The 2020 Union Fair

By David Grima | Sep 02, 2020

A while ago, I mentioned a Rockland couple whose goal was to visit all the Goodwill stores in Maine, and with one possible exception, I think they did.

Now I am thinking it might be possible to shop at all the Hannaford stores in Maine, too. But, in my case, rather unlikely.

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So, we now mark the point in late summer – just three weeks until fall – when the 2020 Union Fair would have been a recent memory, had it not also gone dormant this year along with just about every other major regional cultural event, due to the Modern Plague. But this is not the only year the fair was not put on.

According to an article written by fellow Courier worker Janet Boetsch of Union in 1992, the North Knox Agricultural Fair, as it was originally known, was first held Oct. 5 to Oct. 7, 1869. This was the heyday of farming in the post-Civil War era, which also saw the creation of the Grange movement, aimed at improving the life and business of American farming communities.

It’s been an annual event almost ever since, but not quite. The fair was not held in 1943 and 1944, the last two full years of World War II.

Once upon a time, it was possible to travel to the fair by railroad, riding up from Warren, which itself was at one point connected by streetcar line to towns as distant and mysterious as Camden.

The streetcars faded away in the 1930s, I think, but Camden is said by some to exist even today in the far, far east of the county. Anyway, we still hear from people who, from time to time, claim to have seen it or somehow even been there.

The fair was first held on Union Common, which gives us some idea of the scale at which it all began. Here is a quotation from Janet’s historical sketch:

“The book ‘The First Century - Union Fair 1869-1969’ describes the formation of an association of neighbors in five small communities in rural Maine – Appleton, Hope, Union, Warren and Washington – which together in 1869 were incorporated by the Maine Legislature as the North Knox Agricultural and Horticultural Society.

"As was the rule in the early days of the fairs, each town belonging to the Association took successive turns hosting the annual event. In 1895, by legislative action, the organization was renamed the Knox Agricultural Society.”

In 1879, the fair was hosted in Washington, and was apparently the first time vendors of food and entertainments were included in the proceedings.

Then, in 1886, it was agreed to hold all future fairs in Union, and in 1892 it was first held on the site we know as Union Fairground. This land was bought from the local track racing association for a permanent site in 1901, with more land added in 1927. The Maine Blueberry Festival became part of the annual fair line-up in 1959, in partnership with the Maine Department of Agriculture.

Again, a quotation from Janet:

“The first festival featured a blueberry pie baking contest, pie eating contest and free pies to all fair visitors. …Gov. John Reed honored the occasion by presenting awards to the best pie baker, Mrs. George Cole of Newcastle, and pie eater, Willard Pease Jr. of Rockland, who consumed an entire pie in less than five minutes.”

I think young Master Pease is known, these days, as Skip Pease. Last time I saw him, he washed his face entirely clean of blueberries.

Anyway, that’s just a flavor of the history behind the fair we are missing this year. Just remember, we’ve skipped it twice before out of necessity, and I am confident it will return.

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Seeing as how we’re on a history theme this week, I will also mention the recent publication of a book about an interesting part of history here in Lime City, coming from the Rockland Historical Society. It’s about a part of town I see every day from the concrete towers at the foot of Mechanic Street, where I am forced to live.

Curator Ann Morris has written “A History of the Point”, about the Tillson Avenue district, also once known as Sea Street, which was once a working-class residential neighborhood as much as it was a commercial locality.

According to what I have read about the book so far, it includes a focus on several important commercial innovations made in that part of Rockland that affected the lives of people in the city and beyond.

They were the development of engines for lobster boats by Knox Marine Engine; of pneumatic tools for the granite industry, which I suspect was associated with the former Bicknell factory that endured long enough to provide equipment used in temporary military airstrips in the first Gulf War back in 1991; of the carrageenan seaweed-based food additive production industry, currently undertaken by what we still think of as the FMC plant now owned by Dupont; and of a process for flash freezing freshly-caught fish.

The book also considers “the oldest residential area of central Rockland where many of Rockland’s business leaders got their start, and how that old housing stock, with no indoor plumbing, became a welcoming neighborhood for immigrants.”

I wonder if the book also considers the area’s history in connection with houses of ill repute? I’ll have to buy it and find out. I like to keep up to date on the past.

The paperback is available at $15 from the Rockland Historical Society, which is in the basement of the city library, and open Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 5 p.m.

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Speaking of missing Union Fair among other annual summer events, it has been interesting to see exactly which of the normal annual flock of tourists actually made it here, even if their numbers were greatly reduced.

I caught myself thinking along these lines while driving through town the other day, glancing at the license plates of various parked cars. It seemed the majority of away plates were from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and New York, which should be no surprise to anyone. Very few other kinds.

This brings to mind a newspaper project I toyed with back in the summer of 1989 or 1990, when I photographed non-Maine license plates with the idea of demonstrating the range of visitors in Knox County that year. I think I shot about 20 or more pictures of different state plates, but for some reason I did not follow through, so the project did not make it into the Courier.

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Speaking of local history, I heard last week of an old fellow in Rockland, known as Wiggy, who had a reputation as an excellent softball pitcher. The story was dated approximately to the 1990s.

It came up in a conversation about the former Owls Club, a drinking club for men who were nominally of the Democratic persuasion, that once flourished on Oak Street in the building now occupied by Café Miranda. Apparently, this chap Wiggy was a member there.

When the building was being turned into the restaurant a couple of decades ago, I remember that many old playing cards and beer bottle caps were discovered down behind the old steam radiators inside. Oh, those zany Democrats!

Just a snippet is all I got from this conversation, somebody else’s fleeting memory of one of the vast cast of characters – people good, middling and (possibly) bad – who have lived, loved and died in Rockland over the years.

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at davidgrima@ymail.com.

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