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Fall festival fun

From pumpkins to cream puffs and tractor pulls to oyster shucking, a harvest sampler

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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When fall arrives the air gets crisp and visions of pumpkins, apples, and hayrides replace those of bathing suits and beaches. Here is a list of festivals in New England featuring tractor pulls and Ferris wheels, farm animals and petting zoos, traditional crafts and contemporary music, plus wine, oysters, garlic, cream puffs, beer, cider, and more. Don’t think of it as the end of summer, think of it as the beginning of the harvest season.

The Big E, Sept. 16-Oct. 2, West Springfield

The Big E Cream Puff and the Craz-E Burger are only two reasons to visit The Big E, the largest fall festival in the region. This 17-day extravaganza features carnival rides, a circus under the big top, Mardi Gras parade, reconstructed 19th-century New England village, shopping, crafts, live entertainment (Reba McEntire tops this year’s roster), and foods from around the world like shepherd’s pie, corn cake pulled pork muffins, and deep-fried bacon-wrapped hotdogs. Rooted in an agricultural tradition, the festival also offers all you would expect at an enormous country fair, including competitions for prize-winning animals, and the largest livestock show in the East. Demonstrations of spinning, weaving, and milking help connect the dots between animals and commerce. Equine lovers will enjoy the Eastern States Exposition horse show. 1305 Memorial Ave., 413-737-2443, adults $15, 6-12 $10, 5 and under free. Special events priced separately. www.thebige.com

Shelburne Farms Harvest Festival, Sept. 17, Shelburne, Vt.

The pastoral landscape is the perfect backdrop for this 33d annual festival. Located on a 1,400-acre working farm, it celebrates autumn’s abundance and features horse-drawn hayrides, music, dancing, storytelling, and lots of tasty food from local producers. Children enjoy the farm animals, antique farm machinery, birds of prey, and the hands-on activities tent. Some exhibits focus on alternative energy, a topic dear to this organization’s heart. Local craftsmen and women will demonstrate cheesemaking, weaving, gardening, rug hooking, and woodworking. The Hay Bale Maze, a crowd favorite, returns bigger and better than ever. 1611 Harbor Road, 802-985-8686, adults $8, children $5, under 3 free, www.shelburnefarms.org

Applecrest Farm festivals, Saturdays and Sundays, September and October, Hampton Falls, N.H.

A series of festivals celebrates the harvest from September through the end of October. Each weekend features a different theme such as an antique car show, an antique tractor show, and “Storybook Hayrides’’ where fairytale characters like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf roam the orchards performing interactive scenes. Whatever weekend you visit, you’ll find live folk and bluegrass music and lots of food, including fire-roasted corn, grilled sausages, hot cider doughnuts, and ice cream made with fruits from the farm. There’s a petting zoo, face painting, and make-your-own scarecrow events. Pick your own apples, raspberries, peaches, pumpkins, and cut your own flowers. 133 Exeter Road, Route 88, 603-926-3721, free admission and parking, www.applecrest.com

Topsfield Fair, Sept. 30-Oct. 10, Topsfield

Entertaining visitors since 1818, this is one of the oldest agricultural fairs in the United States. Throughout the many tents and barns on the extensive grounds, you can observe, pet, and learn about farm animals including pigs, sheep, horses, rabbits, goats, even bees. In the Cattle Barn, city slickers can test their knowledge of breeds and watch cows being milked. The 11-day festival includes live music, antique tractor pulling, 4-H exhibitions, amusement rides (with a carousel for the kiddies and thrill rides for teens), sand sculptures, a giant pumpkin contest, and more. 207 Boston St., 978-887-5000, weekdays $10, weekends and holidays $12, under 12 with adult free, www.topsfieldfair.org

Fryeburg Fair, Oct. 2-9,Fryeburg, Maine

Covering 180 acres, with 100 permanent buildings and 3,000 camping sites, the fair offers a little something for everyone. Last year, more than 4,000 animals paraded for blue ribbon judging, including oxen, steers, llamas, goats, horses, rabbits, sheep, and swine. In the Agriculture Center, you can view antique wagons, tour the craft center, visit the farm museum, and check out regional baking and cooking competitions. The midway offers games, rides, and lots of food. Hop on the Ferris wheel and other rides, indulge in cotton candy and freshly made doughnuts, and play games of skill to win prizes. Five stages offer live music and entertainment from morning through the night (all included in general admission price) featuring over 200 performers from Maine. There are harness races, pig scrambles, tractor pulls, flower shows, a whoopie pie contest, and more. 1154 Main St. 207-935-3268, adults $10, under 12 free, www.fryeburgfair.com

New Hampshire Fall Festival, Oct. 8, Portsmouth, N.H.

Step into the past at Strawbery Banke Museum’s fourth annual festival. At this 10-acre site, history comes alive with costumed role players who meander streets of authentically restored houses and shops. The festival celebrates the harvest with demonstrations of traditional crafts like basket making, 18th-century hearth cooking, quilting, weaving, spinning, and rug hooking. Master gardeners and horticulturists offer lessons on canning and food preservation, and heirloom flower arranging. If you ever wondered how to shear a sheep, or yearned to learn more about historic breeds of farm animals, this is the place to do it. Family activities include Victorian lawn games, and tours of the gardens are offered throughout the day. 14 Hancock St., 603-433-1100, adults $15, 12 and under $6, www.strawberybanke.org

Connecticut Garlic & Harvest Festival, Oct. 8-9, Bethlehem, Conn.

