On Location: The Topsfield Fair

THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE IS THE SMELL: tractor exhaust, fryolator grease, essence of cow, and a high schooler’s Drakkar Noir, all swirled together in the autumn breeze. This is the calling card of the Topsfield Fair (10/2–10/12), which each year attracts more than half a million visitors to the sleepy North Shore town to celebrate the end of summer and the start of apple season. Make that apple crisp season.

Indeed, while the fair was founded in 1818 "to promote the agricultural interests of farmers in Essex County," the interests promoted these days are more along the lines of bloomin’ onions, corn dogs, cotton candy, and the aforementioned crisps. There are still stables full of farm animals and plenty of prize vegetables, including mutant giant pumpkins. But let’s face it: The 4-H angle is a hard sell when you’ve got the Flying Wallendas and Robinson’s Racing Pigs, fleet-footed swine who barrel around a track in pursuit of an Oreo. Over at the petting zoo, you can test-drive an elephant. How’s a sheep from Boxford supposed to compete with that?

Then there’s the midway, which remains largely, sometimes scarily, unchanged from year to year. Near the entrance, the kiddie park offers the greatest odds of running into a cousin, fifth-grade teacher, or ex-girlfriend while loading your brood onto the Crazy Bus. Deeper into the midway, the mood gets darker. The Bearded Ladies and Lobster Boys of yesteryear have been replaced by teenagers getting freaky on the Arctic Blast; the guy working the ring toss looks like he’s just gotten out of the clink, again. But wait: Here’s Thumbelina, the world’s tiniest horse, at $1 per peep. Pony up. She’s cute.

Locals admit to having a love-hate relationship with the fair, which gives outsiders a reason to visit Topsfield while simultaneously reminding them it’s pretty much the only reason. "Nine times out of 10 when I tell someone I’m from Topsfield, all they want to talk about is the fair," a former resident grumbles. Still, this 191-year-old tradition can hold a powerful charm for many, including the Beverly couple who were married last year in the 4-H building, among strangers slurping frozen lemonade and ogling vegetable art. It might have been unconventional, but a $5 bowl of apple crisp is a heck of a lot cheaper than a wedding cake.

[sidebar]Topsfield Fair, 207 Boston St., Topsfield, 978-887-5000, topsfieldfair.org