When Rochester held their first Fair in 1874, the United States was enjoying a prolonged period of prosperity following the Civil War and a celebration of harvest and hard work was an event that proved more than appropriate. Locally there was not much available in the way of entertainment and the Fair provided both the opportunity for competition between neighbors and was able to provide entertainment through the booking of traveling acts. Harness Racing was at most fairs throughout New England, and Rochester's fair was no different. The excitement of competing horses to determine the ''fastest horse in town'' set the stage for a gala celebration that consumed everyone in town.
The success of the Fair in those early years led to increased attendance from those not only from the surrounding area, but from as far away as Boston as well. Special trains would be added at fairtime just to fill the needs of those traveling from Massachusetts. This success of the early fairs allowed for the building of numerous structures many of which still stand proudly today. Rochester is one of the few fairs in the state that still has the bulk of their victorian buildings, most others have been lost to fire or neglect. Both their Grandstand and Exhibition Building are over 100 years old.
Today's Fair in many respects is not much different than that of years ago. While it now must compete with everything from large Cineplex's to civic centers and theaters, it has found a way to carve out a special niche in people's lives. Still present in Rochester are the Harness Races, animal competitions, entertainment, midway and the Exhibition Building full of everything from quilts to pumpkins. Rochester Fair has had to work hard over the past few years to find their role in today's ever changing society. While local granges may not carry the weight they used to, the Fair has supported both Boy and Girl Scouts in a way unequaled by any other Fair in the state. This support combined with their unique educational tours for children and a similar level of activities for nursing home residents, has allowed the fair to remain a very special time for those that attend or compete much as they did years ago.
The History of the Rochester Fair
By Violet Horne Dwyer and Florence Horne Smith
Rochester, N.H. - In 1874, about seventy Rochester residents, unhappy with the old county fair, met at the Town Hall and formed the Rochester Agricultural and Mechanical Association. Each member contributed one dollar for fair costs. Three weeks later, the first Fair was held at the Riverside Trotting Park, a small park near the river at the end of Park Street. The Agricultural and Mechanical displays were hastily assembled in canvas tents, and the two day fair on October 7th and 8th attracted several hundred people, according to an 1892 history of Rochester.
Even after the modest success of that first 1874 Fair, the Association had some difficult times; there was no Fair held the next year because of trouble renting the Riverside Trotting Park site. They did hold Fairs at that location during 1877 and 1878, which were successful enough to lead them in search for a permanent home for the Fair.
A New Site
The Fair Association initially attempted to purchase the Riverside Trotting Park but when negotiations were unsuccessful, they ended up purchasing 38 acres of land at the end of Tebbets Avenue, which is now Lafayette Street. Over ensuing years, the rest of the fairground's 58 acres were bought in parcels. The land was named Cold Spring Park, for a spring situated at the bottom of a ravine to the left of the entrance and another to the south. Ironically, the Fair doesn't own the spring for which it's named because the spring floods every spring.
In 1879, the Rochester Fair was held at this new location, where a large wooden exhibition had recently been completed. This structure was destroyed during a violent storm in the winter of 1882. It was replaced the following summer with a larger building in the form of a Maltese cross, measuring 90 feet each way. Now well over 100 years old and still in service, the Exhibition Building is actually four buildings with additions and enclosures done periodically to reach its current size of one acre, housing some of the largest fair exhibits in the state.
The association was incorporated in 1886 and issued 100 shares of stock at $50.00 each. The original members were given the first 70 shares. The Fair Association elected its first president, I. W. Springfield.
At the turn of the century, the Rochester Fair began with a street parade assembled on Charles Street and featured floats drawn by horses and oxen. The floats, entered by organizations, businesses and neighboring towns, were colorful and attractive. In keeping with an agricultural theme, they were lavishly decorated with native fruits, vegetables and seasonal flowers. Prominent was the familiar ''Fair Wagon'' which the Association had purchased from George F. Wiley. Formerly a laundry wagon, it had been repainted and elaborately lettered and was used to advertise the Fair throughout Rochester and neighboring vicinities. Professional decorators appeared in town a week before the Fair to trim buildings with flags and bunting in anticipation of the big event. The old Fair wagon is proudly kept on display at the grandstand.
Special trains came to Rochester from every direction, and Hanson Street was alive with people as train after train arrived. A ''hack'' to the park cost only 10 cents, but most people preferred to walk, with some stopping at the many restaurants that lined Hanson Street. Far outside the gate of the fairgrounds, along Lafayette Street, fortune tellers, photographers and food vendors, took advantage of the crowd.
