H. “This weekend, we’re going to end a decent fair. ... When all is said and done, we’ll be satisfied.”

Leavitt has had a booth at the fair for 10 years. He’ll take time explaining to the curious how the maple syrup is harvested and why the process is so labor-intensive. For that matter, if you think gasoline is expensive, a half-gallon container of Leavitt’s maple syrup goes for $27. He sold nearly two dozen of those this year and lots of smaller containers.

He also did a good business in cotton candy made with maple syrup for $4 a bag.

The fair was packed with a variety of attractions, from farm animals to the Ferris wheel to homemade ice cream.

When he looks out, O’Brien said, “I see mothers with strollers.” There are kids, and there are people in their 90s and everyone in between.

Even the demolition derby had a 16-year-old driver — “It’s legal,” stressed Ron Cummins of JM Productions, the organizer — as well as drivers in their 60s.

Jeff Bucknam of Lynn was a participant in the derby at the arena, having purchased a $300 car to participate. At most, he could win a trophy or a $700 prize for winning the figure-eight race, and he expects to get a few dollars from a junkyard when he sells whatever is left of his car.

But this isn’t about money, he said.

“I’ve been doing this since I was about 10,” he said. His dad did it before him.

This year’s fair also featured a world record-setting pumpkin, weighing in at more than a ton (2,009 pounds), its hefty achievement recorded in newspapers all over the globe. It was grown by Ron Wallace of Greene, R.I.

At fair’s end on Monday, the massive, yellowish gourd was encased in a protective hut with windows, viewable, untouchable and unmoved by all the attention, vegetable royalty. A succession of people came and saw and shook their heads in wonder.

Joe Hill of Boxford didn’t come to see the pumpkin specifically, but he did not want to leave without giving it a peek. His wife, Alison Chase, noted that last year’s champion pumpkin wasn’t nearly as big and had, moreover, an unsettling, Buddha-like belly spilling out toward the viewer.

“What a difference,” she said. “This one is pretty.”

When it did rain earlier in the fair’s run, Coolidge Hall was a good place to get out of it. The space offers crafts, intricately made furniture, paintings and photographs.

George Pacheco of Ipswich, the superintendent of the hall, declared this year’s fair “an absolutely wonderful time.” As he spoke, a dance troupe performed on the nearby stage. Earlier, the Marine Corps Band had played and left a few patriotic souls dabbing at their eyes.

Volunteer Ruth Ann Pelkey offered a photo of singer and 1960s heartthrob Frankie Avalon, who played at the fair last week. Onstage, he gave Pelkey a moment to remember, gesturing to her black cowgirl hat and declaring, “I like the hat.”

Started in 1818, the Topsfield Fair is said to be the oldest such fair in the country — and mere rain can’t stop it. The volunteers, O’Brien said, are what it keep going.

“They are so passionate about what they do. ... A paid staff would never do what they do.”

Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@gloucestertimes.com.