Maine has many agricultural fairs, as well as the absolutely unique Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. Common Ground remains in a category all its own, sponsored since 1977 by Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). A “celebration of organic living, farming and growing,” it is host to numerous political and social activism groups and Maine-based organizations focusing on environmental, wildlife and marine concerns. As of 2017, the fair is powered entirely by alternative sources, including a 102-kilowatt solar array, a series of heat pumps and a small wind turbine. There’s no midway or demo derby, no harness racing or burlesque. Instead, there are two farmers’ markets, one at each entrance, and two food courts, selling only organic foods, including vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections. There are drovers of oxen, horses and mules, sheep-dog demonstrations, poets and fiddlers, solar and wind power vendors and a Youth Enterprise Transition Zone where young entrepreneurs offer all things hand-made, from books to beeswax candles, clothing and cutting boards, flatbreads, jewelry, juggling balls, walking sticks and more — a sneak preview of the next generation of Maine artists and craftspeople.

Common Ground is not, of course, your everyday fair; its origins lie in the back-to-the-land counterculture movement of the 1970s. The traditional county agricultural fair originated with colonial village market days and livestock exhibitions, growing over decades into the massive events of today. Market days and livestock exhibitions, sponsored by area agricultural societies, were common in Britain by the time American farmers borrowed the idea. In the late 1700s, American agricultural societies were already promoting new farming methods: the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, formed in 1785, included such notable members as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

By 1840, state legislatures across the country formed agricultural boards and allocated funds to agricultural societies to stage regular exhibitions. In 1841, the first state fair took place in Syracuse, New York. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society, the three-day event attracted more than 15,000 people. Fairs became highly anticipated events for which farm families adjusted their work schedules as far as a month in advance in order to earn a few work-free days at a fair. For many people, the fair would mark the first time they saw electric lights or airplanes, sewing and washing machines, a printing press, or stereopticon pictures. Following the Civil War, states increased funding to construct permanent fairgrounds, complete with buildings and a midway. After 1870, political speeches, carnival games, vaudevillian performances, horse racing and enticing edibles became part of the fair-going experience. More than education and amusement, county fairs helped guide rural people through an increasingly modern world, introducing them to both new equipment and new forms of entertainment.

Even today, fairgoers celebrate agricultural achievements and enjoy exhibitions, food, carnival rides, entertainment, competitions, and concerts. While I’ve attended fairs in Maine and Vermont, and thought I knew what a fair was all about — fried dough and sausage and peppers, cotton candy and the Tilt-a-Whirl, country music and tractor pulls – last week I spent a blisteringly hot and humid day at the Huntingdon County Fair, started in 1831 and the premier agricultural exposition in Pennsylvania, second only to the State Farm Show. The more than sixty acres of grounds include camping facilities, exhibit halls and barns, a couple of streams with two bridges, and lots of grassy areas with large shade trees and benches everywhere, so you can sit and watch the world stream by while you happily consume funnel cakes, cotton candy, lemonade, kraut dogs, or, in our case, giant rootbeer floats courtesy of the Eagle Scouts’ booth.

It’s the farm animals and the folks who care for them that remain the focus of the Huntingdon fair. While it appeared that, with the possible exception of Mimi’s Martini Bar, every restaurant and food truck from the city of Huntingdon had relocated to the fairgrounds for the week to feed both fairgoers and inhabitants of the small village of trailers that sheltered families caring for the cows and beef cattle, goats, sheep, horses, hogs and rabbits on display (because of the threat of avian influenza, poultry hasn’t been exhibited at the fair since the 1990s). Rabbits are housed where poultry was formerly and I have never seen such an array of rabbits, from sleek mahogany-furred ones to spotted pale gray bucks so large they couldn’t fully stretch out in their cages, bunnies heavier than my 16-pound Maltese-poodle mix dog, but shorter.

Almost as fascinating as the livestock were the legions of small 4-H and Future Farmers of America members who roamed the midway and gathered in show rings to display their beef cows or lambs, all wearing their organization’s T-shirts and well-worn muck boots. While the rides and games were attractive to them, we had the distinct impression that the real action was around the edges of the show rings and in the milking parlors. There were a few tattooed, blue-haired teens in evidence at the fair, but they were vastly outnumbered by the wholesomely geeky farm kids, who were leading their perfectly groomed animals around in the livestock sale ring, getting top dollar for their home-raised meat.

We missed the coronation of the fair queen, but an overview of the requirements to compete for the honor indicates that it’s not just a beauty pageant. In addition to submitting an essay on “What My Fair Means to My Community,” the prospective queens had to give a speech on “Why You Should Come to My Fair,” while standing beside a farm safety display board of their own creation, as the queen’s duties include being an ambassador for farm safety throughout the year. Of the five candidates, three were active in 4-H and the other two were athletes who competed in track and field events as well as marching band. All were fit and wholesomely attractive, able to handle a sceptre as easily as the bridle of a prize steer. The Founding Fathers would approve.