"The day was of the best and the novelty of a 'Bolton Cattle Show' drew together a large attendance of people . . . The hall was full to overflowing with the products of the soil and the handiwork of both masculine and feminine fingers . . . The show of stock was good."
Times have changed in more than a hundred ways since the first "Cattle Show" in Bolton in 1874, described above, but the organizers of the annual event seek to retain the character of a country fair. They have been so successful that the description of the first fair could have accurately captured the essence of any of the others which followed. (It was the Bolton Fair Committee of the Farmers' and Mechanics' Association that ran the fair from 1874 to 1997. Now the non-profit organization, The Bolton Fair, Inc. does the job.)
It was indeed a Cattle Show back on Tuesday, October 6, 1874. There was better than one cow for every two people in Bolton (according to the 1865 census), with cattle at 653 and human residents at 1150. Horses came in second at 239, with 171 oxen and 108 sheep.
Local farmers probably gathered at the town hall and other area public buildings a few weeks before the fair to scrutinize the premium list, a large handbill that enumerated 53 opportunities to win from 25 cents (second prize for fruits and vegetables) to $4 (best butter), or better yet, $5 for the best managed farm. There was a prodigious list of horse and cattle categories, as well as swine, sheep, and poultry. Grain was judged on the best ACRE of grain and prizes were given for "Samples" (no amount specified) of corn, rye, oats, and barley. The animal shows took place in the morning, and then came the parade.
"At one o'clock precisely, the procession, escorted by the Lancaster comet band... proceeded to the tent where a very excellent dinner had been furnished by the ladies and citizens of the town." Following grace and dinner, there were congratulatory messages on the success of the day and a speech by Dr. George B. Loring. His topic was certainly of interest to the "farmers and mechanics" of 1874 and their families, a gathering of about 400 people: "The Honor, Usefulness, and Profits of Farming." The day ended with sack, wheelbarrow and foot races, and a jumping match.
Bolton old-timers may remember fairs from the early years beginning with a parade from Sugar Road to the fairgrounds near the Town Hall. It was a rather informal affair, with farmers leading their prize animals, and children proudly wheeling decorated doll carriages. It formalized by at least the 1930's, when straight-backed Arthur Felton, splendid in uniform, led the parade as Marshall, on horseback, of course, and followed by a popular local band. Parades disappeared in recent times, with only the September 19, 1982 parade to mark the 100th Bolton Fair.
Food has always been an integral part of the fair festivities, and the Farmers' and Mechanics' Hall, built around 1880, hosted thousands of diners over the years. When the building was torn down in the early 1950's, foundation stones went to decorate the town hall, and the building's wood patched the town barn. The afternoon chicken dinner (without speeches), however, stayed nearby, as the Federated Church continued the tradition. The chicken barbecue continued through the early 2000's and was run by local boy scouts, taking place in a shady grove on the fairgrounds behind Emerson School.
Food for display, rather than immediate consumption was also important to the fair. The Town Hall (and later the Fire Station and Emerson School) was always filled with good things from a farm kitchen. There was bread and pie, and a variety of pickled and preserved items. At a far table, other farm crafts were displayed - the quilting, the sewing, the tatting.
When we think of the old-fashioned kitchen, we conjure up wonderful aromas of a well laden groaning board. Our picture of the rest of the farmhouse shows room after room of charming crafts projects. This may be an accurate picture, but today's food and craft categories far outpace the 1874 offerings. True, they are different, reflecting the changing lifestyles. There was no photography category in early years, and butter and cheese making disappeared from premium lists in the first decade of the fair. Farm wives made bread, butter, cheese, preserves, and pickles for the fair in 1874 and 1875. Today, there are bread entries, but hall tables are also laden with almost two dozen categories of cookies, cakes, brownies, candy, and -- ah, yes --the pies.
In the exhibit hall, however, the farmer is no longer king. Categories of entries have changed over the years to adapt to the changing character of area communities. Vegetable and fruit requirements cater to home gardeners, since amounts needed for judging are small (although farmers can certainly enter). Not so in the early years. The 1906 premium list listed awards for an ACRE of corn, and a FIELD of corn and potatoes."Domestic and Fancy Articles" and "Handicraft" categories have expanded in number, and although tatting is gone, area talents are displayed in quilting, embroidery, sewing, photography, woodworking, painting, and dozens of other categories for adults and youth. The original list of 53 opportunities on a handbill has expanded to about 500 in an 80-page booklet. To raise money for premiums in early years, the Farmers' and Mechanics' Association held oyster suppers, sometimes with a spelling match and calico party. In more recent times, the state underwrote the premiums paid to agricultural winners, about $3,500 in 1982 which went up to around $7,000 by 1990. When this funding was cut, the Bolton Fair committee took over paying the premiums and continues to subsidize the premium payments today. Admission, once free for the grounds and 25 cents for the hall, became a $1 admission around 1980. The fair committee continues to keep prices fair in order to maintain the grounds and ensure the fair's existence for future generations.
The Bolton Cattle Show kept that name for 50 years; long-time residents say it was usually held on a Wednesday, with children given the day off from school. Only after World War II was the fair changed to a Saturday. By then, most fairgoers had become workers with only the weekends off. The fair was held every year except for eight during the two world wars. With several years of rainy day fairs in the 1970's, and the struggle to keep small fairs going, the committee decided to move to a two-day fair in 1981, with the midway rides open Friday night. The midway hours were extended to Thursday nights in years following.
Seeing the growth in the town population and the demand on town services, in 1998 the Bolton Fair, Inc. purchased 53 acres of land just across the town line in Lancaster for future use. That need came in 2006, when the Bolton Fair relocated to the new property that year. In 2008 the fair was moved from September to August and a fourth day was added with midway preview hours on Wednesday evening.
Over the years, individual activities have been adjusted as the community and society changed, but the basics remain the same. Agriculture -- animal shows, demonstrations and hall exhibits -- remains the focus, with food and family fun in the form of contests, rides and games important runners-up. The committee today looks for shows and demonstrations that will educate as well as entertain, to keep knowledge of agricultural roots in people's minds, if not in their day-to-day lives. A midway was added in the last half-century and over the past couple of decades the 150-booth craft show and the 100-plus commercial exhibitors including home improvement and farmers' market offerings have added other components to the fair.
Bolton marked the 100th Bolton Fair in 1982, the second year the then-traditional Saturday event had become a weekend fair. On September 19, a week before the big event, a parade was scheduled to salute the fair. Added that year were waterfowl and oxen, with the goat show brought back, all to help augment the farm flavor. Pewter bowls were given to "Best of Show" winners in animal and hall exhibit categories. Hall exhibits, nearly bursting the seams in 1981 with 1,601 entries had to make room for pumpkin decorating and fleece wool judging. There were contests in draft horse pulling and tractor driving, sheep dog demonstrations, working crafters and an egg hatching demonstration. Most of these were popular and an oxen pull was later added to the horse pull for two days of these contests and can be seen this year.
The Bolton Cattle Show began with an effort by the Farmers' and Mechanics' Association to create some pride and competition among the farmers who attended their monthly organization meetings to learn better, more modern methods of farming. The fair continues as a tribute to that pride, to Bolton's history, and for the sheer fun of an old-time country fair. Don't miss it!
Have any interesting Bolton Fair history or old photos? Contact us and we'll take it from there.