Northern Maine Fair
Dena L. Winslow
Copyright 2013 – All Rights Reserved

Aside from providing annual education, fun, and friendly competitions, the Northern Maine Fair has contributed much to Aroostook County over the past 150 years.  From encouraging settlement of “The County” in the early days, through providing quarters for the troops during World War II.  The Story of the Northern Maine Fair provides a unique glimpse into the history of central Aroostook.

The brainchild of Wingate Haines, referred to later as the “Father of the Fair,” it was originally intended to promote the breeding and exhibition of purebred cattle in Aroostook.  Haines, who had settled in Fort Fairfield in about 1845, owned a heard of purebred Devon cattle.  He convinced others to join with him to hold an annual cattle show.  Along with the group of other men from the area, Haines requested of the Legislature that the group be allowed to incorporate the “North Aroostook Agricultural and Horticultural Society.”  This act was approved July 17, 1850.

With Wingate Haines as the first president, the first annual “Cattle Show and Fair” was held in Presque Isle the following year Oct. 8-9, 1851.  The location of this first fair seems to be in dispute.  The Bangor Commercial newspaper of 1913 reported that the fair exhibition was held, “among the stumps in the old town of Maysville, now Presque Isle, near the present site of the village.”  This would very likely be in the vicinity of where it is located today.  However, in 1914, G. M. Park reported that he had been told it was held on the streets in front of where the stores are now in downtown Presque Isle.

Whatever the exact location, there were a good variety of entries exhibited at this first fair.  There were breeding mares, 3-year old colts, matching pairs of horses, other horse exhibits; oxen and steers, bulls, cows and heifers, sheep, and swine.  There were also exhibits of farming tools, butter, cheese, hand woven cloth of several varieties, along with hand-spun wool yarns, and ladies’ fancy work.  There were also handmade boots, turnip seeds, hats, axe handles, a beaded purse, and a group of 59 turkeys.

From these humble beginnings in 1851, the exhibitions continued yearly.  In 1856, the editor of The Aroostook Pioneer, a Presque Isle newspaper, conceived of the idea to invite all of the editors from all of the major newspapers in Maine to visit the fair that year, as well as the farms in the area.  This was the first time such a gathering of newspaper editors had occurred.  The intention of the Presque Isle editor and the trustees of the North Aroostook Agricultural and Horticultural society was to have the “rest of Maine” see the richness and fertility of Aroostook County first hand.  They hoped that the editors would then write glowing reports about the area in their newspapers, and thus encourage settlers to come to Aroostook.  The plan worked wonderfully!  Aroostook’s population and prosperity grew by leaps and bounds following the “Editorial Excursion.”

One of the other motives of the organizers of the “Editorial Excursion” had to do with bringing a different type of “horse” to Aroostook County.  Having a railroad come north would open the way for even more settlement and growth, as well as providing a quicker way to get goods to markets outside the area.  W. T. Ashby wrote in 1909, “In 1859 it looked as though inside of three years the iron horse would come snorting through the woods to the Aroostook River.  But it was many a long year before the iron horse crossed the forest and drank from the Aroostook.”

Prior to the arrival of the editors to Aroostook in 1856, there were many misperceptions about the area in southern Maine.  Such comments as, “scientific men now agree that the North Pole is located in Aroostook County,” and “cabins are now built on the Aroostook River from blocks of ice.  They are said to be handsome huts and in that climate will last as long as granite.”  There were stories of people living in caves eating frozen buckwheat; and babies being born with hair all over their body due to the climate; as well as stories of people sleeping with their snowshoes on.

It was hoped that by bringing the editors of Maine’s papers to Aroostook, to see first hand for themselves what the area offered, some of the misperceptions about the area would be cleared up.  Arrangements were made with the various railroad, steamboat, and stage lines, as well as hotels along the way, and invitations were sent out to the editors throughout Maine.  In preparation for the visit, the Pioneer published a request for the farmers to put on a successful exhibition that year.  Ladies were not omitted and were asked to also put on a display of their “taste, industry, and skill.”  The article concluded, “Friends, let us try and see what we can do.  The result of such persistent and united effort will surprise even ourselves.”  Residents responded with a large show of fine animals indicating as one editor noted, that Aroostook, “is one of the finest grazing regions in the Union.”

The first morning of the fair in 1858, the sun rose clear and the streets quickly filled with people.  The roads leading to Presque Isle were lined with animals being driven to town for the show.  At about 5 p.m. that day the editors arrived in town.  There were over 35 in the group, representing two-thirds of the newspapers in Maine.  It was the first time such a gathering of editors had ever occurred in the state for any purpose.  That evening, crowds gathered at the school in Presque Isle where the exhibition was held.  The building quickly filled to overflowing to hear the speeches by several of the editors.  Glowing comments were made by the editors about the richness and fertility of the “Garden of Maine.”  All of the editors also expressed their support for a railroad as an aid to settlement of northern Maine.

In addition to viewing the exhibitions at the fair, the editors also visited local farms and communities.  Upon returning home the editors wrote about the splendid displays they had seen exhibited at the Fair.  In addition to the animals, they wrote about the fruits and vegetables on display.  Edward Elwell of the Portland Transcript reported that, “the potatoes are enormous in size and excellent in quality – for we have tried them.  The varieties raised are chiefly the ‘California,’ ‘Christie,’ ‘State of Maine,’ ‘Pink-eye,’ and ‘Orange.’”  Elwell added, “Cabbage heads, too, are not wanting, though they don’t flourish on the shoulders of the men and women.”

