Nantucket’s Agricultural Fairs, 1856–90, Historic Nantucket Fall 2002, Vol. 51, No. 4

“No Harvest of Oil”: Nantucket’s Agricultural Fairs, 1856–90

In  1880,  Eastman Johnson unveiled his new masterpiece.  The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket depicts a romanticized rural scene, with approximately fifty men and women picking cranberries in a fictionalized Nantucket location. Viewed in tandem with his painting Husking Bee, Island of Nantucket, Johnson presents an idealized view of island agriculture. One art critic stated that Johnson was “representing the lasses and laddies of that seafaring isle stealing a few delightful hours from maritime and domestic pursuits to cull the scarlet berries from the moist meadow-lands.”

cranberry harvest
1998.0023.001 In the Fields (Study for the Cranberry Harvest-Island of Nantucket) by J. Eastman Johnson, 1878-9

In fact, when Johnson and his family first came to Nantucket for a summer visit in 1870, few signs of the island’s prosperous “maritime pursuits” remained. The last whaleship to depart Nantucket’s harbor, the Oak, left in 1869, signaling the demise of the whaling industry, for which the island was known around the world during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nantucket’s population, which numbered almost 10,000 in 1840, had declined to just over 4,000 people at the time of Johnson’s first visit.

Islanders who stayed behind must have felt the desertion keenly. Suddenly, neighbors, friends, and relations were gone, transforming the most important whaling port in the world into a veritable ghost town. As the economic decline began, the islanders who stayed tried to muster some control over the turn their lives were taking. A group of island residents gathered in April 1856 at the Nantucket Atheneum Library and estab- lished the Nantucket Agricultural Society. Chartered by the state, the society was formed “for the encouragement of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, in the County of Nantucket, by premiums and other means.”

During the first few years of its existence, the society devoted itself to “disprov[ing] the oft-repeated assertion that [Nantucket] is a barren sand heap,” to providing education for island farmers, and to fostering bonds of community so that a new source of economic prosperity and island pride could be found. At the first fair in 1856, high school principal A. B. Whipple explained the importance of those goals, “The great benefit . . . of these fairs, is not all in improved stock, and improved fruits, but in improved minds, improved tastes, improved sensibilities to whatever is beautiful; thereby improving our life and augmenting our happiness.” Through annual fairs, meetings, lectures, and publication of the society’s annual Transactions, the members of the Nantucket Agricultural Society attempted to regain control over their lives by fostering social connections and working together to make it through this dark period of the island’s history.

The island’s decline began in the 1840s when the harbor proved too shallow to accommodate the increasing size of whaleships. In 1846, a fire roared through the downtown district, wiping out businesses, homes, and even ships at the wharves. As Nantucket struggled to rebuild, whaleships bypassed the island port for the deeper harbor of New Bedford, which also had access to mainland railroads. In 1849, the discovery of gold in California proved too strong a magnet for hundreds of unemployed islanders, as they left Nantucket, often on ships previously used as whalers, to try their luck out west. And, in the 1850s, the refining of kerosene, which was easily extracted from the earth, provided a cheaper substitute for whale oil.

In response to those pressures on islanders and their economy, the members of the Agricultural Society attempted to persuade their neighbors to remain on Nantucket and plow the soil. Most of all, by fostering a sense of pride and confidence in themselves and their neighbors, society officers and members hoped to change the direction of Nantucket’s decline. Thus, the society’s first president, Edward W. Gardner, wrote in his 1859 report:

Our great staple, oil, is sliding away from us at a very rapid pace . . . I am led to believe that we have but the alternative to embark in agriculture or the mechanic arts, or embark for a less congenial home than the one which we now enjoy on our native island. Farmers, manufacturers and merchants, does it not arouse you to adopt some decided course of action, or will you wait for the better times that will never come, unless you improve the resources which you have within yourselves.

Gardner and the other founders of the society did not have to look far for inspiration. The original group of European settlers, who arrived on Nantucket in 1659 from the Merrimack Valley and from whom several society members were descended, expected to farm the land, much as they had on the mainland. However, the island’s sandy soil was easily depleted and “would not rate above a middling quality,” so the original settlers quickly turned their attention to raising livestock. By 1704, several years before the first sperm whale was captured by a Nantucketer, the New England surveyor of customs listed Nantucket as one of the chief sheep-raising districts in the colonies.

