Off North Road

Through a child's eyes – the Fair

By Russell Hoxsie - September 7, 2006

I'm looking at the West Tisbury centennial poster (1882-1992) by Thomas Hart Benton featuring the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair which was already a going concern at the time of the town's incorporation. My recollections of the fair span 50 years and I have seen quite a few of them. Likely there's not a soul alive who could say credibly he had seen the first one but I thought I would seek out one of the younger generation to shine a spotlight on current times. I knew she had attended the West Tisbury fair grounds at least three times with her mother this year and if she was up to her standard acuity she would have some insights I had missed. Gabriella is nine years old and starts fourth grade in Edgartown this fall.

"A lot of people were coming," she told me, "and it cost a lot more than last year. Rides used to be three tickets and now they're five or six."

I remember last year standing in numbing confusion at the ticket booths. They were an innovation to me and a total mystery. What did the rides cost? But the only answer I got from the woman attending the entrance kiosk was that tickets were so much for a sheet of 10, 12, or 20. I can't remember now the details. Gabriella knew exactly, how many for the Ferris wheel, how much for the Sizzler and she tugged at my shirttail impatiently as she started to leave me. "But I don't have the admission," I told her and I threw up my hands in despair and wandered away to regain my bearings. Gabriella stood at a distance mystified by my mystification. Finally, as I studied the sheet of tickets I had grudgingly turned over a large sum of money for (I thought), the light dawned. Ample signs were prominently displayed about the grounds advertising the number of tickets required for each ride.

Gabriella described some of the rides. "Some are intense; most are pretty fun, go fast. Some are not so fun and they go around so fast you feel like you'll puke. I would say if you really, really want to go on big rides you shouldn't eat before and you won't have any trouble with your stomach." After a long pause looking around the room, she continued, "I have a question ... do most animals sleep at the fair; do the owners and animals both sleep at the fair or do animals stay and owners must go home or do the owners go home and...." She stopped before I got dizzy with the repeating narrative and she simply spread her hands as if to signal I knew where her question was going. I also spread my hands, answering in effect that she had probably come to several correct conclusions. "The Ferris wheel is a classic," she intoned. "I usually go on the first day and the last day. When you get to the top as people are getting on... very scary like it's going to tip over... at the bottom it's pretty boring and you want to get to the top... then want to get to the middle. Some teen-agers at the top, they shake the thing by accident or on purpose... feel like you're going to slide down off and hit your head."

I asked Gabby if she ever heard any kids begin to cry and scream to stop the ride when they became scared. She told how she had been riding the Alligator when a little girl got scared and started to wail. "You have to jerk around in a sudden turn and spin." Gabriella stands up to demonstrate how you make the chair you're sitting in spin around as the series of chairs on the ride swing in a wide arc together. "The little girl was all alone and they stopped the ride and her mother came to get her. I thought it was pretty bad. Someone should have got on with her."

I asked Gabby if she visited the animals. "They had special pigs from Europe, I think. Their faces were like bull dogs. They won first prize. There were bulls in the stables... big sharp curved horns, black, white, tan, gray, different kinds." I mentioned she might have overlooked the possibility these guys were oxen, not bulls without their horns shorn. She nodded agreement but we both remained in the dark about these fairly fearsome animals in the stables. She was pretty sure they were tethered only with a rope and not behind sturdy bars.

Gabriella continued more enthusiastically, "Horses were gigantic... this room size (referring to my 10 x 15 foot office.)... two ladies bareback were riding them around ... walked and galloped.... [Also] saw puppies training to be sheep dogs practicing with ducks... worked good [sic] but sometimes the dogs tried to eat the ducks. A person came out to get the dog and, after everyone came to pat him and say, 'good dog, nice job,' let him out the gate. That was fun."

There were games that cost money [all for prizes]: darts at balloons, balls to hit big dice, Drown the Clown (hit a red button and clown would fall into a tank of water and come back up talking), bowling games, water guns with targets and a mallet-swing to spring a fake frog into a lily pond.

Gabby's craft of memory was First Prize for a friend's mother who created a mermaid set of overalls. Her favorite food was a corn dog (hot dog inside a corn muffin). She ate it plain. She liked cotton candy when I asked about it. (I always buy some when I go to the fair.) She attended with friends Kathryn, Tyler, and Mom and met another friend at the fairgrounds. Her three trips this summer prompt her to go every summer from now on and her grandfather to keep up with ticket and cost details plus making a good catalogue of the animal stables.