Fun, sure, but Ag Fair is also about competition
The annual Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair in West Tisbury isn't all fun and games - it's also a time for serious competition. Besides the many rides, food stands, and games, the fair attracts a host of competitors vying for a blue ribbon in events ranging from the blueberry harvest to the skillet throwing contest.
Some competitions are active, such as the clam and oyster shucking contest, while others, such as the art and produce contests, are judged exhibits.
Many who enter have been doing so for years, while others are just starting out. There are also always a few phantom contestants who come back for a winning title after being out of the game for decades. Whatever the story, contestants bring their own character, charisma, and enthusiasm with them when they come to compete, adding to the fair's overall energy.
Susan Bainbridge Murphy, a furniture maker from Chilmark, stands next to her spice box, which won a blue ribbon last year, and her Chippendale chair, which she is entering this year. Photo by Rebecca Rattner
Competition means business
One category in the art exhibit that requires lots of preparation is the furniture making category. Susan Bainbridge Murphy of Chilmark won a blue ribbon last year for her spice box. This year, she is entering a Chippendale side chair in the professional category. "It took me about three months to make," she said on Monday. The chair, she said, is made of curly maple and is "very complicated."
Ms. Murphy took her first furniture making class in 1998, at the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which she attended for two years. Since then, she has been making furniture from her home and trying to spread the word about her work.
Ms. Murphy isn't afraid of competition. "I'm encouraging all my furniture making friends to also enter pieces. It makes the exhibit more interesting, and it also ups the ante and makes it more lively and competitive." Ms. Murphy also hopes that the contest will benefit her business. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to have people see my work and to just spread the word that I'm a furniture maker looking for commissions." The exhibit and contest give her a chance to show off some of her pieces and hopefully attract buyers.
While some participants prepare pieces specifically for the show, Ms. Murphy decided to make the Chippendale chair because she didn't know how to make one and wanted the experience.
The judging of the exhibits begins today at 9 am, and the hall opens a few hours later when the judging has been completed.
Morning Glory Farm expects to bring home a few ribbons, perhaps for its corn. Photo by Julia Spiro
Farm fresh competition
Another category full of stiff competition is the produce. Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown has been entering fruits and vegetables for more than 25 years. Debbie Athearn, who owns the farm with her husband Jim, is looking forward to going up against some other participants. "There's definitely competition," she said on Monday, "which is great. It's not as much fun when you're the only entry. You always want to be with other people."
While there isn't any one fruit or vegetable in particular that Ms. Athearn is determined to win with, there are a few that she has hopes for. "My son grows the peaches, and he does a really good job with that." Another entry sure to bring back some ribbons is the corn. "My husband grows the corn, and he hopes and expects to win something for that," she said.
The Athearns are no strangers to the fair competitions. "We're in our 27th season at the farm," she said, "and we've been entering from the start. Even before that, we used to enter when we had a home garden."
Islander Jennifer Gardner won last year's skillet throwing contest with an astonishing 53-foot, 3-inch toss. She also won in 2004. Despite her skills, she is unsure whether or not she will compete this year. "I've got a couple of injuries," she said on Monday. Ms. Gardner said that she hasn't given it much thought yet, but if she does decide to enter, she has a very low-key preparation plan. "Usually what I do is go out to the beach the day before and throw a couple of times to make sure I have the motion."
The women's skillet throw competition takes place on Sunday at 3 pm.
A woodsman gets back in action
Some participants return to compete after a long hiatus. One of these is Walter Ashley, owner of C&W Power Equipment in Edgartown, who will be in the annual Woodsmen's Contest, which entails chainsaw and cross cut swords events. Mr. Ashley last entered the event in the early 90s. Before then he had entered for years, consistently bringing home winning ribbons. Now, after more than a decade out of the challenge, he is signed up to enter in this year's event. Mr. Ashley said that the decision was made because he is "old and foolish."
"I'm entering for fun," he said on Monday. "You go up there hoping you're going to do well, and you try not to make mistakes. It's like running. If you stumble, you don't win." Stumbling with a chainsaw might cause more of an injury than a running stumble, but Mr. Ashley seemed unfazed by the possible dangers and said that he wasn't nervous. When asked if he is looking forward to it, he replied, "Yes and no. Yes because it's fun, and no because it's tiring. I'm not 40 anymore."
The Woodsmen's Contest takes place Saturday at 1 pm.
An old rivalry between friends
Some of the competitions mean much more to participants than just a ribbon. Ken Goldberg runs the shucking competition and has been doing so since it began 30 years ago. "For some of the contestants," he said, "this is really big."
Two such contestants are Jimmy Hoe of Tisbury and Teddy Karalekas of West Tisbury. Mr. Goldberg said that the two men have been battling each other for the winning title year after year for decades. "Last year, one of them won the oyster shucking, and one of them won the clams. I lose track," Mr. Goldberg said.
On Tuesday, when asked how serious the rivalry is, Mr. Karalekas said, "Serious? It's very serious." He paused and then with a chuckle added, "He's my best friend, too."
Mr. Karalekas went on to explain that he began shucking 45 years ago when his grandfather taught him at age 10. Since then, he says he has built on his skills.
"The technique is not getting it open fast, it's to get it open clean," he explained. "You don't want to get shell in an oyster that's going to be eaten by an ex-president."
Mr. Karalekas keeps up his skill by shucking oysters and clams at private parties and events on the Island. This weekend, he will be working at a private fundraiser for Hilary Clinton in West Tisbury.
The Clam & Oyster Shucking Contest takes place on Friday at 4 pm.