Garlic lovers rejoice! The seventh annual festival is a two-day garlic gala. Garlic specialty food vendors will be selling all manner of dips, cheeses, spreads, and oils, or stop by fresh produce vendors to pick up a head or two to take home. Lectures will discuss how to grow and cook with garlic, including tips for no-fuss gourmet meals. Enjoy live entertainment by the Pears or the J.J. Diamond Band while sampling the creative offerings at the food court, including roasted garlic sausage and roast pork sandwiches, deep fried garlic, garlic pizza, and even garlic ice cream. Bethlehem Fairgrounds, entrance at 304 Route 61, 203-266-7810, adults $6, seniors $5, under 12 $1, www.garlicfestct.com

Newport Yachting Center’s International Oktoberfest, Oct. 8-10, Newport, R.I.

Newport may be known for yachting and sumptuous mansions by the sea, but it’s no snob when it comes to embracing beer. When fall rolls around, the Yachting Center celebrates the flavors of the season at this annual festival. Two stages on the waterfront feature spirited Bavarian oompah bands, German dance troupes and yodelers, and Rhode Island’s own Alpenblumen dancers. Get your lederhosen or Gretel dress on and taste some authentic Austro-German cuisine while sipping craft beers in the International Biergarten, including Viennese lagers, German bocks, and light colored and spicy witbiers. The Kindergarten area offers seasonal activities and crafts for children of all ages. 4 Commercial Wharf, 401-846-1600, adults $20 Sat or Sun and $12 Mon, under 12 free, 3-Day Weekender Pass $40, www.newportwaterfrontevents.com

Sunday River Fall Festival Weekend, Oct. 8-9, Newry, Maine

This is a jam-packed extravaganza combining multiple events in a single weekend. In the South Ridge Base Lodge, look for the 28th Annual Blue Mountain Arts and Crafts Festival featuring regional artists and artisans exhibiting painting, jewelry, pottery, woodworking, photography, and more. The Maine-Way tent pairs wine tasting with a raw bar, fondue, lobster salad, and other tasty treats. Looking for action? Go mountain biking, take a scenic hike or lift ride, try geocaching, or compete in the Peak to Peak Challenge, a race with three levels of difficulty. Free concerts are offered both days, though perhaps the most compelling attraction is the 11th Annual North American Wife Carrying Championships where competitors carry their wives, girlfriends, or friends over a 280-yard obstacle course. The winning team nabs a spot to compete at the World Championships in Finland. Sunday River Ski Resort, 207-824-3000, free; See website for specific event pricing; www.sundayriver.com

Wellfleet Oyster Fest, Oct. 15-16, Wellfleet

Now in its 11th year, this has grown into a two-day street fair where thousands flock to slurp down succulent bivalves and sample chowder and other specialties prepared by local restaurants. Tap your feet to live music while shopping for fine arts and regional crafts. Activity-minded visitors can run a 5K race. Learn about the marine environment via lectures, cooking demonstrations, and by touring the flats where oysters are grown and harvested. A children’s area features face painting, steel drum playing workshops, an inflatable bounce house, and more. Not to be missed: the oyster shucking contest where competitors from all of New England vie for cash and glory. Main Street, free, www.wellfleetoysterfest.org

Apple Fest, Oct. 15-16,Princeton

Who says you need snow to enjoy a ski resort? Wachusett Mountain Ski Area celebrates the season with this festival. Sample the bounty of the harvest at farmer’s market booths, sip seasonal ales in the beer tent, and chow down on succulent barbecue. Children enjoy the pony and hay rides, clowns, jugglers, and magicians. There’s live entertainment, chainsaw carving demonstrations, and The Raptor Project offers a show with birds of prey. The Second Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest returns on Saturday, followed by a 5K run-walk on Sunday. Take a scenic SkyRide to the summit at 2006 feet for panoramic 360-degree views, including the Boston skyline to the east. 499 Mountain Road, 978-464-2300, Oct, 15-16, adults $10, 6-12 $6 ,SkyRides priced separately, www.wachusett.com

Keene Pumpkin Festival, Oct. 22, Keene, N.H.

There’s nothing that evokes autumn more than a big orange jack-o’-lantern. Except, perhaps, 40-foot glowing towers holding thousands of them. Once again, the festival will attempt to set a world record for the most carved and lighted jack-o’-lanterns in one place at one time. It’s a day-long, community pumpkin-palooza that begins at 12:30 with a children’s costume parade. The fun continues with pumpkin bowling in the middle of the street, and continues with live music, storytelling, a crafts fair, carving stations, and a food court featuring pumpkin inspired treats. Visitors are asked to bring a carved pumpkin and a candle and to register at a sign-in station. At 8:30 p.m. the smiling towers will glow in eerie splendor, and perhaps smash Boston’s 2010 record of 30,128. Main Street, 603-352-1303, Oct. 22, free, www.pumpkinfestival.org

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.