Nearly 30,000 enjoyed 147th Ag Fair
With 29,706 paid admissions, only 600 shy of last year's total, the 147th annual Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair was thronged for four bright sunshiney days over the weekend. The total does not include those who entered with Agricultural Society memberships and other passes. Fair organizers were as happy as patrons, delighted with the weather and the good turnout, and pleased that economic concerns did little to dampen fairgoers' enthusiasm.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the attendance, considering the economy and the fact that the Fair was a little later than usual," said Fair manager Eleanor Neubert, reporting that tee-shirt sales were a little less than expected but that food vendors did very well. "People spent money on their favorite foods and thought twice about buying a poster or a tee-shirt."
Ms. Neubert added that despite economic worries, there had been "no complaints" from staff or LMC Amusements, the Cushing family carnival of Wilmington that has served the Island Fair for several decades. Especially popular were the $20 wristbands that entitled wearers to take as many rides as they wanted on Friday evening from 6 to 10 pm.
"Hopefully we can spread the word a little more, it brings people in," said Ms. Neubert.
Though numbers for the final three days were comparable to those of recent years, Thursday's attendance was a 10-year record breaker with attendance higher than any Thursday since 1999. Ms. Neubert said that final net revenue figures were not yet available. She said that the income from admissions and parking fees is used to cover countless Fair costs.
"The expense list is huge," said Ms. Neubert, enumerating prize money and ribbons, tent costs, payments to entertainers, police details, electricians, carpenters, animal judges from off Island, printing of booklets, tee-shirts, and posters, animal barn supplies, and much more. In addition, the Fair employs some 150 workers, mostly youngsters, for security and trash details. Funds also go to scholarships for Island students, grants to those seeking support for agricultural endeavors, and ongoing maintenance of building and grounds.
On a housekeeping note, Ms. Neubert said that the Vineyard Conservation Society's new recycling effort, providing special bins for bottles and cans, had gotten off to a good start. And she praised "Trash King" Tim Mavro and his young team for keeping the grounds spotless.
Ms. Neubert said both the barn and fiber tent were well organized, filled with animals and interested fairgoers all weekend.
Demonstrations of sheep herding and shearing, as well as knitting, weaving, and spinning in the fiber tent were all very popular, she said.
Blacksmith Dick Renker was on hand with his wife, Lori, who comes every summer to oversee the young security workers. The couple lives in New York State. Mr. Renker had not been back to the Island for a Fair since 1978 when it was at the old fairgrounds.
"It has grown," said Mr. Renker. "But it was a lot the same. It had the same old flavor. Really, it's a homegrown deal. The new fairgrounds are great. They're so much better off than in the center of town. They've got room to breathe and they still have room to grow."
Bigger and better
Hall and barn entries, another gauge of the Fair's success, climbed slightly this year, according to entry clerk Eve Heyman. There were a total of 1,502 individual exhibitors with 3,830 entries in the hall and another 260 livestock and poultry entries in the animal barn and fiber tent. Ms. Heyman noted that these totals do not include the draft horses and oxen here for judging and competitions. As for the computerized entry system and its Monday 5 pm deadline now in effect for several years, Ms. Heyman said most exhibitors appear to be using it properly but some improvement is still possible.
"It's important for people to know they can enter anytime starting August 1," Ms. Heyman said. "Everybody seems to wait until the last minute. And people need to pay attention to size limits and other general rules for entry. They should read the book carefully."
Hall Manager Kathy Lobb was bustling through the big barn, clearing out entries not yet picked up and making sure furnishings were empty and ready for storage. She praised all the exhibits and said Chas Deary's handmade kayak and the glittery red fire truck by First Light Preschool were big attention getters.
Canning entries were higher than ever this year, more than double the 2007 total, Ms. Lobb said. She attributed the upswing to the economy, "and people are more concerned about food and where it comes from." Even junior canning entries had increased, she said. There were also more flower and produce entries overall, according to Ms. Lobb, possibly because the Fair's later date allowed more time for ripening.
Ms. Lobb said with some pride that 34 representatives from the Topsfield Fair were here last weekend to observe the Island event. "They were very much impressed with our building and our entries," she reported.
