This July will mark the 50th annual Stratham Fair. That's sobering, because when I was a kid I remember that number being in the teens. The Fair started in 1966, a celebration of the town's 250th anniversary, and since then volunteers (including for many years the volunteer fire department) have stewarded one of the oldest country fairs in the region. More than 20,000 people attend each year for the lobster bake, tractor pulls, and carnival rides. It's become less of a community event than it was thirty years ago, more of a magnet for interloping tourists and cranky Massachussistas, but there was a time, viewed through the hazy lens of nostalgia, that the Stratham Fair was the high point of the summer for local families.
The Fair would open on Friday, but on Thursday night Stratham families were invited in for a preview, and given a colored bracelet that allowed unlimited rides for the town kids. You'd see neighbors and friends, and it was always a bit jarring to see schoolmates you kind of knew midway through the summer break. It was a different time, the generation before cell phones and social media, when there was something ineffably exciting about a random encounter with a junior high acquaintance (especially girls - exciting, terrifying, intimidating). A blistering array of sensory experiences - the smell of fried dough, the vertigo of the Scrambler ride, the sounds of harsh Seekonk accents, the visual splendor of hand-embroidered leather motorcycle jackets. I loved the lumberjack competition, the pigs and sheep at the 4-H stalls, the sublime inanity of the Miss Stratham Fair Pageant.
This was the social center of gravity for the town, and we all played our parts. I can remember selling lemonade as a Cub Scout, volunteering at the public announcing booth, and of course dressing as a lobster for twelve hours a day to shill raffle tickets to raise money for the Class of 1993. We got plenty of folks to put on the lobster suit (Sarah Boddy-Snee, Reagan Pelletier Beaudet, Ken Winchenbach Walden, and more) but I must have logged a hundred hours in that crimson straitjacket between the summers of 1991 and 1992, The things we do for love.
It always ended with fireworks on Sunday evening. When I was a kid, we could see the display from my folks' house under a mile away, before the trees got too tall on Stratham Lane. We brought the boys when they were little, and the animals were a big hit, but somehow it's not the same. Usually as we grow older, the things we loved as children shrink somehow, looming larger in the memory of our young hearts than in the reality of adulthood. But in this case, it's bigger than I remember, noisier, less friendly, less inviting, more impersonal. I guess everybody grows up, even small NH towns.