An Anniversary for Guilford Agricultural Society (2019)

by Joel Helander

The Guilford Agricultural Society has another milestone anniversary to celebrate this September ‘19. Unlike the celebration of its 100th annual fair or its mortgage burning, this occasion is marked by the 50th anniversary of the fair’s relocation to the “new” fairgrounds on Lover’s Lane. Hail to the fairgrounds in downtown Guilford!

In time-honored tradition, the Guilford Fair was staged on Guilford Green for the long period, 1859–1968. Alas, venerable Guilford Fair outgrew the confines of the 8-acre Green. Firm and resolute to continue the country fair tradition, the Agricultural Society purchased a 30-acre tract of farmland off Lover’s Lane in June 1969 from Floyd and Florence Hunter, hard-working proprietors of “Rollwood Farm.” This abrupt displacement from the Green caused many Old Guard Guilfordites to grumble, but history now regards it as the correct course. In change there is growth and in growth there is survival, which is one of the remarkable themes of Guilford Fair.

Guilford Fair has not only survived for 160 years, but during the last 50 years on Lover’s Lane it has prospered. Under leadership of the Agricultural Society’s two most recent presidents, Harvey R. Smith (1990–1999) and John D. Hammarlund (2000–present), the fairgrounds have been transformed from a moist (sometimes wet), open pastureland to park-like grounds. Traditional canvas tents still dot the landscape during fair weekend, in addition to an array of permanent buildings.

President Harvey Smith had a vision as early as 1989. He knew that the fairgrounds deserved to have capital improvements beyond two outhouses and an office trailer. The Society’s $120,000. mortgage had been extinguished. A command decision was made to borrow an additional $125,000 for grounds improvements. The fields were levelled and drainage updated. Harvey coordinated the purchase of two pre-engineered, pre-cut, post and beam buildings from Country Carpenters, Inc. in Hebron, Connecticut. These structures were joined by a corridor of ticket booths, creating a sorely needed office complex for the fairgrounds entry. Modern bathrooms within concrete enclosures were installed in 1995, including septic tanks with 6000 gallon capacities.

Several additional buildings were re-purposed and moved onto the fairgrounds. In 1998, a little cottage originally located at Circle Beach in Madison was moved in, earning its name of “The Chapel” after John and Barbara Hammarlund’s marriage ceremony was performed there. In 1999, a small shed on lower River Street was jacked up and moved onto the grounds next to the ox/horse pull ring. In 2000, a circa 1920 structure formerly used on Rollwood Farm for sheltering bulls was relocated to the fairgrounds and converted to an exhibit center for antique farm equipment.

Entering the 21st century, President John Hammarlund orchestrated further improvements. The electrical system was updated to a 2400 amp service. City water service replaced well water. New metal bleachers were installed at the ox/horse pull ring in 2003. In 2013, thanks to generous gifts from Sue & Louis (Lou) Weady and William (Bill) Butterly, two Amish-built barns with metal skins, each 40×120’ in size, were erected in the exhibit area.

When the Guilford Agricultural Society purchased a flat piece of farmland for the new fairgrounds in 1969, they acquired a tract of land that had been open farmland from time immemorial. Although the fairgrounds are in the backyard (northeast) of the landmark stone house built for Reverend Henry Whitfield, Guilford’s founding father and spiritual leader, Rev. Whitfield never owned the fairgrounds tract. Tradition states that the fairgrounds tract was largely swamp when Whitfield built his house (1639–’40) and that the native Menunkatuck Indians provided labor to haul blocks of stone in hand barrows from the outcrop of rocky ledges along today’s Lover’s Lane. A causeway for this purpose was built across the wetland.

The ancient boundary separating the Whitfield House lot from the fairgrounds is a small stream and ridge of elevated upland. One of Rev. Whitfield’s Puritan comrades, Jasper Stillwell, originally owned the fairgrounds tract, which passed successively in ownership to Henry Dowd, Jacob Dowd, Samuel Hughes, and Josiah Rossiter––all residents of Guilford Center. Most of the soils on the fairgrounds property are well-drained pea stone gravel, leaving little doubt that these 17th century owners used the tract for agricultural purposes, both grazing and planting.

Henry Hill, a Yale College graduate (1772) who lived on the south end of Guilford Green, came into possession of the lower end of the fairgrounds property, referred to as the “Back-gate Lot” in his 1827 deed. William Hart owned the upper end of the fairgrounds property. By 1850, Nathaniel Griffing and Frederic R. Griffing acquired the two parcels, annexing them to their 12-acre Stone House lot back on the hill. The fairgrounds property then became part of the “Stone House Farm,” an extensive network of surrounding acreage leased to farm tenants by four generations of the Griffing Family, who were absentee owners.

A granddaughter of Nathaniel Griffing, Mrs. Henry (Sarah) Cone of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, partitioned the fairgrounds property off from the Stone House lot, selling to Ralph Parker in 1901, who in turn sold to Rollin S. Woodruff in 1916. Woodruff is remembered as the governor of Connecticut, 1907–1909, who built a rustic summer retreat opposite the Stone House, marked now by a lone standing chimney. Governor Woodruff also acquired extensive tracts of land on the opposite side of Stone House Lane, where he maintained large barns for a model dairy farm. In her senior thesis at Yale (2000), Rachel Gruzen wrote that the Rollwood Farm, as it was named, became a display of wealth and style and less about providing milk for an income. It is said that Woodruff hired engineers to develop methods to manipulate the soils, including efforts to drain what would later become the fairgrounds property via ditching and underground tunnels.

In 1921, Ex-Governor Woodruff engaged Harry L. Page of Cossart, Pennsylvania as manager of Rollwood Farm, managing his Guernsey dairy cows. Mr. Page carried on his own dairy farm business at Rollwood under a lease agreement with Woodruff’s widow, 1928–1943. He maintained a herd of 60–75 cattle and sold bottled milk locally, with excess milk sold to Hamden Dairy.

Floyd and Florence Hunter’s purchase of Rollwood Farm in 1944 ushered in another grand era of model dairy farming. The Hunters raised thousands of chickens, some turkeys, pigs, sheep, and draft horses, in addition to the cattle. After the Korean War, they raised primarily Holstein and prize-winning Brown Swiss cattle, with a herd totalling more than 200 animals. The Shore Line Times newspaper reports that one of Hunter’s Brown Swiss cows produced 12,604 pounds of milk, based on a 305-day lactation record. The Hunters raised many acres of corn on what would later become the Guilford Fairgrounds: sweet corn for market and silage corn for their cattle.

The evolution of the landscape from farm to fair, 1639–2019, on the Guilford Agricultural Society’s expansive tract off Lover’s Lane is praiseworthy. All year ‘round, President John Hammarlund, Agricultural Society directors, and numerous committees are priming and planning for the next annual fair. Indeed, Guilford Fair is said to be the single largest social event in town. It is a glorious 160-year tradition, maintained by the unselfish and unpaid efforts of hundreds of volunteer workers. The Agricultural Society has never lost sight of its fundamental purpose, which is to remain a living agricultural, historical, and educational institution that also provides family entertainment. Although there are carnival things to do, the strong agricultural theme prevents the fair from being a straight-out carny. Last September 2018, 19,000 people passed through the entry booths over the 3-day fair weekend. Let us pause to appreciate, mightily, what has transpired on the “new” fairgrounds over the past 50 years.

Long live Guilford Fair!