Granddaddy of county fairs

The fair is a patchwork of experiences: Angela Fisher rose from county Honey Queen to Wisconsin's Honey Queen to American Honey Princess. J.M. Hall, a blacksmith by trade, works his horses 3 to 4 hours a day in preparation for weekend competitions. O. Fayne Whitney began raising chickens when he was 16. Now, 79 years later, he says that tending his flock keeps him vital. He's in his 50th year of judging poultry competitions. Brianna Taylor won the novice division in the lead line competition, where contestants are judged not only for their sheep, but also for the presentation and modeling of woolen outfits.

They're all at the Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts, the nation's oldest agricultural fair. From its humble origin as a cattle show in 1818, today's fair boasts a rich mix of agricultural demonstrations, midway rides, and food, glorious food. Don't forget people- watching: Half a million visitors glide through the turnstiles each October.

The horse-pulling contest - pairs of steeds pull loads that start at 3,600 pounds - harks back to the fair's early days. While some teams actually haul logs out of wood lots, others, like blacksmith Hall's, are a hobby.

The slogans of "work the land" and "bigger is better" combine in the ethos of the giant pumpkin growers. These "extreme gardeners" study plant physiology and focus fanatic attention on their vines to boost their yields. At their summer peak, the pumpkins gain from 20 to 50 pounds per day. Jim Beauchemin's winning entry at this year's Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off tipped the scales at 1,314 pounds. Tears filled his eyes as Mr. Beauchemin celebrated.

The sweet aroma of dough frying mingles with the scent of hoof-turned earth. Joyous screams fill the air from children and parents hurtling down a giant slide on burlap sacks; so do the gentler tones of lowing cows. Fingers that touch lamb's wool later become slippery with French fry grease. At times, speed bumps appear in this crossroads of agrarian and modern culture: A fresh cow patty caused a giggly near-panic among young spectators just before a milking demonstration.

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