Ag Fair delights through four crowded days

At the fair, diets are forgotten. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Despite ominous weather forecasts, an uncertain economy, fireworks and Illumination Night in Oak Bluffs, the 151st Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair was a happy success in the delighted assessment of its organizers and the thousands of delighted visitors that packed the grounds all last weekend.

Though attendance figures were slightly lower —28,819 visitors compared to 30,159 in 2011 – Ag Society Fair manager Eleanor Neubert said this week that the decline was partly due to extremely high attendance last year, in honor of that event’s 150th anniversary. The milestone Fair had featured a parade and several very unusual attractions and competitions.

But this year there were still more attractions, novelties, new events, and fun than the most determined fairgoer could fit into the four days. Ms. Neubert and her staff had pushed ahead with preparations even as the internet warned of frequent rain and thunderstorms throughout the weekend. But forecasts proved largely wrong, and even with a rainy start on Saturday and threatened thunderstorms all day, no schedules were changed. Fairgoers armed with umbrellas and rain jackets, just in case, turned out in droves and were rewarded by a generally dry day and plenty of action. Ms. Neubert said that even on Saturday there was no thought of canceling the Fair.

“We really paid absolutely no attention to the weather; we just opened as usual,” Ms. Neubert said. “We can look up in to the sky to see what the weather is doing. There’s no sense worrying about the weather. We deal with it when and if it arrives.”

Agricultural exhibits and events, which are the traditional heart of this Vineyard Fair thrived, many seeing striking growth from previous years. The Ag Hall was resplendent with robust vegetables, lush flowers, tantalizing baked goods and tables of impressive art, photography, and handicrafts by both adults and juniors. According to entry clerk Eve Heyman, there were more quilts than ever hanging from the beams and an unusually large number of special exhibits, so many that late entries had to be turned away for lack of space.

The front room featured a captivating exhibit of elegant miniature trees by the Martha’s Vineyard Bonsai Club, an exhibit demonstrating traditional lace making, historic photos of Fair days and long ago Vineyard farm life, and a fanciful cart constructed of woven vines, twigs, and small branches. Tom Dresser and others offered local books.

Down in the livestock barn, stalls and cages were filled to capacity with a whopping 284 entries including goats, sheep, cows, pigs, horses, rabbits, and poultry. Especially for younger barn visitors, the bevy of tiny goats exhibited by Melissa Manter was a special thrill. Ms. Manter stayed nearby, answering questions and even setting up photo ops for children with the animals.

In addition to the livestock entries there were more draft horses on hand to compete in the Friday pull than ever before, and 31 oxen competing in their own events and pull on Thursday, and even a pair of water buffalo, an exciting first for the Fair.

In the show ring, the Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council Drill Team wowed the crowd with precision moves, and the Sunday afternoon Local Draft Horse Show was a mellow conclusion to a busy Fair. Dogs took over the fairgrounds Sunday morning for the traditional show and training and recreational events.

The woodsman’s contest on Saturday was the biggest ever, with more contestants and new events, thanks to the enthusiastic organizers Vince and Heather Maciel. This year’s competition opened with a welcome by Ms. Neubert, young Olivia deGeofroy singing The Star Spangled Banner, and a plaque presented to Clarence “Trip” Barnes for his 35 years as announcer and work helping to get the show started in 1976.

The antique tractor pull was another hit, drawing bigger crowds, more contestants, and plenty of noisy engines. Dwight Kaeka walked off with a big win. The Sunday women’s skillet throw was as popular as ever as ladies of all ages heaved an iron griddle down the field. Ashley Medeiros left all the competition behind with her awesome 54-foot ,10-inch throw.

The fiber tent was constantly busy with alpaca, sheep, and Angora rabbits happily greeting visitors, and several Island fiber artists offered demonstrations, information, and inspiration. Visitors tried their hand at traditional fiber arts and competed at knitting and spinning. Children were fascinated by learning how to use a drop spindle and have a hands-on lesson in felting. Sheep were complaining vociferously as shearing went on throughout the weekend.

Money-minded parents, worried about paying for games, rides, and food for excited children, were delighted to find free attractions geared to littler fairgoers. Thanks to the creativity of Karen Ogden, crowds of fascinated kids built race cars from squash and corn and wooden wheels and sped them down a ramp. A new corn husking contest organized by Nancy-Alyce Abbott brought out children and teens to strip ears of corn as fast as they could. Toe Jam presented hilarious interactive puppet shows, and Puppetoke puppets brought plenty of laughs. The Pet Show with Dr. Milkbone meeting and praising all manner of creatures kept youngsters giggling. And all ages gave a rousing “Welcome Back!” to Robinson’s Racing Pigs, returned to the Fair after a year’s absence. Mike Piazza’s Flying High Frisbee Dogs, new this year, also delighted adults and kids alike, soaring into the air for breathtaking catches.No drizzle could slow down the carny, brought here as always by Cushing Amusements of Wilmington. Bright lights and promises of big wins at games of chance, mixed with the fried dough, foot-long hotdogs, and ice cream, drew the younger crowd all day and night. Many youngsters and their families skipped the Oak Bluffs Fireworks Friday night to take advantage of the bargain discount bracelet, offering unlimited rides from 6 to 11 pm for only $25.

A packed entertainment schedule on the stage featured plenty of local musicians, including a first-time Fair visit by The Daytrippers, who delighted the crowd with Beatle tunes. Also on hand were The Stragglers, Good Night Louise, and many other favorites, and from off-Island the popular Li’l Anne heated up the stage. Near the Livestock Barn, Nancy Jephcote, Tristan Israel, and musical friends offered mellow sounds in the acoustic corner.

The local midway appeared busy throughout the weekend with fairgoers feasting on the usual favorites — burgers, subs, tempura, fries, ribs, lobster rolls — and plenty of newer hits like local pulled pork, kabobs, Jamaican fare, and much more. Desserts were sumptuous; corn on the cob was just right as side or snack; and salads offered a rare guilt-free option.

But though fairgoers ate their fill, many food vendors said sales were uncommonly slow, blaming grim weather forecasts and competing Island events. Though a few admitted they were discouraged, most took it in stride, proclaiming it a good Fair, if not as profitable as usual.

Bright spots on the local midway included Max Moreis, who sold out of his 1,400 cupcakes and won the “Best Booth” award too. Nearby, Adam Petkus was pleased at the number of root beer floats and watermelon slices he had sold. Local Smoke and the West Tisbury Firemen’s burger booth saw steady sales, though sometimes a little slow.

Non-food booths fared a little better. The Tuck and Holand metal work booth with its fanciful blue tent was named Best Non-Food Booth. Seniel Seward of Circuit Style sold plenty of hair adornments, and Marjorie Goldman kept busy painting faces and applying temporary tattoos.

With author Susan Klein and photographer Alan Brigish on hand to sign books, “Bountiful,” the new history of the Fair and Ag Society, saw brisk sales. as did posters and tee-shirts emblazoned by artist Kathy Ham’s proud rooster.

Beth McElhiney reported a profitable weekend selling her enamel ware. Leslie Grey’s and Michael Jordan’s booth was busy throughout the Fair as fans of their colorful imported clothing and accessories came to browse and buy. Ms. Grey commented that although business was slightly quieter than usual, it gave her precious time to slow down and chat with customers.

Booth manager Dianne Powers said she heard business was slow for some, but thought that most vendors were satisfied.

“Overall it was a good Fair,” she said. “We had wonderful booths. We’re fortunate to have the quality of booths we have here.”