In 1905, the Fair still ran for four days, and when it closed on Friday evening, Rochester, with 1,900 residents, had hosted 30,000 people. The week of the Fair, often called ''Old Home Week'' found people keeping open house and entertaining many visitors. Some local residents claimed that it took at least another week to recuperate.
What the Turn of the Century Fair was Like
The early Fairs, not elaborate productions, included Grange Exhibits, livestock, arts, needlework, cooked food, and simple contests. Schools closed for the week, and a holiday atmosphere took over the town. Families arrived at the park with lunches of home cooked food and spent the day with friends and neighbors, admiring the handiwork, produce, and livestock. There were strict rules prohibiting the sale of liquor, gambling on the grounds, and smoking in the stalls.
In 1898, admission to the park was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under 12; railroad rates to Rochester included the price of admission with the purchase of a round trip ticket. By this time, the Fair was held for four days, the first day being Tuesday when children under 12 were admitted free. Because the park was not lighted, it was closed in the evening, and a show was given downtown, under the gaslights, near the Parson Main monument.
Entering the fairgrounds in the early 20th century, one passed through a magnificent Gothic arch with the inscription ''Cold Spring Park''. To the right were the mammoth Exhibition Building with large, open doors and a cheerful, airy appearance, much as it is today. The Floral Court was an outdoor exhibit at first, but was enclosed the year after an early frost ruined all of the displays. Band music was so popular that Hanson's American Band was usually hired for the week, and free concerts were given daily. The band would play at the bandstand in the morning until the races started. Then they'd go to the grandstand. The bandstand, which was built about 1880, was once nearer the back of the park but was later moved to its present location. It is now enclosed and used as headquarters for the police on duty at the Fair.
The program of these Fairs included baby shows, kite contests, plowing contests, baseball games, novelty races, and tugs of war between teams made up of shop and mill employees. In 1898, W.H. Barnes of Sioux City, Iowa brought to Rochester his two famous diving elk, weighing 800 pounds each. They were to perform twice a day, diving from a 40 foot platform in a 16 foot square tank containing twelve feet of water. The same year also featured the Vadis Twin Sister Aerial Act, Rossow Midgets' Boxing Exhibition and Carl Dammann Troupe of Acrobats. In 1901, the Fair debut its first night show called ''The Last Days of Pompeii'' with a cast of 200 people.
The Wright Brother's ''flying machine'' landed in center field in 1910 for a four day visit at the Fair. It was billed as the greatest drawing feature ever brought to Rochester. In 1911, the famous pilot Charles K. Hamilton, who did three shows a day, brought a Curtis Biplane to the Fair. That same year a new exhibit of automobiles was introduced. In conjunction with the display was a most unusual automobile race, with the vehicles traveling one mile in high gear. Prizes were awarded for the three slowest cars, the best decorated and the worst looking.
Professor T. H. Flowers of Boston, famous for his aerial balloon programs, appeared at many Fairs. The hot air balloon ascension and parachute drops took place in early afternoon of each day and people all over the city looked skyward. This was a traditional part of the Rochester Fair from the 1800's into the 1930's.
In the 1920s and 1930s, five or six barnstormers would dog fight above the fairgrounds then land on the racetrack's infield to take paying passengers for a ride. The planes were small enough and light enough to land and take off in that short of a makeshift runway. The Fair didn't invite them, but they charged $5.00 per ride.
The 1928 Rochester Fair was held in late August, in expectation that an earlier date would attract summer visitors and draw a bigger crowd. The new time didn't work in spite of the appearance of a horse that climbed an aerial walkway and dived forty feet into a 6 foot pool of water with a young lady on his back. Sondra Carver, the champion rider from Atlantic City who performed with these highly trained Arabian horses did this without getting hurt.
In the 1920s and 1930s, wrestlers would accept challengers from the audience who would earn money if they won. Sharky the Seal did standard seal tricks in the 1950s. In addition to motordomes, The Girl in the Moon would ride a motorcycle loop to loop going upside down in a large section of pipe. The Lobster Man in the mid 1980s displayed his deformed hands. Because the girlie shows and tattoo tents made the midway too raucous, the Fair removed them in the 1980s. Over the years, the Fair has also had sword swallowers, fire breathers, acrobats, exotic animal displays, two headed calves, and a six footed horse.
In the 1930s, the Rochester Fair was hurting financially, as was everyone else in the Great Depression. To compensate for this pressure, the Fair became a non profit organization in 1932. A few years later, the Fair instituted legalized ''Pari-Mutuel'' betting. The directors wanted to make the Fair even smaller to cut their overhead. They thought they could sell the grounds to a Catholic Church and the parishioners would buy residential lots. Then they would move the Fair to Hansonville and get a half mile track. In the end, it didn't work out, but the Rochester Fair would have been very different or non-existent if it had.
