Our Fair ladies
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
In early August, the fairgrounds around the Agricultural Hall were still quiet but preparations were well under way for today's opening of the Agricultural Fair. Exit and Entrance signs had been hung at the front gate. Behind the hall, the field was being marked for booths, and in the office, the Fair Committee of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society was catching their collective breath, gearing up for the big event.
Eleanor Neubert, who heads the committee, became Fair Manager in 1984. "I think Abbe Burt got me involved," Ms. Neubert said. "She was on the board of trustees. I ran into her on Lambert's Cove Beach, and she said they were looking for a new manager. It took me several months before I said yes." Now, 26 years later, she continues in the role while her daughter, Sarah, and seven-year-old granddaughter, Kayla, help with the effort, along with more than a dozen other members of the committee.
When Ms. Neubert began managing the fair, it was still at the old, 3.9-acre fairgrounds, around what's now called the Grange Hall. Crowds crammed into narrow pathways on either side of the hall, with the carny booths and rides on one side and the more local booths on the opposite side of the hall. In 1995, the Fair moved to its current location, 20.9 acres on Panhandle Road. As with any change, some people grumbled and waxed nostalgic for the intimacy of the old fairgrounds, but the Fair Ladies welcomed the change. The move gave the organizers more space to work with and two years later, in 1997, they expanded the fair's schedule to include Sundays, which allowed for a slightly less frenetic pace.
Nancy Alyce Abbott, another member of the committee, wears many hats. "I've been going to the Fair since I was a little girl in Edgartown," she said. "You saved up your money all year, and it was gone in an hour, but it was the highlight of the summer." Ms. Abbott started out as a judge at the old hall, and moved up to the office. "I love the new hall for displaying things, the quilts hanging up."
Despite the increased space and time, the fair still packs a lot of activity into its four days, and the committee works year-round to ensure that the pieces come together as smoothly as possible. They begin in November, making ferry reservations for the off-Island horses and oxen to come compete in the Fair. In January, the call goes out for entries into the poster contest, and the waitlist for new booths opens up. In April, the poster contest is judged, and in the following months the Fair ladies put in the order for the year's posters, tee-shirts, etc. The entertainment lineup and program are finalized in June, and in July the programs are printed. At the beginning of August, the committee opens their office five mornings a week, and by the week leading up to the fair, they are at the fair almost constantly.
"We have monthly meetings throughout the year," Karen Colaneri said. "There's a lot of respect, camaraderie, and humor — you've got to have that. It's a huge part of the community life of the Vineyard, and it's a privilege to be part of it. I started out at the pigpen gate, the back entrance of the old fairgrounds. Like a lot of us, I came up through the ranks and have done everything there is to do." Currently, Ms. Colaneri describes her role as "Chief Gofer." She does whatever needs to be done, and says that all of the other committee members are able to do the same.
Ms. Colaneri says that the Fair has been run mostly by women in the past few generations, although there are some young men in evidence at the office. Tim Mavro drops into the office as he works on the physical setup of the fair. He is the "Trash King," and helps organize and supervise the young fair employees who collect garbage, work security, and take tickets. "Actually, kids love doing the trash," Mr. Mavro said. "You're moving around, and sometimes you find things." His mother, Nola Mavro, is the fair's treasurer and "ticket queen."
Carol and Garrison Vieira are in the office with their two toddlers. Ms. Vieira runs the baby tent, which was added to the Fair a few years ago. It provides a place for parents to sit down and feed their babies, change diapers, and rest. Mr. Vieira insists that all he does is set up the tent, but the Fair Ladies maintain that his help is more far-reaching than that, and he will help in any way.
In terms of what to expect this year, Ms. Neubert says that there are two new booths, one selling kettle corn and another for pulled pork. Entry forms are due by the Monday before the Fair so that the tags can be printed up in advance, but the entries themselves should come in on Wednesday. Even last week, some kids' jobs were still available, working security and collecting trash.
This year, the Fair's opening day, today, will coincide with President Obama's arrival. "Usually they give us a week's notice when the president is coming," Ms. Colaneri said last week. "We haven't heard anything this year, but we're hoping that they come."