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Tipsham Fair

ISSUE:  Spring 1931


Fairs are no new thing with us. We have always had them in the blood. Christian and Faithful were going down the streets of a city older than Babylon when they walked through their seventeenth-century Vanity Fair to carp at the goings-on. And the two pilgrims could have gotten into no better place, if they had only had heads less Calvinistic in shape to know it. St. Bartholomew’s at London, St. Giles’ at Oxford, St. John’s, St. Hugh’s, St. Ives’— the best saints going have been proud to lend fairs their aureoles to make them shine. English life has always been about one-fifth fairs; German, one-third; French, one-half. We sons of Europe have bred a thousand European strains out of our blood:—the idea that the best people do no work, that the people of the bluest blood do not soil their hands with manual labor, that the most aristocratic costume is that reserved for the ancient and holy calling of human butchery, that a man’s shirt is a thing to be seen only in a bedroom; but we have not bred the idea of the fair out of our veins. No village so small but has its annual display of cucumbers nursed like babies and babies nursed like pumpkins, water-color landscapes by mute, inglorious Whistlers of farmers’ wives, Rhode Island Reds and other good laying hens. Our fairs are thick as bonfires in the Fall, and they are as much a holy incense and thanksgiving to Ceres and Pomona, the good goddesses of apples and vines. Think of scarlet, think of amber, think of Autumn leaves, and not think of a fair! of children returning to school, and not think of horses racing and men going up in balloons to all manner of places! A razor is no more the sign of a man in the house than a toy, balloon, or a rubber pig that cries wistfully as he dies, is a sign of a fair in the air. Farmers’ children with the pastures behind the ears mowed and made spick and span, and unfamiliar shoes on bronzed feet, a restlessness among hens and cattle, conveyances crowded to the gunwales with families moving out across horizons like pioneers—there are no two ways about it, a country fair is imminent.

There are so many things in this world that crumble or change, mastodons and moustaches, that it is comforting to find one that does not. The country fair changes less than the Bible. Every so often some tinker or plumber feels called upon to bring the Scriptures up to date and so make the pious scripts our fathers were married and buried in archaic; but no progressive busybodies have been able to change the spots of a fair. Oxen, those plodders which have something of God and something of the quiet life of the mountains in them, lurch off the stage to give place to Fords; but men still will have pulling matches, between machines, if not beasts. Balloons blunder out, and aeroplanes swim in; but people will still cry to have men hazard their necks in the blue. Beards shrivel and fall; homemade trousers give way to machined monuments to manhood; but the sins and virtues of the fair go on being the same sins and virtues unto the third and fourth generation.

If human nature ever does change, a fairground will be the last place to see it. As yet, looking back over a millennium or so, one can observe no variation. A fairground is the best place to study the art of being a human being. The thickest slices of human nature are to be had there. From the Midway to the Poultry Exhibit, merry-go-round to race-track, the Old Adam and the Old Eve, with a lot of interesting snakes, wend their way. Perhaps one-half of our population of these States still find the fair the best place to court or lose a wife. Boys act like tall men here; tall men like boys. Girls are as full of graces and wiles as their mothers; and the women—well, age simply ceases to count. There will be some hundreds of Iseults of the white hands; and rural Tristrams, without the harp, will saunter about to the headache and sorrow of as many Marks. All our small weaknesses come out in such crowds. If we have corns, they will be sure to get trodden on here. Froth will rise, and the Old Boy show his hooves and tail. Law may frown, but John Barleycorn will be there with bells on. If there is a black sheep in the family, he will be sure to bleat. If any of us have hobby-horses, we will be sure to heave a leg up on them at this place. Closeted skeletons will rattle. The fool in us will be most at home in bladder and bells. This fair has come rightly by its first name, vanity. But as well call it by the name of beauty, too. For there will be as many entries on the right-hand side of the ledger as the left. There will be ten Penelopes for every Circe. Every Launcelot will have his Galahad. Or rather there will be an equal part of Penelope and of Circe in the same woman; and each man will have two faces, the face of Mark and the face of Tristram.

