TOPSFIELD — When Laura Bitler, the reigning Mrs. Essex County for the years 2020 and 2021, was 16-years-old, her uncle gave her a present that she’ll never forget—a lifetime pass to the Essex Agricultural Society.
“Probably not every 16-year-old’s dream for a sweet sixteen gift,” Bitler admits. “But I thought it was the most wonderful gift and one that has kept on giving to me and to our family.” Part of her excitement about this particular present, she explained, was that it came with a lifetime pass to the Topsfield Fair. Her husband was also the recipient of a lifetime pass when they were married. “Again,” she said with a shrug, “Not a traditional wedding registry gift, but one that we knew we would use.”
For the uninitiated, Mrs. Essex County is an annual pageant that marked its 50th anniversary with the crowning of Adelaide Meadow of Ipswich on Oct. 10. Its winner serves as a representative of the Topsfield Fair for the coming year, with official duties that might include attending parades, tree lightings, 4-H award nights or a beekeeper’s association dinner.
Former Mrs. Essex County, Amanda Guerino, explained that there are a number of components involved with selecting a winner. There’s a pageant day, which is the Sunday before Columbus Day. There’s always a food element, such as having to create a favorite cake or appetizer, but it varies by the year. Contestants then interview with a former Mrs. Essex County and complete a question and answer portion on stage. Being able to speak publicly is an important part of the role, said Guerino. To be eligible, a contestant must be married, currently living in Essex County with their spouse and at least 18 years of age. Guerino confirmed that there is no age limit.
Bitler works at the Waring School in Beverly when she’s not wearing a tiara and sash, and has been coming to the Topsfield Fair for most of her life. For her, the Mrs. Essex County crown was more than just a chance to spend time at the fair (although that was an additional perk); it was about passing a respect and curiosity for agriculture on to the next generation. As a child, she would point to the current Mrs. Essex County and tell her parents that would be her one day. Her own son, Jason Bitler, is now five years old and keeping chickens with his grandfather. This year he entered three chickens and a dozen eggs for judging. “Having him, I really saw that this was an opportunity to teach the next generation about agriculture,” said Bitler. “I think a lot of his peers love the fair for the rides and the games and I really wanted to make sure he loved the fair because of the animals and agriculture.”
Bitler’s reign as Mrs. Essex County did mark one break with tradition. Under normal circumstances, she would have stepped down after one year. However, the year 2020 was far from business as usual, and the Topsfield Fair was cancelled for the first time since World War II due to the pandemic. As a result, Bitler is the first Mrs. Essex County to hold the title for two years. At eight months pregnant, Bitler has been cautious about masking indoors and said fair management has been understanding about any Covid concerns. The fact that she conducted most of her duties outdoors also helped ease some of the worry about transmission.
Beneath a brilliant October sky, it was hard to miss the sparkling crown that Bitler paired with Gucci sunglasses. Asked if it was difficult to keep the headpiece from slipping off, Bitler replied that the tiara has been just one avenue where the community of former Mrs. Essex County winners were very welcoming. “They’ve all given me lots of tips about different ways to wear it, different clips and things,” she said. “But you get used to it…I actually sort of forget that I am wearing it. Except when people stop and ask to take my photo or to ask what I’m a princess of.”
She said the crown provided an opportunity to have conversations about what the Essex Agricultural Society is, especially among young girls who are curious and excited to see a queen or a princess on the fairgrounds. “It’s the fair itself and the tradition and memories our family has had,” Bitler explained of her attachment to the Topsfield Fair. “And I want the next generation to have those memories and I want this to be a place that can live on for another 200 years…For children to know where their food comes from and to, you know, know that chocolate milk doesn’t come from a brown cow. It doesn’t come from the supermarket. The education piece I think is where a lot of the passion comes in.”
According to the Topsfield Fair’s website, the first meeting to discuss creating the Essex Agricultural Society took place in February of 1818, and the fair itself descended from the early cattle shows which followed. Over the course of its history, the Topsfield Fair has evolved into a much-anticipated event that draws about 500,000 visitors per year.