With almost 15,000 sheep inhabiting the island by the late eighteenth century, shearing them in the spring was an enormous task, so islanders made it an annual celebration. The three-day “Shearing Festival,” described as a “prolonged picnic,” allowed Nantucketers to accomplish a practical task while enjoying one another’s company complete with food, drink, and entertainment.

Nantucket Sheep
P10170 Sheep shearing c. 1880s.

Almost immediately upon the establishment of the Nantucket Agricultural Society, the local newspaper drew comparisons between the old shearing festivals and the new agricultural fairs. As one editor explained, “In our boyhood days ‘shearing week’ was set apart as the festive period of the year . . . now the welcome Agricultural Fair annually brings the enjoyments of the olden time.” The local press covered the establishment of the society in April 1856, hailing it as a positive move toward Nantucket’s economic recovery and brushing aside old arguments about the poor quality of the island’s soil: “In the past, while our capital has been floating in all waters, and our attention directed into foreign channels, we have almost forgotten and neglect- ed our home resources. Our soil has been cultivated only to a very limited extent, and ordinarily in a very superficial manner.”

The initial step for the fledgling organization was to raise the $1,000 of capital stock required by the State Board of Agriculture in order to receive its support, including $200 annually for premiums, as the prizes were called. Donations from the society’s officers comprised most of this amount, but membership dues also helped. According to the bylaws, “any person, by paying into the Treasury two dollars (or if a female one dollar), and signing the rules adopted by the Society, shall  be considered a member.” To provide added  incentive for membership, the society permitted premiums to be disbursed only to those who were members. By August 1856, the capital stock had reached $1,000, and the date of October 28 was set for the Nantucket Agricultural Society’s first Cattle Show and Fair.

Despite the appeal of the lofty ideals propounded by the founders of the society and the enthusiastic support of the island newspapers, it appears that not all of Nantucket’s residents were in favor of the idea. The society’s published Transactions, describing the first fair, trumpet its success despite “ . . . the little faith which most of our citizens had in our being able to make any display worth the undertaking.”


Ticket to the 1888 Nantucket Agricultural Society Fair. Race track at the Fairgrounds 

In the end, the first fair proved so popular that it was held open for two additional days. In an empty lot in town about sixty animals were shown. Displays of vegetables, fruits, “fancy articles,” and “manufactured articles” were spread out inside the Atheneum, in the center of town on India Street. Entertainment was provided each evening in the form of singing and speeches. The local glee club sang several original songs and the recently formed Nantucket Brass Band performed, riding in a whaleboat mounted on wheels “through all [the] principal streets. . . serenad[ing] a number of . . . citizens.” As had been the tradition with the island’s Shearing Festival, businesses and schools were closed, leading one young Nantucketer to remark in her diary, “Quite pleasant. No school on account of the ‘Fair.’ Went to the Fair in the afternoon and evening.”

Just three years after organizing its first agricultural fair, the society purchased a tract of land outside of town, which by the time of that year’s fair was “in complete order for the reception and exhibition of cattle . . . the requisite buildings have been erected, and an excel- lent track has been prepared.” Yet, despite the establishment of a physical presence on the island, the society continued to struggle with its public image. As one Nantucket resident wrote to her sister:

Next week comes the annual Agricultural Fair when everybody will be alive for a short time and a few half starved cows and oxen will be exhibited upon the new grounds recently purchased and fitted for the occasion. I suppose the grounds are really very handsome and if we could look forward to a host of visitors at that time there would be some encouragement for such an undertaking but everything comes from our own pockets—as one lady said, she sent a cake to a Fair and then went and bought it to help them along.

As the letter suggests, the struggle to resuscitate the island’s economy created strong opinions, with sup- porters of the Agricultural Society extolling farming and raising livestock as a way to improve island life, without intervention from the mainland, while also preserving island autonomy and pride.

However, as the letter also demonstrates, another group of Nantucketers was discovering that tourism might be the answer to the island’s economic problems. Before the society reached its fifth anniversary, its organizers would realize they needed to attract off-island visitors to make the annual fairs successful. As early as

1859, special trips by steamboats “brought a large number of excursionists from the continent— more visitors from abroad than at a previous exhibition, many more,” according to the island newspaper.

