“There’s a Fair in the Air” at the Barnstable County Fair

A horse pull at the County Fair during the 1950’s, courtesy of the Marstons Mills Historical Society.

“There’s a fair in the air!”

It is that time of year again, the week in late July where the Cape Cod Fairgrounds come alive with rides, music, arts and crafts, animals, and of course food. It is Barnstable County Fair time on the Cape. Today it is a summer staple where parents bring their kids, groups of friends meet up, and fun times are had by all. The history of this yearly event goes back more than 150 years and began in the fall in front of a courthouse.

The very first of what is today known as the Barnstable County Fair happened in October 1844. It was then known as the Barnstable Agricultural Fair and Show and was held for two days mid-week on the lawn of the Barnstable Court House. The fair reflected the times as most exhibitions dealt with farm life. It encouraged locals to showcase their advances in dairy, fields, the orchards, gardens, and stalls.

Attempts were made to make the fairs a more Cape-wide event in 1851 when the fair was held in Orleans and again in 1852 when the event moved to Sandwich. It returned to Barnstable in 1853, and in 1854 an agricultural hall was built by the Barnstable Agricultural Society not far from the courthouse. This would be the home of the fair for more than seventy years. The initial fairs were seen as a success despite lackluster attendance due to the advances in agriculture which helped local farms improve which helped society in general. Some farmers came from as far as fifteen to twenty miles away to display items they had grown or made.

By the 1860’s the County Fair had grown in popularity enticing people from as far away as Boston, Providence, and New York to come to the annual October experience. It expanded to three days yearly and would include horse races and baseball games. Revolutionary War relics were brought in for the 1876 fair celebrating the Centennial of the United States. Slowly but surely the fair began to move its time frame back, creeping into September during the 1870’s. However as the fair chugged along it was seen as getting stale and repetitive.

A newspaper article in September 1898 made mention of the idea that changes were needed in the fair as it was ‘not what it used to be.’ Despite there being as many as 4,000 people attending the fair per day in 1897 it was seen as a down year with fewer art exhibits and less in the way of honored guests and politicians. This was thought to be in part due to the fact that the fair had been moved to the beginning of September while the summer heat was still rampant. However the fair would rebound in a big way in 1899 and 1900.

A poster for the County Fair after it was reborn during the 1950’s, courtesy of the Marstons Mills Historical Society.

By 1905 the County Fair was on a roll with attendance that year eclipsing the best of years by several thousand people. Hot-air balloons and parachute jumpers added new dimensions to the entertainment aspect. The invention of the automobile allowed more people to come from further away to experience the festivities with as many as 35-40 vehicles in the parking lot at one time. The fair continued its good run as President William Taft attended in 1912.

Record crowds gathered at the fair in 1920 as more funds were put into attractions, food, and esthetics. It brought in record setting revenue however also marked the peak of the fair’s original run. After the record setting revenue earned in 1920 the fair was dialed back by the Agricultural Society. The attendance was still there yet it was getting harder for the event to turn a profit. By the time the 1930’s came the fair was losing money and its initial run came to a close in 1931. After 87 years the original county fair was finished.

For two decades all that there was during the summer was the memories of the old Barnstable County Fair. Attempts were made to revive it in 1932 and 1939 with no staying power. It appeared Cape Cod’s summer tradition would remain in the past.

That all changed in 1954 when real estate agent and former circus man Charles Meyer of Centerville began making plans to reboot the Barnstable County Fair. His plans included moving the fair’s location to Aalto’s Field at the corner of Rt. 149 and Race Lane in Marstons Mills and pushing the event back to early August when the summer crowds were still around.

The plans were approved with the Agricultural Society also getting revived thanks to the meetings about the new county fair. The dates were set with the revived Barnstable County Fair running from August 12-14. Interest was off the charts with additional exhibit tents needing to be brought in due to the number of vendors and merchants wanting to be a part of it. Meyer would sign on with Colbert’s Fiesta of Worcester to provide top of the line Midway rides including a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel.

A map of Barnstable from 1884, on the right is the County Courthouse where the fair was originally held in 1844. On the left is the property of the Barnstable Agricultural Society where the fair was held from 1854-1932, between present day Commerce Road and Indian Trail.

Reopening night August 12, 1954 was a huge success with thousands of people attending and cars parked in strings for hundreds of yards. There would be seven tents of exhibits when initially one was thought to suffice. Buoyed by the overwhelming success of the new fair Charles Meyer promised a bigger and more varied fair for 1955. Bigger tents, more competitive exhibits, and a slew of free professional acts would be included. Hurricane Diane threatening the East Coast caused the closure of the fair early but would not dampen the new life given to the iconic event.

The community donated money to pay off the debt of the abbreviated fair and served as a sign that brighter days lay ahead. Even when attempts to renegotiate the lease on the fairgrounds in Marstons Mills in 1973 a new and larger location was found on Rt. 151 in Falmouth. The Cape Cod Fairgrounds have been home to the event ever since. The former grounds were turned into the aptly named Old Barnstable Fairgrounds Golf Course which opened in 1992.

Except for a break in the middle the Barnstable County Fair has thrilled and delighted locals and visitors to Cape Cod since 1844. Always fun and entertaining this year’s fair is running from July 17-23 at the Cape Cod Fairgrounds in Falmouth on Rt. 151.

By Christopher Setterlund

737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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