Time and again, misfortune, storms and fires have plagued Cold Spring Park but the Fair has always survived. One of the worst natural disasters was the hurricane of 1938, when on Wednesday, Sept. 21, high winds tore through the grounds just a few days before the scheduled opening. The impressive Gothic entrance was destroyed, fences were damaged and cattle sheds and other buildings were blown down. Trees were uprooted and streets blocked all over the city; yet the 1938 Rochester Fair opened Sunday to do business as usual.
Before the E. Laurence Osgood Entertainment Center was built, the entertainment was presented at the grandstand on an open stage. This included vaudeville acts, chorus line dancers, the Miss Rochester Fair contest, Pat Boone, and numerous others. Besides the threat of inclement weather, the acts between every race slowed down the racing, so the entertainment's location was moved to a tent on the current site of the Osgood Entertainment Center. The tent allowed the entertainment to go on even if it rained. A permanent structure was built in 1988 in time for a small elephant to stand on the Entertainment Center's stage without crushing it. Recent Entertainment has included the Coasters, Tiny Tim, and Kitty Wells.
Over the years, a lot of barns originally located throughout the grounds succumbed to either fire or age. Due to a lack of money and participation, these buildings were never replaced. As agriculture died down in New Hampshire over the century, the midway and harness racing both enjoyed expansions. The Coleman Brothers, providing the midway from 1928 - 1987, featured only about a dozen rides and some gambling games in the 1940s and 1950s. The big rides, which now total over 40, have existed here only in the last twenty years. Billy Burr ran his midway here from 1988 to 1993, and Fiesta Shows arrived in 1994. Since 1990, a resurgence of interest in education and agriculture has helped to spur the building of three new barns and the renovation of the exhibition building. The latest transition has helped the Fair position itself as it entered the 21st century.
The Length of the Fair
From 1874 until 1885, the Rochester Fair was two days long. For the next half century, the Fair was four days long. During a four day run Tuesday was kids' day, and Wednesday and Thursday were the banner days. When the Fair was still only four days long, only 50 - 60 horses raced for the season. During the 1940s, the directors decided to add a fifth day to the Fair to accommodate more racing. By 1959, the Fair's length had doubled to eight days and remained that long until 1965. It was ten days long from 1975 to 1984, after which the Fair grew to eleven days. In 1998 it again changed to its present length of 9 days.
At the turn of the century, Fairgoers tied their horses to rails set up on the infield. The Racing office was built in 1935 and is considered the best racing office around. The judges' stand used to be where the tote board is now. It looked like a square version of the current Security Building Bandstand. By the 1940s, it succumbed to age, and at this point, a new structure was built on the grandstand roof. The use of a starting gate was started in the 1940s and night racing began in 1957. For decades, the racetrack used calculating machines to handle the betting until 1988, when the use of computers helped with the computations. Rochester is the only fair in the state that has maintained its racetrack and its racing heritage. Other area racetracks that have closed include Bridgetown, Cornish, Deerfield, Dover, Gorham, Hopkinton, Kennebunk, Laconia, Lancaster, Newmarket, and Pittsfield.
Pari-Mutuel Harness Racing
Before the 1930s, there was no legalized Pari-Mutuel betting at the racetrack, but there were betting pools with a 50 cent limit on gambling. The bookies wore white coats and stood next to the track on platforms near the bandstand. Mutuel betting started here in 1934 and the Rochester Fair were the only Fair in the United States to have it. In 1935, pari-mutuel Racing started at the fair with runners and trotters. Pari-Mutuel harness racing, one of Rochester Fair's main attractions, draws huge crowds from miles around every night of the fair. Over the years, the Fair has hosted some champion horses, including Margaret Dillon, the first pacer to run the mile in two minutes. World records have been set here, including the record for In Hand Coach and Under Saddle in 1936, the mile and an eighth both trot and pace in 1967, and for the high wheel sulky trot and pace in 1969.
The ''Hall of Fame''
A museum known as the ''Hall of Fame'' open to the public during the Fair is located in a room under the grandstand. The center attraction is a life sized model of a horse, with sulky and driver. The walls of the room are covered with pictures of drivers and horses and lined with cases containing racing silks and trophies, honoring those who have raced at the local track. Pictures and other memorabilia from former fairs have been donated to be displayed here. On exhibit are copies of sheet music by Laurence Willey, who composed ''Rochester Fair March'', ''Rochester Fair Waltz'', and ''Rochester Fair Rag''. There are paintings of horses painted by the famous Rochester native, Wilbur Duntley, known as the designer or our Parson Main monument. The old Fair Wagon is stored outside this room. Today the Rochester Fair attracts more then 150,000 people annually.