The colorful and often exciting history of Topsfield Fair began in 1818 when the Essex Agricultural Society, the non-profit organization that owns the Topsfield Fair, was officially granted a charter on June 12th of that year.
The goal of the fledgling Society, formed by a group of "practical farmers" who first met on February 16, 1818, was "to promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County."
Now, nearly 200 years later, the Society still strives to do this, "to encourage, promote and preserve Essex County agricultural activities and to educate the general public regarding their importance in an atmosphere of fun and excitement through the medium of the Topsfield Fair."
What began as the Essex Agricultural Society Cattle Show with its annual exhibits/fairs held in various sites around Essex County to showcase agriculture, Topsfield Fair has been held annually at its existing location since 1910. It is fitting that the fair eventually settled in Topsfield, for it was at the town's former Cyrus Cummings Tavern that twenty or more men first gathered that February in 1818 to form what soon became the Essex Agricultural Society.
The Honorable Timothy Pickering, a 1763 Harvard graduate and Revolutionary War hero with a renowned political background, was elected as the first president of the Society, a position he held for ten years. History speaks of Pickering, who had a small farm in Wenham, as "a scientific and practical farmer" who had earlier assisted in the formation of the Agricultural Society of Philadelphia. During his political career under President George Washington he served as Postmaster General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. Returning to Massachusetts he was elected United States Senator for two terms and later served in the House of Representatives from 1813 to 1817.
An offshoot of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, incorporated in 1792, the Essex Agricultural Society, which now has more than twelve hundred members, was originally established to serve as a clearinghouse for farmers. Its goal was to gather and provide information from progressive farmers and bring that information to every farmer in Essex County.
The Society first brought the needed information to its members by publishing, in pamphlet form, informative information on agriculture. The information ranged from methods used by progressive farmers to new tools that were available and new breeds of animals.
The first pamphlet recorded a paper written by President Pickering and presented on May 5, 1818. The subjects included information on an incredible cow with remarkable butter-making qualities owned by Caleb Oakes of Danvers, and some new root crops. So impressed was Pickering with the new root crops (believed to be carrots) he supplied each member of the Society with a packet of seeds.
The second method of bringing important information to the farmers of Essex County was the Cattle Show that had proved popular in other areas. The fair as it is known today descended from that original event that was held on October 5, 1820 in Topsfield. According to historical documents, Topsfield was chosen because it was the most central point in Essex County in those days of stagecoach travel.
At that first show there were committee reports on working oxen, neat cattle, dairy, fat oxen and swine, Indian corn, potatoes and manure. The first premium was awarded to President Pickering for "superior performance of his plough."
The fair has been held annually since that first cattle show with just six exceptions, all out of the hands of the Society. By government decree it was suspended for three years during the Civil War and for three years, 1943, 1944 and 1945 during World War II.
Topsfield Fairgrounds sits on the former Treadwell Farm property. Dr. John Goodhue Treadwell of Salem bequeathed the farm to the Agricultural Society in 1858 for the "promotion of the science of agriculture."