Granby Heritage—The Granby Fair

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First published September 1983

From 1977 until her death on June 20, 2021, Carol Laun shared Granby history in the Granby Drummer; first with columns for the Conservation Commission then in a collaborative feature called Granby Heritage and later in her column Historic Footnotes. As archivist and curator of the Salmon Brook Historical Society (SBHS), she was a font of knowledge that she shared unstintingly, writing several books as well as her monthly column. Her vivid depictions of the life, people and customs from Granby’s past were drawn from SBHS archives and her many interviews with area residents. 

Of her writing style, Carol stated, “The study of history is the study of people. I don’t write a broad overview of events; my articles present a close-up view of one incident in the past. I try to make the people and the time come to life for the reader.”

The Drummer will continue to share Historic Footnotes with specially selected articles drawn from Carol’s past columns as a tribute to one whose words will forever preserve the rich history of our community.

Photo (front and back) courtesy of the Salmon Brook Historical Society

For any agricultural town, the harvest is the culmination of the year. Along with the harvest comes the annual Agricultural Fair, a time of excitement and exhilaration for the hard­working farm families.

Granby has had a Fair for at least 125 years. The earliest record found to date, lists the Committees for the Fair in 1859 which was sponsored by the Granby Agricultural Club. Some of the activities included a plowing match, draft cattle, fine arts and mechanics—which was not explained.

The name of the club changed to the Granby Farmers Club by 1867 and the Salmon Brook Historical Society has a paper authorizing a $5 Fair Premium payment to E. A. Holcomb. It is not known where the Fair was located then, but possibly it was held at the site of the present Town Hall, where Miles Gaines owned a race track or Trotting Park.

In 1895 the Granby Agricultural Society (another name change) bought 23 acres for a fairground on Rte. 20 east of Bushy Hill Road. Shares of stock were sold in the Society to finance this endeavor. A contemporary newspaper clipping states, “The Agricultural Society held their first fair this year, the track is in excellent shape.” Two years later the Society built a grandstand. The contract was given to Albert Gillette for $1,100. The long diagonal cross braces were specially imported from the south. The grandstand was later converted to a tobacco barn by Fred Colton and dismantled in 1980.

The fairs of the 1890s and early 1900s are still remembered by many Granby residents. Families started arriving at dawn to get choice locations for their exhibits of livestock, food and needlework. Some prizes’ premiums went as high as $2, but far more important was the fame and glory of winning a blue ribbon.

Chores were temporarily abandoned as “everybody in town’ flocked to the fair. About this time ice cream cones and hot dogs were introduced, but many Granby parents would not allow their children to eat this 1890s “junk food,” hot dogs being considered “not fit for human consumption.” Mothers packed enormous lunches and the fairground turned into one huge picnic area at noon. It was a time to socialize with neighbors and meet old friends.

The Granby Fairground also featured a bandstand for the Granby Brass Band, a baseball field in the middle of the half-mile racetrack and two horse barns for the racehorses. Exhibits were displayed under the grandstand and there was usually a row of “fakirs”, or pitchmen, with their games of chance.

The late Arthur Clark had happy memories of Fair time. He said, “The children had a holiday from school the second day of the Fair and just could not wait for it to come. People brought in their vegetables, baked goods, canned goods and handiwork to compete for premiums. Men showed their livestock. One man used to bring 12 pair of oxen, 12 matched pairs of different sizes. There were fakirs and pitchmen and a side show with things like snake charmers. Hot dogs were sold and cider was just a nickel a glass.”

The sulky racing was very popular, and in 1898 a $300 purse was offered. In 1915 the Fair advertised $900 in purses; mile heats, the best 3 out of 5 heats to harness, and straw and stalls were free. The Granby Agricultural Society proudly announced that they had spent $500 to drive a well to keep the grounds and track sprinkled.

Spectators lined the rail to watch the high-stepping horses and their brightly clad drivers circle the dusty track. Harolidine, a black stallion in green; Alcantara Queen, a black mare in orange; Lade Elmore, a chestnut mare in yellow; and Toronto Belle, a black mare in light pink. The more affluent paid 50 cents to sit in the shade of the grandstand. Although betting was not allowed, it is more than likely that a few dollars changed hands during the races.

One year as an Extra Added Attraction, a huge balloon was launched. A fire was built in the baseball infield to provide hot air for the 15-foot-high balloon. The stunt was so spectacular, it was repeated the following year. The crowd watched the balloon rise 100 – 300 – then 500 feet when it suddenly collapsed and plunged to earth hitting the bandstand as the musicians scattered in all directions. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but that was the end of ballooning in Granby.

To be continued in the October issue