Animals bring Fair’s agricultural heritage to life

Stalwart oxen are front and center in several events on Thursday. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

When people think of The Fair, not many remember that it’s actually a Livestock Show & Fair. The Fair is a celebration of local agriculture, even when the carnival rides are louder than the cattle. Most visitors to The Fair wander through the livestock barn and stop to watch the draft horse pull, goat milking or sheepdog herding demonstrations or the pet show. Animals dominate one end of the fairgrounds and are a vital part of The Fair.

The livestock barn serves as a temporary home to hundreds of animals for the four days of The Fair. Last year, there were 330 animal entries, according to entry clerk Eve Heyman. The variety of livestock shifts slightly every year, as some farms join in and others opt out, and as different kinds of animals are introduced to the Island. Alpacas first came to The Fair about eight years ago, and miniature horses were relatively uncommon until about five years ago.

Bob Hungerford manages the barn, where work begins well before the first trucks and trailers with animals roll in.

“We clean out the stalls before and after, make sure the rings and hitches are in good shape,” he says. “We use over 200 bales of shavings, and get health certificates for all the animals. We make sure the water is on and all the hoses are set up.”

Brian Athearn’s Run Amok Farm is bringing livestock to The Fair for the first time this year. “We brush the cows, shine their hooves, and give them a good bath,” says Mr. Athearn. “The cows are really easygoing. My kids, Hunter and Emmett, work with them a lot. They’re eight and ten, and they practically run the farm.”

Mr. Athearn says that his sheep clean up well, too. “Our breeding ewes came from U. Mass. Stockbridge so they’re used to 400 to 500 people a day coming by. We have the friendliest animals, they’re really used to people.”

Brahmin Thurber-Carbone, 13, of Breezy Pines Farm will be entering four of his chickens in the junior poultry division. “I have a brown chicken, two golden, and a black and white one,” says Brahmin. “We give them a little hay and every day we come by and give them some water and food.”

In addition to the livestock in the barn, there are animal-centered events every day. The oxen show on Thursday is organized by Hilary Blocksom. “The oxen show used to be combined with the horse show,” Ms. Blocksom explains, “but horses and oxen are really different. In 1996, when we moved to the four-day fair, I asked to initiate the ox pull on its own, and it’s been really fun to watch how it’s evolved. This year we have nine pairs coming from off-Island, and two pairs from here.”

Jeremy Mercier, 14, will be working the FARM Institute’s pair of oxen, and Scottie Browning will bring her water buffalo. “It’s nice to see the young crew coming into this,” Ms. Blocksom says, “because the old crew – Leonard Athearn, Craig Kingsbury and all – are all gone.”

The change of generations is also evident at the pet show, emceed by Andre Bonnell, who takes the stage as Dr. Milkbone. One year in the 1980s, his predecessor, the late Michael Wild, asked him to help out, Mr. Bonnell says. “After, he asked, ‘How’d you like it?’ I said I had a blast, and he said, ‘Good, ’cause it’s yours now.'”

When Mr. Bonnell began, his four-year-old daughter handed out the ribbons to all participants, and now his grandson, Isaac, who is four this year, has taken over that job.

“One year, a kid had a big quahaug with a cat collar that he was pulling with a leash,” Mr. Bonnell says. “A couple of girls came one time with a glass Mason jar with twigs and weeds. They said they had invisible Swedish night bugs. It’s just an absolute blast.”

The draft horse pulling contest, on Friday, draws teams from off-Island as well as locals. “We have about 15 teamsters coming,” says Mr. Hungerford, “and some have more than one team, so there will be 30 to 40 for the horse pull on Friday.”

The Island draft horse show on Sunday began in 1989, by the late Muriel Fisher. Now it is organized by Connie Toteneau, who took over the job from her grandmother about eight years ago. When the show started, there were only a handful of local farms which kept pulling teams – Katama Farm, Frosty Hollow Farm, Blackwater Farm, and of course Nip ‘n’ Tuck. The number has increased since, and between seven and 12 local horses are expected to participate in this year’s show. The mellow event has many traditional classes showcasing both animals’ and handlers’ abilities.

Dogs have their day on Sunday, when canines of all breeds converge on the fairgrounds for the dog show, and agility and training demonstrations. Horse enthusiasts are not forgotten, as the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council Drill Team performs breathtaking precision moves on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Demonstrations by the Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Center take place in the show ring just before the Island draft horse show Sunday.

Among the spinning, flashing, shrieking rides on one end of the fairgrounds, you can forget about agriculture, but in the barns and show rings, among the animals, it’s still the main attraction.