CUMMINGTON -- Amy Letourneau of Westfield was ecstatic at the 145th Cummington Fair on Sunday.
"Oh, thank you so much!" she told Joan and Sheila Blakesley of Dalton. The Blakesleys, mother Joan and daughter Sheila, have been bringing their array of knitted goods to the Crafts Pavilion of the Cummington Fair for 23 years. Both admitted they don't often get as enthusiastic a response as Letourneau. But there was a reason.
It was Letourneau's first visit to the fair. But she hit the jackpot, holding up a pair of knitted slippers for a visitor's examination.
"I lost my mother several years ago," she said. "And she used to knit me slippers just like this for years. They're knitted, so the last pair wore out years ago.
Both Blakesleys chuckled, and Joan advised Letourneau not to wear the slippers while walking on a rug.
"They'll last longer," she said.
An estimated 25,000 people visited the 145th edition of the Cummington State Fair this weekend, according to Bill Perlman, Superintendent of Fair Concessions.
John Torres and his wife Evie have been coming to the fair, on and off, for about 20 years. The couple are both originally from the area, and come back to Franklin County from time to time to visit relatives and friends.
"When we visit during fair week, we stop by," said Torres. "It's a tradition. People around here have been brought up visiting the fair with their families, growing up, and then taking their own families."
The fair began in 1869, when a group of local farmers from the surrounding communities hosted a cattle show on Main Street.
The hope, according to a 1919 story in Eagle files, was to encourage members of the "younger generation" to remain interested in farming. That aspect of the fair didn't work out too well, as the farm census in this part of Massachusetts has declined since the 19th century.
But the fair itself is as popular as ever. Attendance peaked at around 28,000 in the early part of the 20th century, according to Eagle files. It still hovers around 25,000-26,000, according to George Dole, the president of the fair since 1988.
"The weather is the key," said Dole. "You can do everything right, and if the weather is bad, people won't come. On the other hand, you can do everything wrong, and if the weather is good, the place will be packed and you look like a genius."
Saturday was the best attendance day, according to both the Blakeleys and Dole.
"We had a crowd here you wouldn't believe," said Dole. "Twenty or 30 percent higher than usual."
"We had one of our best days ever," said Joan Blakeley.
Sunday wasn't too bad, either. Parking was at a premium, and attendants in golf carts ferried visitors to and from the lots.
"We outgrew the fair parking lots a while ago," said one of the attendants. "So we had to expand into adjacent lots. But that means people have a hike to get to the fair. I think if we didn't have these carts, some people would stay home."
Of course, at an event that has been running for 145 years, cars weren't always a problem.
In a 1934 interview with The Eagle, longtime fair gatekeeper Edward S. Gloyd recalled when teams of horses would be parked up and down the road and parked in several adjacent fields.
"The Main Gate used to be a great place for swappin' horses," recalled Gloyd in the story.
The fair itself has changed, said Dole, who has been involved in some way here since 1961.
"It's gone from a horse, and cattle and sheep show, to becoming a lot more diversified," he said. "We have a woodsman's competition, we have demolition derbies, truck pulls and skid steer rodeos. There's more to see. The days of people coming to see an ox draw are over."
For the uninitiated, skid steer rodeos have nothing to do with cattle. They are heavy equipment competitions where drivers maneuver large vehicles through obstacle courses.
There is music, much of it of the country and western flavor. There are the Marvelous Mutts, a cadre of dogs who catch flying discs, jump impossible distances and run obstacle courses. The kids love the Marvelous Mutts.
Also, just to be clear, there are still horse pulls, antique car parades, and livestock exhibitions and competitions. Mo Phelan and her family at Prospect Valley Farm in Westfield have been bringing livestock to the fair for 25 years.
"We have 11 [cows] and we'll show them in various categories," she said.
On the far side of the gate were concessions and rides. The fair may have changed over the years, but the rides are still almost entirely of centrifugal design: Tilt-a-whirls, merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels.
And the food is pretty much fair food: hamburgers, hot dogs, soda, popcorn and ice cream. One stand sold just turkey legs. Big turkey legs. There was a turkey dinner served on Saturday and a roast beef dinner served on Sunday. These are both longtime traditions at the fair.
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