The Agricultural Society’s officers quickly capitalized on Nantucket’s new popularity, pushing the fair earlier in the season and encouraging off-islanders to compete in the equine categories. However, at least one islander found the crowds a liability, confiding to her diary in 1864, “Etta and I . . . wended our way to Mrs. Cash’s, where we spent the afternoon very pleasantly, being greatly impressed with watching the many carriages and pedestrians wending their way to the Cattle Ground.” The next day the same diarist was persuaded by her friends to attend the Fair, but the three ladies went to the Atheneum Hall “at an early hour, so that we had an opportunity of viewing objects of interest, without interruption by the collecting assembly.”

Holding the fair at the end of September rather than in mid-October made it more convenient for off- islanders to attend, but it compromised the rationale for holding an agricultural fair: it was before the island’s harvest season. The newspaper glossed over this, reporting, “Owing to the fact that the exhibition was held this year at an earlier day than in former years, the show of Isabella grapes was not so large as usual; still a few lots were well ripened.” More important, the news- paper continued, “the fact of the change of time of holding the Exhibition was not generally known abroad,” and few visitors from the mainland attended the fair that year.

Although in the early 1860s the society adapted some of the arrangements for the fair to encourage attendance by seasonal visitors—such as coordinating extra steamboat runs—its goal of educating island farmers about agricultural innovations, encouraging them to remain on the island and achieve self-sufficiency, remained paramount. In 1860 and 1861, special appeals were made to island farmers to participate: “Farmers often grudge the trouble of driving their herds and single animals from any considerable dis- tance. But let them consider that whatever adds to the interest of the occasion, contributes to the prosperity of our island.”

Despite island farmers’ ambivalence to the society, the social aspects of the annual agricultural fair cannot be underestimated. On a small island, which had seen almost half of its population depart for mainland destinations, occasions to gather together and share common memories and experiences were few and far between. As the newspaper explained, “We need some- thing of the kind to break the monotony of our dull yearly round; something to which we may look forward, and upon which we may look back.” On fair days during the first few years, stores and schools closed and “businesses generally suspended. The whole population was astir, and at noon it was one of the impossibilities  to obtain a horse. For the time, trouble was banished and a gleam of pure sunshine apparently filled every heart.” One islander remembered years later: “Once a year there was a Fair in the Atheneum Hall. For what object or by whom arranged I can’t recall, but it was a ‘social event’ and we were always on hand with the other children and the whole day was a wonderful occasion for me.”

By 1890, the island had become an active summer haven for artists, due to the abundance of its subject matter and its pleasant climate. Categories for art, needlework, and “mechanical arts,” like woodcarving and printing, were part of the society’s premium list from the beginning of the society. The most renowned American artist to work on Nantucket, Eastman Johnson, did not enter his work in the fairs. However, given the inspiration that island agricultural pursuits provided for him, it seems likely that he attended the fairs when he was in residence. A number of local artists did enter their work, Wendall Macy and James Walter Folger being especially successful in winning premiums. Folger was a native Nantucketer. Trained as a woodcarver in Boston, he dabbled in many media, eventually favoring oil and watercolor paintings and painted woodcarvings. Macy was born in New Bedford to parents who had left their native Nantucket in the 1840s for the better economic climate of the mainland port. Macy lived in New Bedford until returning to Nantucket in the mid-1870s, when his name appears almost immediately in the records of the Agricultural Society, winning premiums and serving on the fair’s organizing committee.

According to an 1877 newspaper account, “Wendall Macy had a variety of paintings from his studio, some of which possessed great merit, and all of which were real- ly beautiful. His painting of taking kelp from the sea- shore, was true to life.” In contrast to Macy’s polished canvases showcasing the island’s natural beauty and to Johnson’s romanticized vision of Nantucket agriculture, Folger’s naïve canvases depict a realistic view of island farming. His paintings show island farms as they were, slightly ramshackle buildings bounded by asymmetrical fences in an uncompromising landscape. As more and more island residents catered to the tourist trade, those charming farms would fall further into decay.