The ladies’ displays were not ignored by the editors.  They described the butter, cheese, handiwork, and woven cloth.  J. H. Lynde of the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier took particular interest in the cloth on display.  He described, “specimens of beautiful plaid homespun cloth, which is worn for dresses by the handsome and healthy women of Aroostook.  One of these dresses will last two winters – and keep the wearer warm and comfortable in cold weather, and will look quite handsomely besides.  If our females would try and wear comfortable clothes, and follow common sense more than fashion, they might in time become healthy and strong as the women of this section.”

Even in 1858 the fair included horse racing, although not of the type we are used to today.  John Adams of the Eastern Argus mentioned that there were about 1,000 people present, “evidently enjoying themselves to the utmost.”  In the evening horses raced “in the road, or started to do so, but the horses veered to either side and made the crowds fly as briskly if not as fast as themselves.  Fortunately no one was hurt, though one of the riders was thrown and appeared to turn a somersault among the horse’s legs.”  J. H. Lynde of the Bangor Whig and Courier noted, “The boys (editors) were much interested in the scrub races, started for the amusement of the bystanders, which were not all conducted upon the rules which ordinarily govern races on the course.”

In view of the huge success of the first “Editorial Excursion,” a second one was held 10 years later in 1878.  The second visit of the editors also brought glowing reports to the rest of Maine about Aroostook County.

In the years following the first “Editorial Excursion” in 1858, there was talk of purchasing land in order to have a permanent location for the fair to be held each year.  In 1862, 10 acres, including at least part of the present day Northern Maine Fair property was selected.  However, no action was taken toward purchasing the land.  The North Aroostook Agricultural and Horticultural Society had built an exhibition hall, but were unable to even lease the land under the building.  For a few years until 1889 the fair was held in Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield.  There were horse races and cattle exhibitions in Fort Fairfield, and all other events were held in Presque Isle.  In 1892 the members of the Society decided to purchase the Presque Isle Trotting Park Association’s property from C.F.A. Johnson and T. H. Phair.  The park was purchased for $1,000, to be paid in yearly payments of $100 plus 6 percent interest.

What a Race


When “Fearless” and “Bloodmont” headed for the finish line in 1873, they were neck and neck.  No one in the enormous record-breaking crowd assembled to watch this particular race could have predicted what happened next…

Even in 1893, there were friendly rivalries between area towns.  In this case, the contest was between Presque Isle and Fort Fairfield for the fastest horse.  “Fearless” was described as a tall, jet-black horse with a high head and a long neck and erect ears.  He was owned by Jessie Drew of Fort Fairfield.  Years later, when the horse was described by one Presque Isle man, he said, “a hard horse to drive or manage, more liable to break and run than was the Presque Isle horse.”  Another Presque Isle man described “Fearless” as “always difficult to control, this day he took the bit in his teeth and raced to suit himself.”  In the same descriptions, they highly praised Presque Isle’s steed, “Bloodmont.”   Old rivalries die hard, and apparently take on a life of their own sometimes, even years later in people’s recollections!

“Bloodmont,” owned by Thomas Phair of Presque Isle had been imported from Kentucky along with “Almont Clay” fondly referred to as “Allie Clay.”  On this day, the spotlight was on “Bloodmont,” described as a “low-set, strong-built horse, with broad stout shoulders, short neck; strongly built with a full deep breast, made for endurance in a race.”  He was a deep chestnut brown in color with a black mane and tail.  Described further by a Presque Isle resident as, “honest as the day is long and easily a favorite for his good qualities.”  No favoritism in those comments!

With record breaking crowds assembled to watch this highly anticipated race, people climbed on the fences and stood in carriages to get a view of the track.  There was not even standing room left for the race.  G. M. Park describes the events, “From the word go, all eyes were centered on these horses…  For a while, it was neck to neck and nose to nose, as these horses passed the quarters and made the first half mile.  All was silent, men and women held their breath as the horses passed the first and second quarters of the home stretch.”  It was then that “Fearless” broke as they headed into the finish line.

O.B. Griffin described the scene, “the crowd witnessed one of the most magnificent bursts of speed they had ever seen.  ‘Fearless’ swept by the field, as if they were outclassed; as they passed the grandstand, he led the field around the turn out of sight while the grandstand crowd stood and tore things to pieces.  He did not appear again, but left the track, ran into a double wagon in which his owner Jessie Drew, was standing, smashed the sulky to pieces and ran away up town.”

Demonstrating outstanding sportsmanship, T. H. Phair withdrew his horse, “Bloodmont” from the race.  He did not want to win under those circumstances.  There were near riots as people were upset about this turn of events.

In 1894, “Fearless” and “Bloodmont” were at the starting line again.  This time, there was tremendous interest in this particular race and even larger crowds had assembled to watch.  G. M. Park wrote, “there was the same intense interest and feelings ran high, and everything centered around this race.  It was by far the most exciting race ever witnessed upon the Fair grounds.  The weather was fine, cool and favorable for good work.  Both horses and drivers did their best.  It was again, sometimes, neck and neck and nose to nose, till they were on the home stretch, when ‘Bloodmont’s’ driver let him out and urged him on.  All eyes were on them, and ‘Bloodmont’ took the lead – men and women cheered, threw up their hats, waved their handkerchiefs as ‘Bloodmont’ passed under the wire and won the race handsomely.”

“Cheer followed cheer, was taken up again and repeated until men were hoarse.  And ‘Bloodmont’ was led back to the judges’ stand, some lady friends stepped forward and crowned him victor with a collar of beautiful flowers slipped over his bridle and neck.”

The year after “Bloodmont’s” victory, the horse’s owner, T. H. Phair, offered to build a grandstand and judges’ stand at a cost of $1,600.  He would pay the cost in payments of $300 per year for four years, and the final payment of $400 the fifth year.  The grandstand was used until 1912 when a larger one was built.