History of the
Barnstable County Fair
The First Fair
The Barnstable County Agricultural Society held its first fair, consisting primarily of livestock and handcraft exhibits, in October of 1844 at the County Court House in Barnstable Village.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the County Fair had become the most popular annual event on Cape Cod. Some of the attractions were 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 and pies, and coffee, sponsored by local organizations. The children’s Day and the Salt Hay Stack at the East Sandwich Grange were annual favorites.
Two of the most successful and colorful Fairs recorded during that period were the Fairs of 1899 and 1920.
In 1899, vendors calling their wares, sideshow barkers announcing bizarre sights, and the merry-go-round weaving its melodic spell charmed approximately 12,000. All the exhibitors’ stalls were full, with no less than 100 categories and more than 1,200 participants. $800 purses attracted much interest in the trotting races, and the Hyannis Band Concert drew a festive crowd. The biggest Cape Cod sports event of the times, the series finals and the championship baseball games, were among the special attractions. The Agricultural Ball was highlight, in the gaily-trimmed Exhibition Hall, where ladies and gentleman in evening finery danced to the music of Brigham’s eight-piece band.
History has it that the fair of 1920 was the most financially successful. The society erected a $2,500 poultry building and spent $1,500 on paint throughout the Fairgrounds. Everywhere, Fairgoers saw refreshment stands, vendors and gee-gawks. Baseball games and trotting races were still a big attraction, and no fair in the state could match the Cape Cod exhibits.
As if exhausted by such grandness, each fair in the years following 1920 was less colorful, until the Barnstable County Agricultural Society declared in 1931 that its 87th Fair would be its last.
In 1932, the “40 and 8” of the American Legion attempted to continue the tradition. They were able to recreate many of the old-time fair features, but notably absent were the horse show, the dog show, the livestock and handiworks exhibits-all County Fair mainstays. An eclipse that year brought an estimated 100,000 cars to Cape Cod, however, gaining an unexpected boost to Fair attendance.
In 1939, another attempt was made to revive the Fair, for a Tercentennial celebration. Mayor Dart from Barnstaple, England, presided over the event. In the years to follow, until World War II, the Fairgrounds were used for circuses and rodeos.
In 1954, a committee of citizens interested in reestablishing the Barnstable County Fair met in April. They formed a corporation, and voted to hold the Fair for 3 days in mid-August, this time in Marston’s Mills. Roscoe Goddard, elected clerk of the Corporation, discovered that the ancient charter of the Barnstable County Agricultural Society was still in existence. The new group decided to resurrect it.
Lt. Governor of Massachusetts Sumner J. Whitter was on hand to “kick off” the new fair. It was a colorful event that Cape Cod residents and visitors welcomed. Thirty-four commercial exhibitors displayed their wares under a tent. Back again were the livestock exhibits, baseball games and band concerts. New attractions included a square dance exhibition, an aerial trapeze act, elephants and an auto show. A total amount of $200 in premiums was offered that year. The Fair was on its way to being back on its feet.
It wasn’t easy. In 1955, the second year of the revived Fair, a combination of the Polio scare and a hurricane wiped out the Fair. A Special Fair train from Boston to Cape Cod carried only two passengers. The Fair opened and closed the same day.
The community, led by its most distinguished citizens, rallied with an outpouring of financial support to help the Society pay off the debts of a failed Fair. The experience was galvanizing, because since that disastrous year the Fair has continued to grow in size and popularity.
In the spring of 1973, the society found an ideal location for the current fairgrounds, when attempts to renegotiate the lease on the Martsons Mills location failed. Miraculously, they were able to purchase the Chesterbrook School in Falmouth (now known as the Cape Cod Fairgrounds) and open the 107th Barnstable County Fair in July.
The fair has continued to grow in scope and attendance since then with only one exception. The fair was not held was in 2020 due to the Covid-19 global pandemic. The crisis forced a collective shutdown and events were universally cancelled. However, the fair returned the following year stronger than ever as the crisis subsided and fairgoers were eager to gather and celebrate.
Since establishing a presence in Falmouth, the property has grown through land acquisitions for parking and future expansions. Two major display halls, the Youth and Adult buildings, were the first in a commitment to showcase the areas handiwork. Additional buildings include the Livestock Barns, Horse Barns, First Aid and Security Buildings, Maintenance Buildings and the Bee Exhibit Building.
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.
Planning for each Fair begins immediately following the close of the current year’s Fair. A Board of Directors who meets monthly governs the Fair. The Fair operates year-round with a small staff consisting of the Manager, Office Assistant and Maintenance Staff.
Today, the Fair remains the marquee event on Cape Cod each summer and attracts record-setting numbers from all over the regions. It’s easily one of the most anticipated events of the year. And it’s poised to keep getting better!
Administration and Staff
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