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Topsfield Fair: The pumpkin that ate Massachusetts

11/11/2013

By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of

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Poor Charlie Brown!  In his search for the Great Pumpkin, all he had to do was visit the Topsfield Fair's vegetable barn.  Here Charlie could witness one Great Pumpkin after another.

Topsfield's first All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off took place back in 1984, with the initial winner coming in at 433-pounds.  However, that was just the beginning.  Over the years, the word mightily spread - as did the girth of the pumpkins.

By 2002, the New England Giant Pumpkin Growers Association (NEGPGA) and Topsfield were planted solidly on the international map when Charlie Houghton's pumpkin weighed in at 1337.6 pounds.  This was officially noted by the Guinness World Book of Records, and Houghton's Greatest became  "the world's largest Jack O'Lantern." From that day forward. 

Rhode IslPhoto By and might be the smallest of states, but it sure knows how to produce the largest of cucurbits.  Not only did a Rhode Island pumpkin take the Topsfield Fair by storm in 2007 (at 1,689 pounds), but 2012's Rhode Island-grown winner again took the cake (er, pumpkin pie).

During that latter fabled year, the Greatest of Great Pumpkins (we're talking 2009 humongous pounds) appeared for all lucky fairgoers to see.  In other words, the Topsfield Fair became home to the "first ONE TON pumpkin ever grown in the world.

When asked how one goes about nurturing such a botanical beast, Topsfield Fair Spokesperson David Thomson had this to say:  "There's a whole subculture of folks who focus upon cross- pollinating and patenting the seeds.  It's really a combination of many things - they spend about 40 hours a week during the growing season caring for the pumpkins - they prepare the soil, do all the planting, manage the plants as they grow, cover them with blankets, and even attach water jugs to the stems while bringing them to the fair".

With all of this emphasis upon pumpkins, it should come as no surprise that the Topsfield Fair is run by the Essex Agricultural Society.  Going strong since 1818 (Thomson explained that this is "the oldest fair in America"), Topsfield has always remained true to its agricultural roots.

The very first president of the Essex Agricultural Society, the Honorable Timothy Pickering, was a political associate of George Washington's.  These two brilliant statesmen also shared a vital interest in the scientific and practical aspects of farming.  By 1818, Pickering was already supplying each member of his Society with seeds for "new root crops" (no - not pumpkins, probably carrots).

This sharing of agricultural wisdom remains a major thrust of today's Topsfield Fair.  Thomson spoke enthusiastically about the "educational program that's been developed over the past few years."  He explained, "We had over 14,000 school children coming during the week on field trips, participating in specific programs and learning about such things as honeybees, recycling, gardening and healthy eating habits."

Thomson continued, "In Massachusetts we have these tests called MCAS which kids have to take periodically.  We therefore made sure to align our programs with the school curriculum. So that way we're not taking away any learning time."

The fair "also provides free lunches for 400 to 500 students each day as part of this educational program."  Thomson furthermore explained, "We found that certain schools couldn't have come otherwise, and we didn't want that to stop them."  He added, "We have an education coordinator at the fair.  She happens to be a teacher herself so it's a perfect fit."

All this dedication over the years has certainly borne fruit.  Thomson reported, "We had a much better year this year than last year because last year eight out of 11 days were rainy...  We had 450,000 this year - an average fair year for us is usually in the 400,000 to 450,000 range."

Marketing has also played a positive role.  Thomson stated, "This year I would say the majority of the money was spent on TV, including lots of real fast five-second ads.  We got some great response from those TV commercials.  This was followed by radio and then print.  We've had a very popular Facebook account, a Twitter account, plus Instagram.  There's someone in the fair office who keeps it all updated."

There were numerous concerts this year.  The two paid ones were "moderately successful."  There were five free ones throughout the week, one of which featured Angie Miller.

Thomson explained that she's "local from Beverly, Massachusetts - and was a finalist on American Idol."  He added, "She was extremely popular and packed the grandstands."

Fiesta Shows new Speed XXLAnother popular concert was Bobby Vinton.  Thomson stated, "We try to find acts that will appeal to all different ages and demographics.  He drew quite a big crowd - he's 78 years old  and is pretty amazing.  He happened to be there on Senior Citizen's Day so we tied that in."

Fiesta Shows provided the midway.  Thomson explained, "They've been at the fair for decades.  They have a Main Midway and also a Kiddie Land.  There's probably about 20 rides on the Main Midway and another eight in the Kiddie Land.  The Pirate Ship is always popular, and a new ride this year called Speed XXL seemed to draw a lot of crowds."

It takes a lot to match sister-city Salem's excitement this time of year.  Nevertheless, for "kids" of all ages, the Topsfield Fair has been doing so time after time.  Some say it's the outstanding food, including this year's Berry Cobbler signature dessert.

Or is it the Great Pumpkin?

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