A busy midway
It was the food that brought many to the fairgrounds, like Jack Mayhew enjoying his yearly West Tisbury Fire Department cheeseburger and Randon Rynd who laughed that she had already consumed several of the hefty sandwiches. For others it was ribs brought from Vermont by Barbeque Bill, chili fries, sausage or meatball subs from Cozy's, and for the virtuous Greek and Caesar salads from the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School booth and fruit smoothies by Michael Youngman of Vermont, a perennial healthy favorite. Tangy carnival lemonade, a frothy, icy treat, was popular, and coffee lovers chose between individually brewed cups and the fresh-roasted Javatree blend served in the carnival area.
Shopping was brisk at Leslie Grey and Michael Jordan's booth, as repeat customers snatched up jewelry and clothing and accessories made from brilliant Indian fabrics. The cotton summer sweaters and cozy alpaca shawls at Mollygoggles got attention too.
"We were pleasantly surprised," said Mr. Jordan. "We had as good a year as any in the past. Given the state of the economy we thought it was likely we'd have a much less good year."
"We love the Fair and we feel appreciated here," added Ms. Gray. "We see the same people year after year. It's like seeing distant relatives you really like."
Customers snatched up visor caps and sun hats, raffle tickets, toys and trinkets, and had their faces painted with fanciful designs.
Sandwich Haven, with its Middle Eastern fare and pizza, won the best booth award while Gwen Nichols was picked for having her booth's decor best reflect the Fair's theme, "Homegrown Favorites."
Fun for All
Split like the Island itself into several diverse cultures, the Fair offers its honky tonk, commercial, and rural sides. Fairgoers dipped into whichever suited their fancy at the moment, and usual habits were abandoned in the spirit of Fair fun. Serious-looking adults were mesmerized by the insidious "Quarter Game," dropping coin after coin into a slot in hopes a moving bar would push a fortune out the chute. Fairgoers threw countless balls and darts and tried valiantly to scale a tipsy rope ladder, all to win a stuffed animal or other prize. Games of skill and chance hooked unsuspecting fairgoers as deftly as Paddy Moore's young grandson snagged a grab bag filled with surprises with a fishing pole, to cheers from his proud grandma. An especially clean-living and responsible Chilmark couple was overheard planning their decadent fried dough dessert on Sunday night. Tough looking teens in the animal barn cooed and giggled over the bunnies and tiny horses, while he-man types admired the knitting and weaving demos in the fiber tent and cheered on the ladies in the skillet toss. And hardly anyone could leave the fair without boarding a ride, bringing screams and laughter to fill the glittering carnival midway from morning to night.
Fairgoers whiled away the sunny days at traditional competitions, like the Draft Horse Pull where the lightweight winners dragged a record two-ton load to the Woodsmen's Contest where splinters flew, chainsaws whined, and axes whacked all Saturday afternoon. They cheered their favorite dogs, admired youngsters' pets, from kittens to guinea pigs to rocks, sampled the smoked fish and newly shucked oysters as winners were crowned, and rooted for the no-nonsense ladies at the Skillet Toss. Horse events and demonstrations, racing pigs who even swam, musical entertainers and puppeteers left visitors with no dull moments.
The West Tisbury Firemen reported steady business and good income at both the hamburger booth and the parking lot. The department splits parking proceeds with the Ag Society. Funds raised at the Fair allow the department to offer scholarships to graduating seniors and for continuing education. The revenues also cover food baskets for elderly residents at Thanksgiving and donations to help support community members in emergencies or other difficulties.
Several firemen echoed the complaints of numerous vendors that the Oak Bluffs Fire Department had once again scheduled their fireworks display on Friday night of the Fair. They said it was even more frustrating than usual this year, since the Fair was a week later than usual and the fireworks could have been held the Friday before. They said the conflicting schedule draws patrons away from both events, hurting both fire departments.
By Tuesday morning the fairgrounds looked a lot like normal, although a few booths remained on the local midway, waiting for vendors to dismantle them. Carnival rides were gone and the animal barn was empty once again. Inside, Fair staff was hustling to make way for the Artisans' Festival this weekend. But soon the focus will be back on the Fair again. Ms Neubert said that after a brief breather, she and her committee would meet on September 2 to begin planning next year's Fair.