NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

October 9, 2012

Smiling past a rainy fair in Topsfield

By Alan Burke Staff writer
Newburyport Daily News

---- — TOPSFIELD — The unlucky numbers at the Topsfield Fair this year were seven 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 yesterday 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.”

And it was 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 yesterday afternoon. He purchased a $300 car to do it in. At most, he could win a trophy or a $700 prize for winning the figure-eight race. He expects to get a few dollars from a junkyard when he sells whatever is left of his car.

This isn’t about money.

“I’ve been doing this since I was about 10,” he said. His dad did it before him. The event is organized road rage, he agreed. Drivers wear helmets, and speeds are not excessive in the indoor arena. Bucknam, who competed at the Brockton Fair earlier this year, doesn’t see how anybody could get hurt.

“It’s just for fun.” The race gets his competitive juices going, “and if anybody gets in my way, I’m getting them out of my way. That’s the whole point of the race.”

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.

Yesterday, 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 week, 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.” She was still wearing it yesterday.

Started in 1818, the Topsfield Fair is said to be the oldest such fair in the country. 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.”