Barnstable County Fair Celebrates 175 Years of History

The Barnstable County Fair has been a staple summer event on Cape Cod for generations, and has drawn visitors from all points of the country to experience its many sights, sounds, smells and events. Its history goes back more than a century, and it has evolved over time to include attractions and entertainment that keep visitors coming back in droves.

The first fair was held in the fall of 1844, when the Barnstable County Agricultural Society was officially incorporated, according to Wendy Brown, general manager. “This year represents the 175th anniversary of the Society’s incorporation and first fair. The County Fair itself has not been contiguous that whole time.”

It originally had agricultural roots, beginning with the first fairs being the Barnstable County Fair and Cattle Exposition, Brown said. The founders included well-known Cape Cod names, such as Reed, Hoxie, Small, Otis, Sears, Howes, Jenkins, Bourne, Brooks, Hardy, Doane, Higgins, Lothrop, and Scudder, among many others.

“The first fairs were held on 6A at the sight of the County Court Houses. In 1954, the Fair was revived in Marstons Mills at the site of which is now the Old Barnstable Golf Course off of route 149. It moved to Falmouth on Route 151 in 1973 to present day.”

Much has changed over the decades, as the country and the Cape, itself, has changed and evolved. But the Barnstable County Fair continues to evoke that old country fair charm.

The first fairs featured Grange exhibits, trotting horses, sulky racing, vaudeville acts, motorcycle racing, livestock exhibits, horse and oxen drags, fireworks and food tents, featuring clam chowder, homemade doughnuts, pies and coffee. “The highlight of the early fairs was the Agricultural Ball, attended by grandly-dressed ladies and gentlemen,” said Brown.

“The fair originated as predominately an agricultural event with thousands of premium dollars being award to exhibitors,” said Jay Zavala, Barnstable County Fair president. “Through necessity, to support itself, vendors, amusement rides and top-notch entertainment were added to cover the costs and created what fairs today are all over the country – a true family event with something for everyone.”

Most fairs have maintained the ideals of the original founders to promote agriculture and provide a safe, family-friendly community event, Zavala added. To that end, in 1973, an Agricultural Scholarship Fund was added to the budget.

“Today, we give up to $35,000 annually to local kids going on to higher education. That dollar amount far exceeds $1,000,000 in support to local Cape Codders through the years,” said Zavala. “The Fairgrounds have evolved to host other events to offset an inclement weather fair and an ever-increasing cost of running a fair. So today, we host AKC dog shows, horse shows, food truck festivals, concerts, beer festivals and much more.”

Running an annual event like this, and keeping the fairgrounds maintained in general, is not an easy feat by any means. And history, itself, has had a hand in a fair amount of challenges for organizers.

“In the beginning, funding and land appropriation were issues organizers faced. Today, the biggest challenge is bad weather! Through the years the fair has dealt with hurricanes, wartime, the sinking of the Andrea Doria, which took the fair out of the headlines, and then the Polio epidemic,” said Brown.

Planning for each fair begins immediately following the close of the current year’s fair. Proceeds collected from ticket sales and exhibitor fees are re-invested in the fairgrounds for capital improvements and mortgage repayments, awarded as scholarships to young people pursuing careers in agriculture, conservation or elated fields, or distributed to charitable causes.

To get more information about the Barnstable County Fair, visit

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About Ann Luongo

Ann Luongo has been writing for Cape Cod and South Shore publications for over 15 years.
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