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Burlington’s agricultural Fairs

Burlington agricultural fair, 1890, Burlington MA
Burlingtonians ate in a quite different fashion in 1890 than they do today. None of your fast food nonsense. No holding of pickles, holding of lettuce, or having it your own way with this crowd. You might be in the Big Tent, half the night stuffing yourself with good, home cooked food, along with 3,000 others. This photo depicts the Big Tent shortly before the Saturday Night Supper, the highlight of the late, great Burlington Agricultural Fair.


The Daily Times and Chronicle, Tuesday, September 18, 1979

Burlington Past and Present, by John E. Fogelberg
(Article # 013)

Burlington’s Agricultural Fairs

The Parish had just finished the renovation of the Church of Christ, Congregational, the only church in town. Under the direction of the Rev. Mr. Anderson, the steeple had been removed, the white pillars taken from the entrance, and the present bell tower built. Now Mr. Anderson was in Constantinople as Congregational Missionary to Roberts College, and a new minister had been acquired to take care of Burlington’s spiritual needs. He was the Rev. Charles H. Washburn. The year was 1889.

Although the Rev. Mr. Anderson had generated enough enthusiasm and support to accomplish his project, a certain amount of displeasure probably existed below the surface since the steeple had only been there for 44 years and the repair and renovation must have been costly. How best to pull his flock together in social and economic harmony, as well as spiritual, was a test confronting the new reverend. His parishioners were practically all farmers. Why not get them to run an agricultural fair? After all, the idea of holding country fairs went back to the time of King John in England if not to Roman times, and was now an accepted way for American farmers to show their wares. He broached the idea to several of Burlington’s prominent farmers. They listened and agreed the idea was a good one. Thus the Burlington Agricultural Society was born in the parsonage study on Center Street that summer. Its first fair was held in October, 1889, and netted a profit of $300, beginning a tradition of Burlington fall fairs which lasted for 50 years.

That first success stimulated the farmers here to increase activity, so a second agricultural fair and cattle show was held on Oct. 1, 1890. Burlington’s population was only 617, but this fair pulled five times that number to Burlington. The fields around the church were literally covered with canvas as the Society went all out to put on a big show. Even a portion of the stone wall on Lexington Street was removed so that patrons could more easily enter the huge dinner tent which had been erected in the field between the street and the Old Burying Ground. That dinner tent measured 180 by 60 feet, but there were two others close by, one 60 by 80 feet, the other 40 by 50 feet. Tents were erected for exhibits as well, and the whole resembled a smaller but just as active Boston Market. In the old Town Hall, which then sat where the Simonds park little league field is today, was the ladies department, where exhibits of quilts, needle-work, preserves, canned fruits and jellies as well as thousands of flowers and a historical display were on view.

The names on the various prizes read like a Who’s Who of Burlington farmers: William H. Winn, Samuel and William Walker, T.I. Reed, George and Edwin Bennett, Walter Skelton, Jonathan Simonds, Charles and George Butters. Fred F. Walker, Samuel Sewall, H. H. Nichols, Edward Reed, David and John O’Brien, Charles E. Merriam, John Madden and William Graham.

Besides fruits and vegetables, poultry and cattle strutted their stuff. Athletic contests were held to see who could claim the five dollar gold piece placed on top of a greased pole. Other events: the backward crawl by boys under eighteen, the mile run, the barrel roll, the half-mile dash, the hammer throw and the potato race. Awards also were given for such exhibits as the best market wagon loaded and ready for market. The Woburn Brass Band supplied the music. By 1892 the fair included a parade, which began on Lexington Street at the Reed house, where the Mall is now, and proceeded to the fairgrounds surrounding the church and Town Hall. Governor William E. Russell came that year and took part in the procession, viewed the exhibits, spoke to the crowd from the steps of the Town Hall, and greeted more people at a reception later. The dinner tents that year seated 1,200 people.

The dignitaries who headed the parade included T.I. Reed, the chief marshal; the governor; the Adj. General of the Commonwealth; Samuel Sewall (the director of the Burlington Agricultural Society), and the Rev. Mr. Hersey, the new minister of the Church of Christ. They were followed by the Woburn Brass Band and 50 of Burlington’s 94 school children. Then came displays of livestock and processed goods, loads of wood, shoe stock and processes, Stevenson’s grocery team and John Winn’s and G.W. Parker’s milk wagons. Several features of the parade that year were old “one-horse shay”, ox teams driven by blue-frocked yeomen, and tars from the “Burlington Navy Yard” drawing a mounted howitzer, probably the small canon now on Burlington Common. In his address to the people, Governor Russell said in part, “The Constitution of the Commonwealth makes the Chief Executive not only Commander in Chief of the Military Forces, but the Admiral of your Navy. Burlington Navy Yard is historic! I have not seen it yet but my friend Mr. Reed promises to help me find it before I go.” Today just a few old-timers remember the legendary Burlington Navy Yard at all. It was an imaginary one and was a standing joke here. Out-of-towners used to tease Burlington’s farmers about it since the town had no water at all except for a couple of mill ponds.

The Burlington fairs were conducted well into this century, first by the Agricultural Society, then the Grange, and then as farming became less and less the mainstay of the community, several times by the Burlingtonians sports team, and finally by the Burlington Civic Club. Now with no farms here at all, to see anything like the turn of the century Burlington Agricultural Fair, one must travel to Maine or Vermont, or take in the Topsfield Fair, which opens the end of this month.