The ABCs Of Newtown: A Is For Agricultural Fairs
“The ABCs of Newtown” is a new series that will tie each letter of the alphabet to something in Newtown. This week we introduce the series with a look at the short-lived Agricultural Fair.
Newtown hosted an agricultural fair from 1894 until 1906.
The first event, called simply Newtown Fair, was presented by the Newtown Grange and featured a series of agricultural competitions like those still done today in Bridgewater. The 1894 and 1895 Newtown fairs were presented on Main Street, at the old town hall location — the top of today’s Edmond Town Hall exit driveway. A one-day event in 1894 expanded to two days in 1895.
Those years featured indoor displays of fruits and vegetables; ladies’ goods, including canned and preserved foods; and vendors. Outdoor displays featured poultry, cattle, and oxen. Horse parades and races were also conducted on Main Street, from the town hall to the flagpole.
In June 1896, the fair was formally organized and incorporated as Newtown Agricultural Fair. Directors and officers were elected, and bylaws were adopted. In a 1996 essay written for the Newtown Historical Society newsletter, Town Historian Dan Cruson noted that because the fair was incorporated, it could sell shares of stock. Shares were offered, for $25 each, to more than 110 individual stockholders.
The fairgrounds were located where Hawley School and Taylor Fields are today, at 29 Church Hill Road.
A parcel of 12½ acres owned by Philo Skidmore, one of the fair directors, was leased for ten years, for $125 per year. On that property, the fair’s quarter-mile racetrack and a 28- by 120-foot grandstand were built. On the eastern side of the track, opposite the grandstand, a raised judging stand was built. The starting line for the races was in front of the judging stand.
Two additional parcels of land — two acres owned by Marshall Otis and a 1½-acre parcel owned by Mary Beecher — were also leased. On this land, a building measuring 35 by 60 feet was built in 1896 for fair exhibits. Two years later, a second building was built for additional presentations, that one measuring 35 by 100 feet.
To ensure that only ticketholders had access to the grounds, an eight-foot tall fence, approximately three-quarters of a mile long, was built around the perimeter.
At its new location, Newtown Agricultural Fair was presented during late September.
Fairs that rivaled The Great Danbury Fair were conducted for the next decade. Horse and trotting races — the latter being races with riders in small two-wheeled carts, or sulkies, being pulled by the horse — and bicycle races were done in the track.
P.L. Ronald, owner of Castle Ronald atop Castle Hill, donated a $100 purse each year for the Ronald Stake, a bicycle race on the second day of the fair.
The track also hosted oxen pulls.
A midway tent featured games and food sales.
In 1901, the fair welcomed Jerry the giant ox, a 9-year-old beast who was 17½ hands high, 15 feet long, “with girth 10 feet three inches,” according to advance publicity. The purebred Holstein, bred in New Hampshire, was the largest ox ever hosted by the fair.
In 1906, the fair’s final year, “Professor Mack” and his wife, Violet, did tethered balloon ascensions for two days.
According to Cruson, the fair was at one time the fourth largest in the state, “and was one of the most exciting events in the seasonal round of activities of Newtown’s farmers.” The event averaged 4,000 visitors annually.
Margaret McCarthy was born four years after the fair’s demise, but remembered her father talking about the event. Her father would talk about the fair and its races, she told the editors who collected narratives for the 2002 collection Newtown Remembered: An oral history of the 20th Century.
“You know, it is hard to believe, but after he told me that, I could see one area where I could imagine a race track there. It is slightly curved and where the trees were on either side of it had been cleared,” she shared.
Sarah Mannix, in the same volume, said she remembered the fair but could not recall the racetrack.
William C. Baxter, in Newtown Remembered: More stories of the 20th Century (2005), recalled that,while the fair was before his time, “talking to the old timers in the 1920s, they said the attendance was very great and people came from probably 50 miles around, which would be the equivalent today travel-wise, 200 miles. It was well known in this part of Connecticut.”
Consolidated Railroad even put on special excursion trains to carry the crowds to Newtown for Fair Days. The fare for the trains included admission to the fair.
Former stationmaster Cornelius Taylor served as trustee and was the principal for the fair. He purchased the largest portion of property in 1902, following the death of Philo Skidmore.
Theron Platt was the first president of the fair, serving until 1903. Robert C. Marshall was president for the remainder of its existence.
In 1906, after financial losses, the fair committee declared bankruptcy and abruptly closed the fair for good.
According to Newtown, Connecticut, published by The League of Women Voters of Newtown in 1989, the fair “was greatly missed when it was discontinued.”
The buildings and their fixtures were sold to Henry C. Curtis for $2.
One of the fair’s small buildings, the 1905 ticket booth, remains in town today. Following that year’s fair, the small building was moved from 49 Church Hill Road to property owned by Bee Publisher Paul Smith at 3 Church Hill Road.
The building was gifted to Paul’s son, Scudder, this newspaper’s current publisher, in the early 1960s, when Scudder and wife Helen lived on Knollwood Drive. When the Smiths moved to Elm Drive in the mid ’60s, “We brought it along,” Mrs Smith said this week.
In the mid- to late-1980s the building was provided a new site, still within the Smiths’ property. It has been given a roof extension, and now serves as the anchor for an herb garden.
Taylor purchased the remainder of the fair property in March 1909. He sold the front of the property — the former Skidmore property — to the town, to build Hawley School, in 1920. Two years later, he donated the back acres for a sports field.
Until the early years of the 21st Century, the remains of the northern part of the quarter-mile race track could still be found in the woods to the north of Taylor Field. A look at the property using Google Maps continues to show the outline of the northern section of the track.