For this is the unique virtue of the fair, that it is a place where the low and the high may mingle for once, a serious man kick up his heels and a merry grow sober, evil and good change coats, or every man be his complete self. And it is a fact that from time immemorial a fair has been a sort of suspended animation of the morals. Ben Jonson, the Elizabethan who put this institution of the fair upon the stage, has said as much. The horses to bet on here are cleverness and gaiety, impudence, chicanery. Sinai ceases to thunder on fair-days. The Golden Calf comes into his own. An honest man expects as much to be taken in by the sharper as he expects his purse to grow lean. It is all in the game. Diamond cut diamond. No one expects to get the dozen of pure linen handkerchiefs he sees the hawker do up in the bundle; he counts himself lucky if he unrolls the wad to find one cotton. Razors bought in a fair-time crowd are not supposed for an instant to cut whiskers; nor are scissors expected to have workable jaws. Corn cures are bought in the interest of hilarity and conviviality, and he is a fool indeed who would put such on his toes. The ring you toss at gold watches is only big enough to go over the head of a hairpin, you know it. If you hit the nigger in the head, the cigar is only cabbage leaves on your tongue. Trickery goes licensed; the officers of the law wink the other eye and pass by on the other side on this one occasion of the year. The loudest voice sells the shoddiest goods. The fairings the children take home are fairy gold; they will not bear the light of the sun. The roosters that looked almost alive are found by lamplight even to be mere cotton-batting with a dab of red paint or so. You discover that the balloon you bought the son of your loins is the only one in the bunch that will not suffer inflation. Or else the best balloons of the fair are with the Pleiades or hung on the arms of Cassiopeia’s Chair by the time the children are halfway home. Vanitas vanitatum, saith the Preacher. But vanity can be a shining thing when it goes tricked out in fair-time colors and made holy, with horns and voices that boom like kettledrums.

The sober truth of the matter is that a fair is the age-old battle-ground of honesty and chicanery, keen wit and sober worth. And trickery wears all the brightest colors. It is the city against the country. It is the meeting of the shearers and the sheep. The scissors snip the purse; the light fingers and nimble brain overmaster the brawn. And the fleeceless man from the furrows has only admiration for the bright shears. One day a year he is willing to spend his money on the wind. He applauds the act. He has been so saving all the other days that he gets his money’s worth of losing his money this one day. So small a price it is to barter a purse for gaiety.

Every man ought to have a fair for his roots to curl up around to give them a good start when they, are young. To judge from the number of fairs, which is legion, there are enough of them to go around. A town may do without a fire-engine, a baby clinic, or—I had almost written—a church; but no town can go without its fair. The smaller the town, the larger the fair should be. When you get to the point where you have no town at all, the need becomes a crying thing.


I am a modest man, but I firmly believe I had my roots about the best fair of all. Tipsham Fair had all the essential characteristics of its hardy race magnified—plus a few unique ones of its own. It had the ideal location. Most fairs are held in the vacant and waste lots outside a town, places untidy with weeds, places that lie flat and do not aspire. But Tipsham Fair had chosen a place for itself on a hill like another Acropolis, high above the elms of its white-and-green town and a great river with everlasting organs of splendid falls thundering below. It was a place to lift up one’s eyes to through all the year. The best winds were at home there, and the air in October raced through one like wine. A blue-and-golden place deserving of music of silver and brass and gonfalons whipping high in the air.

