CUMBERLAND — Bright blue skies and cool breezes greeted the crowds thronging the barns, grandstands and midway Sunday on the first day of the 149th Cumberland Fair.

The weeklong fair, like others in the state, was canceled last year amid a surge of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

But a similar ongoing surge didn’t keep people away this year. Long lines formed in front of food stalls offering sausage, french fries and lemonade. Children cried with joy as they petted horses, sheep, goats and rabbits, and crowds packed into exhibition halls to watch pig races and steer pulls.

Adam Libby, 34, and Shelby LaPierre, 30, of Falmouth, leaned on a fence nearby whirling rides and a live band, watching harness races.

The fair is the first big group activity he’s been to since the coronavirus pandemic started, Libby said. Even though if felt cramped at times, he was glad to have a reason to enjoy the familiar sights, smells and especially, tastes, of the fair.

“It’s something to do after all the COVID stuff,” Libby said. “You kind of don’t know how to act, but we seem to get getting back to something like normal.”

Despite some pandemic jitters, the first day of the fair was a barnburner. Vehicles were being parked in overflow lots by midafternoon and both ticket booths were open at the main entrance to handle the lines waiting to get in.

Opening day started slowly, but as soon as morning showers gave way to sun, high clouds and an early autumn breeze, it filled up fast, said Cumberland Fair President Lyle Merrifield, as he ran errands around the fairgrounds in a golf cart.

“It’s been very good,” he said. “Once the weather broke, they started lining up fast.”

Sunday’s daytime events featured the grand parade, pumpkin contest, goat and rabbit shows, woodsman demonstrations, a kids pedal tractor pull, steer pulls and a musical performance from the Don Campbell Band.

Nighttime crowds would probably swell for the fair’s popular demolition derby, Merrifield said.

Even with COVID-19 cases near record highs, fair organizers decided to stay the course and take extra precautions, such as doubling the number of hand-washing stations dotting the fairgrounds.

Dianna Berry, 9, left, and Grace Brown 8, both of Oxford, enjoy on a ride on the Cliff Hanger at the Cumberland Fair on Sunday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But society has learned a lot about the coronavirus since last year, and with high vaccine numbers and 100 acres of outdoor space, organizers felt confident they could pull it off safely, Merrifield said.

“I’m not going to say we were nervous, but we were paying attention to what was happening,” he said. “We wanted to have a safe fair for everyone.”

The Cumberland Fair, which ends Saturday, is the second-last of Maine’s season. It is followed by the Fryeburg Fair, Maine’s largest, which ends Oct. 10.

So far, only the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity canceled its in-person activities this year. The remaining fairs seem to have gone smoothly without social distancing, masking or sanitation guidelines. Since most fair activities are outside or in well-ventilated spaces, where risk of spreading the coronavirus is very low, people should feel safe attending, organizers have said.

Merrifield did not have ticket numbers available Sunday, but other fairs have seen booming attendance. As of mid-September, almost every fair in Maine had an attendance increase of 15 or 20 percent over 2019, Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs Executive Director Barry W. Norris said in an interview with the Portland Press Herald this month.

Getting back to the fairgrounds again felt good to Teresa and Steve Biggs. The couple just sold their home in Westbrook and camped at the fair in their RV before a long road trip to the southwestern U.S.

“I’ve been at this fair every year since I was little,” said Teresa Biggs, 71. Her grandfather lived on a farm nearby the fairgrounds and raised horses. Biggs fondly remembers being the little girl who rode in a horse-pulled cart during the grand parade. Steve Biggs recalled earning some extra cash every year parking cars at the family property.

On Sunday, the couple were enjoying the familiar fairgrounds, having some food and strolling through the animal barns. More than anything, it was nice to see everyone out again, Teresa Biggs said.

“It was good to see all the activity,” she said.


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