A bout 20 miles north of boston, Interstate 95 splinters into a system of smaller rural highways and routes. There, along US Route 1 in the near geographic center of Essex County, among a smattering of state parks and sanctuaries, is where you’ll find Topsfield, a small town (it’s just 13 square miles) with a big-family feel.
And family-friendly it is. An ideal long-weekend or day trip destination for local nature lovers, Topsfield is within minutes of a number of natural attractions. With its incorporation in 1650, the town boasts its fair share of historical points of interest, as well as commercial and cultural offerings. (In case you haven’t heard, Topsfield is host to a popular annual fair.) A largely residential town, Topsfield relies simply on its familial, laid-back vibe to provide a quality escape for visitors and a low-hassle way of life for those who live there.
One of the best illustrations-we say that literally-of life in Topsfield, from a kid’s perspective, at least, can be found at the Topsfield Town Library; more specifically, in its Children’s Room. The 32-foot-long mural by Cambridge artist David Fichter, entitled “Topsfield Reverie,” depicts children in various states of concentration and imagination, with familiar images of the town’s most well-known landmarks scattered in between. Among those Topsfield icons featured are the Ipswich River, the Topsfield Fair, the rockery caves at Audobon, Hood’s Pond, and Wheatland’s Hill, a favorite community sledding spot come winter. The mural imparts a dreamlike feeling, which might not be too far off for those who call the sleepy town home.
Although they, too, appear in the painting, other famous Topsfield sites are best enjoyed in reality. Most obvious, likely, is the Parson Capen House. On its new site near the historic house stands the restored Gould Barn, which belonged to one of Topsfield’s founding families by that same name (note to readers: the barn just so happens to be available for private functions). AnotherÂ notable but probably lesser-known landmark is the Coolidge Estate, the 571-acre site of what once was the home of lawyer, financier, and former MIT Corporation member William Coolidge, who died in 1992. The jewel in the estate’s crown isÂ Coolidge’s 24-room Georgian-style mansion, at which visitors can marvel from the surrounding sprawling grounds.
Coolidge’s estate is the appropriate embodiment of its home town of Topsfield, where the grander things in life easily give way to their simpler surroundings.
Nearly 200 years later, the Topsfield Fair is still going strong, and it keeps getting better.
If you live on the north shore, you’re probably familiar with the history of the Topsfield Fair. In case you’re not, a quick crash course: America’s oldest fair first took place in Topsfield in 1818, when the Essex Agricultural Society, the fair’s not-for-profit proprietor, was officially granted a charter. The Society, which was formed by a group of “practical farmers,” set a goal to “promote and improve the agricultural interests of farmers and others in Essex County.” Nearly 200 years later, the basic mission of the Essex Agricultural Society-to educate its public about and to promote the importance of agricultural activities in an atmosphere of fun and excitement through the medium of the Topsfield Fair-hasn’t changed, but the Fair itself certainly has.
What began as the Essex Agricultural Society Cattle Show, consisting of countywide exhibits and fairs, has evolved into a Massachusetts institution, complete with agricultural events (who could forget those record-setting gourds?), amusement park-style rides, shopping, and performances by contemporary entertainers. At its conclusion this year, the Fair will have been held in its existing location, on the grounds of the former Treadwell Farm,Â for the 100th straight year (except for three years of hiatus during the Civil War).
This year’s fair, taking over Topsfield from October 1 through 11, will featureÂ headlining performances by Emily Osment and Mitchel Musso of the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana,” along with Andover band Boys Like Girls, a foursome known for its inspirational lyrics and messages. Other activities will include an opening night fireworks show, parades, a Midway carnival, a dog show, cow milkingÂ and blacksmith demonstrations, and sand sculptures, to name a few. And then there’s the food: over the course of its 10-day schedule, guests can stuff themselves on everything from Italian sausages and giant turkey legs to homemade fudge and deep-fried Oreos-all in the name of agriculture. topsfieldfair.org.
What to do
Where to go to get your fix of culture and commerce.
Alfalfa Farm Winery
Richard Adelman owns and operates this rural Topsfield vineyard, which churns out a variety of hand-crafted wines. Open on Sundays in the summer, Alfalfa’s hours extend to the whole weekend in the fall, meaning there’s more time to take in wine tastings, culinary events, even the occasional class, from vineyard management to-yep, belly dancing. 267 Rowley Bridge Road, 978-774-0014, alfalfafarmwinery.com.
Parson Capen House
Once the home of the Reverend Joseph Capen, this original 17th-century house still stands on 12 bucolic acres of land overlooking the Commons. A National Historic Landmark, it remains one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture in the country. Visitors are welcome three days a week between June 15 and September 15. 1 Howlett Street, 978-887-3998, topsfieldhistory.org.
Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary
Mass Audubon’s largest sanctuary offers more than 10 miles of interconnecting trails that make for easy exploration of its forests, meadows, and wetlands. The most peaceful way to pass through? Hop a canoe. You must be a member of Mass Audubon to rent canoes, however, there isÂ a rental company in Ipswich, Foote Brothers, that offers several options. Get dropped offÂ upstream and canoe your way back on the Ipswich River, passing through the sanctuary along the way. 87 Perkins Row, 978-887-9264, massaudubon.org.
The Bicycle Shop
In Topsfield, bike buffs shop and get their gear serviced at David Smith’s The Bicycle Shop. Smith’s store is stocked with various models of bikes by brands like Kona, Giant, and Raleigh. Not shopping for a new ride? No problem. Stop in for some parts or a full tune up, a popular service that includes an inspection, cleaning, and any necessary adjustments. Topsfield Station, 7 Grove Street, 978-887-6511, biketops.com.
The ArtRoom Studio and Gallery
Uunleash your inner Picasso at this always-fun spot, which offers classes and workshops for all ages, as well as exhibits of completed works. Oh, yeah-the ArtRoom also doubles as one of the best birthday party venues in town. 30 Main Street, Village Shopping Center, 978.887.8809, theartroomstudio.com.
If you’re headed to dinner at a friend’s house, or if you’ll be dining out Ã deux, be sure to BYOB from Gil’s Grocery. The modest shop, with its weathered hand-painted wooden signs, serves up spirits with a side of nostalgia. 30 Main Street, Village Shopping Center, 978- 887-5921.
The Gift Horse & Bookshelf
Sandra Herrick’s has-it-all shop meets a number of gift-giving needs, be it for a wedding, a birthday, or retail therapy for yourself. Plus, the store’s selection of invitations and announcements will help get the word out about your own special occasion. 20 Main Street, 978-887-5225.