Among other bits of local color this fair had twisted its roots around a nearby college and had become one of its finest philosophy courses and one of the cradles of its traditions. All Freshmen annually were sold tickets by the Sophomores to see Triangle, out of Isosceles, the acute pacer which the old professor of math had fed on rhomboids and parallel-epipedons, take the field in the two-year-old trot. The horse was a dark one; but the math professor himself, who chewed a stiff plug of tobacco and had a moustache like the surge of the town sprinkler, was proud to sell some of the better tickets at five dollars a head. The Freshmen were also expected to bet ahead of time on this upholder of the college honor on the turf. But if it was an unwritten law that all Freshmen should pay heavily for the annual joy of Tipsham Fair, it was just as unwritten that all upperclassmen should never pay a cent for attending the fair at all. This tradition may have been a memorial to those days a century before, when Hawthorne and his contemporaries went about in shawls and plug hats, when the college had harbored the ancestor of this fair under its own wings and upon its own greens. At any rate, it took more than special constables with the most enormous stars, barbed wire entanglements, and a ten-foot fence to keep the bookish out. All the sons of the college must climb in or dig in, or beat down the wardens of the gate, but never by any chance go climbing up the golden stair of the Acropolis with an honestly gotten ticket. So holes in the fence were at a premium, and some students made a modest fortune for themselves by delving a tunnel months in advance and selling their fellows the privilege of entering underground. I do not know how many grown men got in scot-free by leading a farmer’s belated cow; but there were many. Cows, or even pigs, to lead were in great demand. A man would pay a farmer almost any price, double the cost of a legitimate ticket, for the concession. It was a fine sight to see a man who had just dropped the reins of the horses of Nestor or Alexander come in chaperoning a belted Holstein heifer.

Once a smart scholar from Boston decided that he would show these rustics how a man from the city would deal with the likes of them. This was a smart scholar indeed, for later on he left the college unexpectedly one morning with all the better clothes of his brothers in fratre and owing a seven-hundred-dollar bill at the college bookstore, where one bought one’s haberdashery and gasoline as well as one’s Livy and Horace and Jevons’ Lessons in Logic. Incidentally, he had come to the college trailing clouds of glory from the vasty fields of embattled France. His person was hung with crosses for gallantry in the air where he had never flown. These crosses got him into one of the best fraternities on the campus. He wore the best clothes, and he could hold his own at the professors’ teas with any on the subject of the sadder Russian novelists and the philosophy of Santayana. But smart as he was, he did not quite come off with his plan of entering Tipsham Fair. It was a brilliant plan, though. This man of the city declared it was unbecoming a student and a gentleman to burrow under fences and sneak through holes to achieve the rights of a man of this college. He would show the students how to enter as gentlemen should. So he lined up some dozen of them at the very gate and in the face and eyes of the ticket vendor, ordered them to take off their coats and roll up their sleeves. Then he commanded them to count off. “All right, men,” he cried, “in with you!” And to the ticket man he called out as he followed in his charges, “Fourteen of them—check!” And it all worked like a charm. Every mother’s son of a man of books got in, with one exception. That was the smart youth himself. The authorities nipped him off. And the rest of the day word went about to the fourteen who had gone in coatless as a labor battalion that K— was held in the fair-house and sending out frantic appeals for them to come back and ransom him out of durance at the cost of five dollars each for evading the dollar of admission.

In other ways, too, the studious of the college helped make this fair. Demigods of the baseball nine gave many a crinkly-haired son of the sun a headache in his collar of canvas. Hammer-throwers rang all sorts of bells and sent the mercury up to the crashing point on those machines where you show what lusty muscles can do. But it was on the Midway that college talent shone its brightest. The lady who wore the snakes could hardly make her public appearance without a Praetorian Guard of the men of books. Zaza, the little toe-dancer, had to be assisted by another troop of them. Your student was ever the foremost patron of art and the drama. Baritones from the Glee Club took up the burden of the barker’s eloquence when he grew hoarse. Some of the scholars won the crowd away from the professional fools by their superior craftsmanship at their ancient trade. It takes a man of brains to wear the cap and bells as they should be worn. ‘