In 1876, the Agricultural Society again changed the date of the annual fair, moving it up to the first week of September. However, many island farmers, listed as premium winners and judges in multiple categories for years, simply could not afford to be away from their farms at that crucial time. Diaries kept by farmers who faithfully recorded their attendance at the fairs of the 1860s and the 1870s show only spotty attendance at fair days in the 1880s. Ironically, the society was alienating the very people it was formed to help. Or, perhaps, the society so successfully accomplished its goals that the farmers were more interested in raising good crops and profitable livestock than in participating in the fair.

Although some island farmers and residents may have been unhappy with the change in dates, the local newspaper continued its positive support, reporting, “This change has its advantages and disadvantages, but is thought . . . to be, on the whole a change for the better. The show of produce may suffer somewhat in con- sequence, as contributors can hardly be expected to pluck their later vegetables and fruits for exhibition before they are fully ripened. But as a time for a grand social gathering and reunion the earlier date may be looked upon as more favorable to success.” Indeed, the society’s published Transactions for 1876 record the fair’s success, stating, “[I]t was evident that the change of the time of holding the Fair, from the last week in September to the first week, was a decided improvement in every way, as the attendance was much larger. There is every reason to hope that a successful future is in store for the Society.”

On the contrary, the change of date to early September would be the beginning of the end for the Agricultural Society and its annual fairs. By the late 1870s, tourism was proving a much more satisfactory solution to the island’s economic problems than was agriculture. Nantucket’s lack of a viable industry during the middle decades  of the nineteenth  century  preserved a quaint atmosphere, which appealed to urban Americans who watched the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century indelibly mark their once familiar landscapes. A visit to Nantucket was an antidote to the effects of the industrial revolution that were then becoming commonplace throughout the northeastern United States. Attending an agricultural fair fit with what the “strangers” came to bucolic Nantucket to experience.

Even the island newspaper, always a chief supporter of the promise of island agricultural pursuits,  conceded in 1879: “It is true the early date is against us as regards the display of fruit and vegetables. But these advantages were thought to be more than offset by the opportunity afforded us to secure a much larger attendance of visitors.” By 1882, one island guidebook lamented:

It is greatly to be regretted that the interest once taken in the [Agricultural] society has from some cause greatly diminished of late years [I]t is probable that one of the chief causes of lack of interest is, that the annual fairs are held too early in the season  of late years the annual fair has been held immediately after the close of a long and exciting summer season; and before the townspeople generally have had time to think of a fair, it is upon them.

In other words, Nantucket would never become “the garden of the world,” but instead became “a healthful and pleasant summer resort.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, Nantucket had firmly established itself as a summer retreat for wealthy New Englanders and talented artists. Unfortunately, that did not bode well for island agriculture. Although one guidebook bragged that “well nigh every vegetable that is raised elsewhere in New England has been produced on the island within recent years, the quality and flavor being generally of the best,” the author went on to bemoan the scarcity of laborers as the “most serious obstacle” to Nantucket farming, recounting that “one sad result of the development of a summer resort has been to attract many young men, who formerly devoted themselves to cultivating the soil, to the easier task of driving carriages.” The Agricultural Society continued to sponsor annual fairs until 1934 but, as the newspaper noted, “. . . like all country fairs, that at Nantucket does not prove an attraction to the present generation that it did in years gone by.”

Despite the fact that the Nantucket Agricultural Society would eventually cease to exist, it served an important function during a difficult period of the island’s history. By encouraging agriculture and raising livestock as viable economic pursuits, the society offered hope that Nantucket could regain its position in the American market. Although those hopes would founder, with tourism placing the island back on the map, the society did achieve its secondary purpose— fostering a sense of pride among Nantucketers by awarding premiums for artistic and practical talents and by celebrating “the spirit that makes our Island so free.”

Aimee E. Newell is curator of textiles and fine arts at Old Sturbridge Village and a free-lance writer. She was formerly the curator of collections at the Nantucket Historical Association. She has published in Piecework Magazine, The Catalogue of Antiques and Fine Art, Nantucket Magazine, Times of the Islands Magazine, Home and Garden Nantucket, and the Dublin  Seminars for New England Folklife Proceedings.

Sources Consulted:

This paper draws extensively from the manuscript collections at the NHA Research Library, especially the Nantucket Agricultural Society collection, and microfilm copies of the nineteenth-century island news- papers. Additional material comes from letters and diaries written by Nantucketers and artifacts related to the island’s agricultural fairs in the NHA collection.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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