HAVERHILL — Back after a one-year COVID-19 hiatus, the North Haverhill Fair smashed records last week.

The five-day fair drew the biggest crowds in its 77-year history, according to North Haverhill Fair Association President David Lackie.

For proof, he pointed to Saturday’s mammoth turnout.

“We have a wood yard at the north edge of [the fair grounds]. I always said I wanted to park cars ‘clear to the wood yard.’ And this year we made it,” he said. “This is the first time in our history we had to open up our overflow emergency parking.”

Lackie said fair attendance was probably 35% to 40% above average, which he attributed to COVID-induced cabin fever.

He said fairs nationwide are seeing similar increases in turnout, based on reports from the International Association of Fairs and Expositions.

It coincides with a rise in vaccinations, a decline in hospitalizations, and a general willingness to gather after more than a year of COVID separation.

“People are itching to get out and do something,” Lackie noted.

The all-volunteer North Haverhill Fair Association held a virtual fair in 2020 and didn’t green light plans for this year’s in-person event until June.

Somehow, in a compressed six-week window, they organized a full-throttle, all-systems-go fair that felt remarkably normal. Minor booking, scheduling and manpower challenges were overcome. The fair offered its usual complement of rides, games, concessions and a complete schedule of events and entertainment.

Plans are already underway for next year’s fair (scheduled for July 27 to 31).

“It was good to get back to a real, live, in-person, this-is-what-it’s-supposed-to-be-like family fair,” said NHFA director Gary Scruton.

By all indications, the fair drew a wider-than-usual audience. There were reports of several first-time fair goers. One measure was the number of people who didn’t realize live entertainment was included in the admission price.

“You knew we were drawing people we never had before when they went to the ticket booth for a ticket to a concert. We don’t charge extra for the concerts,” Lackie said. “We were pulling people from areas that we hadn’t before. Everyone was looking to get out.”

There were moments that crowds threatened to overwhelm the fair association’s 300 volunteer staff. But in the end, everything went smoothly.

“We handled it,” Lackie said.

For Lackie, the North Haverhill Fair was another sign of the region returning to normal — or something resembling normal — after the scourge of the pandemic.

He recalled the opening day on Wednesday, when scores of people streamed into the fair grounds. He noted the sounds of the midway, the smells of the fair food, and the sight of children laughing and smiling at the fair again. In that moment a thought crossed his mind: We’re back.

Said Lackie, “To see that many people, it was like ‘Yup, everybody was waiting for this.’”

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