SANDWICH — If you were a goat, sheep, horse, steer or ox, you might call the Sandwich Fair a beauty pageant, or the Granite State championship of strength and agility, or simply the livestock Olympics.

“They’re athletes specifically trained to do this,” said Rob Hatch, who has trained working  steer since he was 12, and is in charge of the steer and open oxen show at the Columbus Day weekend event, which runs today through Monday at the Sandwich Fairgrounds.

For 110 years, the Lakes Region’s best-known agricultural fair has been a treasured celebration of fall. It marks the end of summer with amusement park rides, performers, vendors, hot cider, Italian sausage and blooming onions, pumpkins too large to fit in a car, and animal events that mesmerize both children and grownups. Carnival lovers, parade watchers, pie bakers, thrill seekers, vegetable growers and animal enthusiasts converge for an experience of rural splendor that draws tens of thousands over Columbus Day weekend.  It’s almost as if the surrounding hills are booked in advance to supply oodles of fall color.

What are the secret ingredients that brings so many here?

“I think it’s the foliage and that it’s the last fair of the year. It’s a last fun thing to do for the summer,” said Dan Peaslee, who’s been president of the fair for 11 years. “We see all the little kids over with all the farm animals. I think everyone comes for the midway.”

“Our mission has always been to showcase agriculture and animal husbandry in New Hampshire. We’ve run every year except two - during one of the World Wars and during COVID,” said fair office manager Kim Weeks.

Canceled last year because of the coronavirus, the Sandwich Fair returns full-force this year. Mobility scooters will be available. COVID precautions will be in place, with social distancing encouraged, masks optional, and handwashing stations and hand sanitizer at every station and event, Weeks said. Traffic will be one way though the exhibit halls.

After a drought of celebration, competitors are traveling from as far as central Maine, Grande Isle, Vermont, western Massachusetts and Connecticut, though most hale from New Hampshire. In a good year, the event sells roughly 38,000 tickets, with 25,000 to 27,000 sales required to break even, according to fair officials.

On Saturday from noon to 1 p.m., 75 to 100 antique cars will parade through Sandwich and the fairgrounds. On Sunday, floats made by schools, civic groups and the Over the Hill Hikers will march through town and the fair, with pairs of yoked working steer bringing up the rear.

For the animal handlers, it’s Old Home Day.

“We’re almost like family,” said Hatch. The farmers look forward to getting together and seeing eachother’s animals compete.

“We just pick up where we left off,” said Paige Morrill of Still Maple Farm in Bridgewater, who runs the beef and dairy cattle exhibit.

The fair is a once-a-year chance to immerse the public in agriculture and dispel some hard-to-kill notions. When little children see his Morrill’s Brown Swiss cows, they exclaim, “A brown cow! That’s where chocolate milk comes from!” Others shriek and giggle when the animals suddenly relieve themselves. “Everyone wants to come up and pat a cow, see a cow’s nose, and see his tongue stick out,” Morrill said.

“New England is the only place in the country with a continued heritage of working steers,” said Hatch. Before mechanized farm equipment came in, “They were the tractors of the day.” Pairs of working steer complete obstacle courses that could stump a well-trained dog. 

“We work all year long to have a cow that’s great. The judge compares your cow to the picture he has in his head” of the ideal animal that age, Morrill said.

The yoked oxen that haul mind-boggling loads “are the weightlifters of the group,” said Hatch. No matter how many times you visit, you can’t quite get a handle on how a couple of cattle, who together weigh 4,000 pounds, pull nearly 10,000 pounds of concrete blocks on a wooden sled over dirt. 

Some exhibitors, like Noah Hoffman of Chocorua, are relatively new to the fair. Hoffman, a licensed forester, is also a chainsaw artist, carving wooden statues of owls, bears, cardinals, eagles, mushrooms and even likenesses of Sasquatch, using five or six chainsaws with various blades.

“It’s like a paint brush. You pick up a big paint brush. You take nothing and create something in front of their eyes,” said Hoffman. "I’ll do a small bear while I’m there in about 10 to 15 minutes. I just bring him to life out of the wood.” Hoffman said he recently carved an Arizona Sun Devil, the mascot for the University of Arizona, and shipped it across the country. 

This year’s fair will have fewer vendors, Peaslee said. Organizers hope to make profits on ticket sales. Some of the state’s fairs this summer and fall, when held during good weather, have beat their pre-COVID attendance records.

“After last year, we’d like to see a lot of people,” said Peaslee. Proceeds fund local charities and building projects, such as the fair’s 4-H food shack, a new open barn, and in years past, the Sandwich fire station.

During the off-season the 36-acre parcel turns into a recreation area for dog walkers and cross-country skiers. “We have lots and lots of people who enjoy these grounds,” Peaslee said.

Gates open at 8 a.m. Oc. 9-11. Rides and exhibits open at 9. Tickets are $12 per day for adults and kids 12 and older. Children under 12 are free. Monday is Senior Day, with $6 admission for adults 60 and older. Parking is free on the fairgrounds. Nearby property owners charge a fee. For more information and a schedule of events, visit thesandwichfair.com.

(1) comment

LaraBezich

I love the sandwich fair

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