“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my . . .” like The Wizard of Oz film of 1939, the 200-year-old Skowhegan Fair has had its share of wild animals over the years, including camels and elephants. However, times have changed and wild animals have been mostly replaced by trucks, motorcycles and laser guns in more recent renditions of an event that this year hits the two century mark.
Two hundred years ago the fair began in Skowhegan as the Somerset Central Agricultural Society, attracting “the largest crowds ever to have assembled in Somerset County,” according to fair history unearthed at the Skowhegan History House and from other sources.

The early days of the fair were two- to three-day affairs attended by folks within easy driving distance by horse and buggy. There was the train in 1858 and people could stay at the Tavern Hotel. It was the automobile and good roads that allowed for growth.

Maine was still part of Massachusetts until 1820 and the fair was a place for information on improving the breeding of horses, cattle and other livestock, including swine and sheep, of course. This goal has been maintained through the years; farm animals remain a staple of the fair.

In 1856, the current fairgrounds were acquired and have expanded over the years as need and land became available. The fairgrounds are used throughout the year for agricultural events including horse shows and community interest events, such as the Artisan Bread Fair, Maple Festival and Halloween Haunted Hayride.

People have flocked to the marvels and spectacles over the years— from the latest farm machinery, transportation, automobiles, planes, bicycles, motorcycles, telephones, to today’s electronics, cell phones and computers. And don’t forget the “Hoochy-Koochy” shows and the excitement of the midway rides.

The fair was the best way of disseminating information on the latest farm equipment, methods, breeds, crops and pests, before there was an agricultural college or extension service. The University of Maine was not established until 1865 and the Cooperative Extension Service came in 1914. Children’s programs, such as 4-H, were formed in 1924 with the clover emblem. The Farm Bureau and Grange were early farm organizations developed to represent farmers and help to maintain food security.

In 1920, women won the right to vote. World War I was two years over then, and the Great Depression was yet to come. A majority of drivers learned on the Ford Model T—it was cheap, easy to repair and people began to travel.

Maine was still an agricultural state with draft horse and oxen pulls, and women learning and sharing the latest homemaking skills, as the fair balanced agricultural information with the lure of the midway, harness racing and stage shows.

The 1923 fair program had some interesting items, such as Cow Racing—no one seemed to know how that happened, saying the only time they had seen cows running was when they got out of the barn in spring. There were ads from breeders of Barred and Partridge Rocks, Regal Dorcas and White Wyandottes; eggs were available in season. How about printed butter paper, or spruce butter tubs from Greenville and jewelry from Russakoff’s? Season tickets for four days cost $2. General admission was 50 cents; children, 25 cents.

In 1934, the Grandstand burned and was replaced in 1935. Arson took it again in 1999, along with Constitution Hall. New, metal buildings were built in time for the fair that year.
In 1942, the fair became the Skowhegan State Fair while World War II raged on in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific. Bingo, harness racing, demolition derbies, thrill shows, 4-H shows, livestock demonstrations, sheep, beef, steer shows were part and parcel of the fair experience and continue today.

In 1948, the Saturday Evening Post featured a Norman Rockwell painting of the 4-H Building with families and exhibitors. The 4-H Building is still in use for 4-H exhibits and programs. Sunday is 4-H Day with a parade at 11:30 a.m. and livestock demonstrations at 1p.m. Most days have 4-H events scheduled for livestock, such as dairy cattle, beef Heifer and steer show, beef cattle, sheep show and horse show.

The 1950s saw expanding exhibitions and more performers. Exhibitors come from all over the state, nation and Canada. Was this when the Grandstand no long had usherettes or cigarette girls?
In 1961, “Miss Maine in Vacationland” was selected. The events and fun change and one never knows what will be added to the standards— like a horse race in 1929, or a football game between Skowhegan and Madison, or a show of 53 midgets in the ’40s. And where did the Doll Carriage Parade go?

In 2001, the Eames Flower Building was built, named for long-time supporter Don Eames. A water fountain graces Hight Park in honor of Walter Hight’s wife. In 2002, a new Race Paddock was built, named Forest “Bud” Stevens Memorial Paddock. In 2004, a second horse barn was built to replace older barns.

In 2003, a camping area was added to the grounds, accommodating 200 campers, plus small tents; water, electric and sewer are available at some sites. Also there are sites for the workers traveling with the shows.

An Antique Power Show opens at 10 a.m. daily and all exhibition halls open at noon to carry on a tradition that has endured 200 years.

Meanwhile, as it has for more than a century, the midway opens at 1 p.m. and tractor pulls take place in the grandstand area. Doodlebug Pulling is held in the Coliseum and the more modern events, such as wrestling and laser tag, have been added to the midway show area.

Music is now a standard in Midway Park, and the noise-filled Demolition Derby is a relatively-new addition to the grandstand area .
So, with a history that remains unbroken, the Skowhegan State Fair will break loose again this year with 10 days of exciting events, shows, music, animals, tractor pulling, children’s barnyard, pig scrambles and people everywhere, each looking for their own brand of interest.

That could be education or entertainment, competition or promotion, art or distraction, curiosity or glitz and glamour, funk, photos, flowers, vegetables, quilts, canning and cookies; there is something for every taste, including a women’s fry pan toss and a men’s hammer toss.

The fair even provides a great place to people watch if a person can find a quiet corner to sit and observe.

In our hearts, however, there will always be “lions and tigers and bears, oh my. . .” and thoughts of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz!

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.