FRYEBURG, Maine -- For one week in early October, the population of this one-traffic-light town swells to more than 300,000 when RVs and SUVs roll in en masse for the Fryeburg Fair. The western Maine classic has been a stroll back in time since 1851 and now tempts with huge mounds of french fries and such old-fashioned entertainment as pig scrambles, tractor pulls, log-splitting contests, and harness racing. On fair days, folks use colorful streamers to coax drivers into their front-yard parking lots.
For the other 51 weeks of the year, it's easy to miss Fryeburg, what with North Conway, N.H., in its backyard, with all its shopping and mountain scenery. Fryeburg is the alternative. It's quiet, with a sleepy Main Street that is home to Fryeburg Academy.
To get a 360-degree lay of the land settled by General Joseph Frye in 1763, head to Jockey Cap, a ledge just 200 feet high and easily reached via a trail off Route 302 less than a mile east of Main Street. A circular bronze mountain profile at the summit helps identify the peaks and ponds out on the landscape. In the northwest are mountains including Mount Washington, to the east is the sparkling Lovewell Pond, to the west is Fryeburg Academy, and to the south is Peary Mountain. The ring is based on a survey taken by one of Fryeburg's most famous residents: Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary.
Peary, who led a team to the North Pole in 1909, once worked as the town's surveyor. He lived in a house on Elm Street, now a comfortable bed and breakfast, the Admiral Peary House.
Fryeburg's other famous son was author Clarence Mulford, creator of Hopalong Cassidy. Many of Mulford's Westerns were written in western Maine. He lived in Fryeburg for 30 years until his death in 1956, and the Fryeburg Public Library contains a room dedicated to him with first editions and memorabilia.
Fryeburg Academy, a college preparatory school founded in 1792, brings an academic flair to the community. More than 200 years ago, orator, statesman, and lawyer Daniel Webster worked for two years as the academy's headmaster and teacher.
Though Fryeburg has only a handful of restaurants, anyone looking for a culinary treat won't be disappointed. The yellow Mission-style Oxford House Inn on Main Street, built in 1913, is a must visit. As we dined one evening, we watched two deer wander the fields outside, with the mountains as a backdrop. Homemade crackers and breads were a delightful prelude to a shared Maine crabmeat crepe served with a sun-dried tomato remoulade before our entrees arrived -- veal medallions in a marsala wine sauce with shiitake mushrooms, the other a veal steak with a creamy dijon mustard sauce. The restaurant is a soothing place to watch the day fade away.
The Saco River, which begins in Crawford Notch, N.H., flows through Fryeburg en route to the Atlantic. Its winding way and sandy beaches attract kayakers and canoeists spring through autumn. The river provides a vantage point for the farms and fields of the area.
Fryeburg's rural nature is part of its appeal. Drive along the bucolic back roads by high corn stalks and rows of potatoes, as on Route 113, and by farm stands like Weston's on River Street, offering seasonal produce along with jams, jellies, fresh pies, and maple syrup. The six-generation Weston family farm celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1999. Many farms along the way sell their goods on the honor system. The prices are listed; put the money in the tin or cigar box and be on your way.
Along the snaking roads are small cemeteries, mountain profiles, and river views. Take a ride through the 1857 covered Hemlock Bridge (Maine's oldest remaining covered bridge) 3 miles northwest of East Fryeburg. There's no traffic, no waiting, and no admission.
Marty Basch can be reached through www.martybasch.com.