But the college color was only one of the hues of Tipsham Fair. The country roundabout ran to the heroic in Guernseys and Holsteins. To see the prize-winning cattle march past the grandstand to the blare of brass, shaking their blue-ribboned horns, was to see a pageant of poems as old as this world can show and as fine. Even boys can understand poetry when it goes by under sleek hides and rippling sinews, and looks at them from such wise and enduring eyes. Such eyes Hera, Queen of Heaven, was glad to borrow for her crowning beauty in the days that were. The country about Tipsham ran to fine poultry, too, especially White Leghorns and Barred Plymouth Rocks. Somebody, by the way, ought to write the poem that is wanting writing and will need for its lines only the names of our poultry. Cocks that held up the king-pin feather in their tails like stiff gonfalons and walked about with the whole holy business of supporting and populating the universe on their heads. The pomposity of the everlasting male. No wonder the farmers with the sharpest-pointed moustaches liked to linger in the poultry house. I remember seeing a sight that made me think of an organ: a span of matched, black oxen with sunflowers for their eyes and Aldebaran on their foreheads. If the world is wise, it will not let wheels driven by gases drive these things, that men of Mycenae and older men of the Age of Stone loved, off the stage of the earth.

Babies, too, the Tipsham country ran big in. And pumpkins. Rumor had it that anxious farmers fed them nightly for weeks before on the newest milk. Certainly, they showed some such care. As I recall them, they looked bigger than the minute-old full moon. Where is the poet who shall write the epic of the things seen in Tipsham fair-house or in any other? He need do little more than catalogue their names and their colors, and his catalogues will put those of Homer’s ships and the description of Achilles’ shield into eclipse. That fair-house was my dream of New Zion as a boy, the Jerusalem of peace, golden with pumpkins, silver with marrows and white cake taking its name from the angels. Onyx and jasper, chalcedony and chrysoprase, emerald, sapphire, and diamond. All the jewels were there. Jams that were like all the precious shades of red, held up to the light, the rose-window to the cathedral of the fields; grapes like emeralds married to moonstones, grapes like the middle sea. The rainbow’s end stood here in squashes and pears. The apples alone could tell you what heaven would be like to smell. Mystery—where shall one find it if not here? holiness—where look for it if not in such things? Here were the objects summed up in that word peace. The thews of a state such as Cincinnatus would be first to rule over, the life-blood of a nation. The things at the other end of the earth from war and bloodshed. Tubal Cain’s things. The milk and honey promised by God from the beginning of the world. No wonder the people spoke with hushed voices in the fair-house, no wonder the sharpers did not come to profane this place with their shoddy trade. This was the country, and its honest arts arrayed against the city, that shone with fool’s gold and tinsel on the fairgrounds outside.

Less enduring things were in full swing without. Merry-go-rounds, on which whiskered men became as little children again, and balloons. Tipsham Fair made a great specialty of balloons. They were the older vintage, the kind that had to be filled with the hot air from a fire kindled right there on the terrain, the kind that had to be held up by two spars while being inflated. They gave the people a chance to assist in the preparations for flight. There was plenty of lifting and pulling for strong-backed uncles and lovers to show off their muscle at. There was also always the spice of danger around them. I once saw one of the spars fall into a dense crowd. But when it struck, there was a perfectly empty lane for its crash. The crowd did not lose its good nature, either; it surged back again as merrily to help the desperate man, who was soon to go aloft among the stars hanging by his big-toes, to cover his ship’s rents with patches of canvas put on with flour paste.

There were three days of Tipsham Fair. But three days were all too few. Families came to camp under its walls and eat cold ham below its citadel and dream under the moon of the morrow. Children measured the year by its recession and approach. For many tall men it meant bare knees again and the fountain of youth. For many hard-working women it meant a new dress, a truce from hot ovens and cold tubs, a quickened pulse, a new courtship, and a city in the soul. For all the children it meant school out, tails up, and fun in full cry.

Tipsham Fair goes on still from strength to strength. If there had been a saint lying anywhere around, it would long ago have taken his name unto itself. Certainly no fair, Old World or New, had ever a better right to name its joy with the title of holiness.


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