by Tom Beardsley

  Each autumn, New Englanders flock to the region's popular country and agricultural fairs. Eastern Connecticut folk can choose from several fairs. The most well-known fairs are in Brooklyn, Lebanon, Hebron and Woodstock. It is largely forgotten that between 1883 and 1913, Willimantic held one of the largest agricultural fairs in the Northeast. The Willimantic Fair midway was considered to be the best in the Northeast, replete  with snake charmers, magicians, snake oil salesmen and  belly dancers.  The first Willimantic Fair took place in October 1883 thanks to the generosity of the Willimantic Linen Co. It expended more than $12,000 to build the Willimantic Fairgrounds in the area known today as Recreation Park. The linen company installed one of the best horse-trotting tracks in the Northeast, and installed 34 large electric, arc lamps that illuminated the trotting course, thus allowing racing to take place at night. In 1913, however, there was a concern that the Fair would not be held. The American Thread Company had informed the fair ground authorities that it  intended to develop the area as  a recreational park for their  employees. Hasty negotiations began between Fair organizers and ATCO officials and the okay was given to hold the fair. But another problem arose. A week before the commencement of the 1913 Willimantic Fair, it was sensationally announced that the National Trotting Association had blacklisted the Horseshoe Park Agricultural Association, the authorities that administered the Willimantic Fairgrounds, and banned them from holding trotting races. The vice presi-  dent of the HPAC, Truman R. Sadd, a well-known local businessman,had raced a champion trotter, Billiken, under a  false name during the 1911 fair  meeting. The NTA disallowed trotting in Willimantic until Sadd returned the purse money won by his “ringer.” Sadd subsequently resigned and the fair went ahead. The 1913 Willimantic Fair  was a huge success and featured the appearance of‘ a flying machine, a Burgess-Wright  aeroplane, flown by the famous  Rhode Island aviator Jack  McGee who thrilled the Willimantic crowd with his aerobatics. It came as a shock to many in town when, one month later, the HPAC announced it would auction all of its buildings and property on the fairgrounds.  The Thread Company had made final its decision to redevelop the land as a park. The track, which was considered to have been the best half mile track in Connecticut would be kept by ATCO “for athletic purposes” but the rest of the area was to be developed as a playground. And so, the Fair organizers decided that the equipment and buildings would be auctioned off. The auction went ahead on Oct. 29, 1913. The details reveal what an extensive complex existed on Recreation Park. The auctioneer was Chauncey E. Macfarlane, a member of the association and the father of Florence Macfarlane, the only woman ever to serve as Willimantic’s mayor in 1971-72. More than 100 people attended the auction. William Hastings purchased the exhibition building for $500. John Andrews purchased the grandstand for $270. The four barns were sold for a total of $480, and the fence enclosing the grounds was sold for $80.  Dominic Menditto purchased the bleachers, the vaudeville platform, a stable, 10 stalls and three outhouses for $180.  Napoleon Bacon picked up the bandstand for $3. The net proceeds of the auction came to  $1,413.25. The HPAC was disappointed with the amount saying that the property sold was worth closer to $20,000.  The Horseshoe Park Agricultural Fair directors were confident that the 1914 fair would go ahead on new grounds adjacent to the trolley tracks on the road to Coventry. There was hope that a new agricultural fair association would be formed. Local merchants favored the idea because of the business the fair brought to the city. However, land would have to be purchased and several buildings erected and the $15,00 price tag for that was a hurdle that couldn’t be overcome, especially since it would be for a site that was used for only a few days every year. And so the blow of being ejected from the fairgrounds and eventual disinterest in re-forming an association led to the demise of the famous Willimantic Fair after a highly successful run of 31 years. This week’s photo showed the preparations for a balloon ascension and parachute jump that occurred during the Willimantic Fair of September, 1910.


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