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Haddam Neck Fair 2018: Origin of Agricultural Fairs

By Jim McHutchison.

Beginning at 4:00 pm on Friday August 31, 2018, the Haddam Neck Fair will run through Labor Day Weekend.
Now in its 107th year, this event is part of a long standing agricultural tradition here in Connecticut and elsewhere.  In the early 1900s agriculture was much more a part of the average household.  There were very few if any motor vehicles and most transportation was by boat or train or locally by horse and carriage, sleigh or wagon, or on horseback.  Heavy work was often done by oxen.  There was no  refrigeration yet and every household had a garden and perhaps a couple of fruit trees and a pig and a milk cow or two in a shed out back along with a horse for transportation.
Of course there were no supermarkets so most households were faced with multiple chores with caring for animals, raising garden vegetables, picking fruit, canning  and otherwise preserving food for the winter, milking cows for dairy products and caring for horses and oxen which provided transportation and pulling power.
The federal government in those days, along with organizations such as the Grange and the Farm Bureau, saw a need to encourage better agricultural practices in an effort to improve life generally.  The government’s approach in those days was to advise and suggest rather than regulate and inspect and to educate the younger generation through 4-H programs.  It was with their encouragement that Agricultural Fairs such as Haddam Neck became popular.
An Agricultural Fair, held annually, combines local competition with entertainment, education and social gathering, generally in the harvest season.  Thus to this day there are competitive classes for farm animals such as beef and dairy cattle sheep, goats, rabbits, etc., and for poultry.   There are also competitive classes for vegetables and flowers and for baking and homemaking skills such as sewing, knitting, weaving quilting and other fancy work.  
Pulling contests for horses and oxen still exist along with more current tractor and truck pulls.  A freight company called Bailey’s Express existed for many years in Haddam Neck, first with horses and wagons and later with trucks, before moving to Middletown.  The last owner, a Haddam Neck resident, no matter how many trucks he had on the road, always maintained teams of pulling horses for competition including at the Haddam Neck Fair.
It’s interesting that many aspects of fairs, for example the premium books, in many cases are similar and can be traced back to what was probably a common template.  It’s also interesting that at the Haddam Neck Fair there has always been a very popular Baby Contest with awards originally going to the prettiest and fattest babies.  Fattest has been changed to chubbiest in recent years but the prize has always been five dollars.  Five dollars was a lot more money 100 years ago, but back then as soon as a kid could walk he or she could be put to work in the garden or doing other chores.  Now parents can look forward to tuition bills.
While agriculture is a much smaller part of the average person’s life these days, it is still very much alive and well.  The Haddam Neck Fair is rated as one of twenty major agricultural fairs in Connecticut.  It is the largest event in the town of Haddam. It draws about 20,000 people to Haddam Neck over the three-day weekend yet it is an entirely volunteer effort, independent of town or other government support.  To drive to Haddam Neck, cross the river at the East Haddam bridge, then travel North about ten miles, first on Route 149, then on Route 151 and take a left onto Haddam Neck Road.  There will be lots of signs.  For additional information go to haddamneckfair.com.
Photo by K. Powers.

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