A fair like no other
There are fairs everywhere in the summer. State fairs, county fairs, country fairs, church fairs, and ours, the 145th Annual Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair, which begins this morning at 9 am with judging of the hall exhibits, a high-tension affair from which the general public is excluded for their own safety.
The Ag Society describes it as a "real, old-fashioned agricultural country fair with mid-way." This year the theme is "The Best Under the Sun." The Fair poster, created by Janice Haynes, features a table laden with prize-winning entries. The image will appear on Fair t-shirts that, like Lucy Vincent Beach stickers on car windows, document an Islander's faithful attendance at our most important tribal rituals.
The Fair, as we like to call it, is a red-letter date on the Vineyard calendar. Folks paint pictures with The Fair entry deadline in mind. They knit and crochet and tend their gardens. They polish the squash and spread Sho-sheen on the cukes. They photograph the kids, bake cookies, bale hay, (first and second cut), raise hogs, groom dogs, train the oxen, deodorize the goats, and more and more. They do it all with The Fair in mind. After all, it's the biggest party of the year, with prizes. It's the one event to which everyone is invited, high and low, and everyone comes.
But it's also the moment when summer becomes autumn, when school, instead of whispering, hollers that the time has come to put away summer and bend over the books, or the keyboard, or at least head for the mall to pick out some back to school clothes and a new trapper-keeper. (What the heck are those things anyway? There weren't any trapper-keepers when I was going back to school.)
The Ag Fair is not listed on the national web site that maintains a list of all the county fairs in each of the 50 states. But, ours is not a county fair the way the Barnstable County Fair is. The Barnstable fair is on the national list. And, ours is not a state fair, although the state of Massachusetts helps finance it and admires the energy and accomplishment of Vineyard entrants. And, it is certainly not like the Iowa State Fair, which is underway right now competing, no doubt unsuccessfully, for the attention of Vineyarders who are looking for a fair to close out the summer. The Iowa fair describes itself as "internationally-acclaimed," although it doesn't say who's doing the acclaiming.
The Iowa State Fair is the biggest event in the state, an agricultural and industrial exposition, plus farm machinery and food exhibits, fireworks, auto and horse races, and a lot more, including superstar entertainment, games, rides, hog calling, cow calling, horse calling, husband calling, and on and on. Apparently there's an unadvertised politician-calling contest also, to judge from the way herds of aspiring Democrats and Republicans ship themselves out to Iowa and submit to piglet hefting and chicken chasing competitions, all in the name of vote harvesting - which sounds agricultural but isn't, of course.
The Iowa fair, begun in 1854, may be the biggest and most celebrated of fairs each summer, but it's not the fair it was 150 years ago. It has changed over the years, as have fairs all over the country, including ours, which is just a few years younger than the Iowa extravaganza.
For instance, the Wilson County, Tennesee, fair has contests for decorating skateboards and text messaging. There's a wine bar at the Wisconsin State Fair. Something called a "cellfest'' at the Marin County, California, fair features videos and photos created by fairgoers on their cell phones. South Dakota's state fair dropped rodeos as attendance fell off, but it now hosts championship bull riding broadcasts on the Outdoor Network.
And USA Today, which keeps track of all these changes, reports, "Mexican and Middle Eastern food are a trend at New England fairs. Bob Silk of the New Hampshire Association of Fairs and Expositions says: 'People are getting away from just eating the sausage, French fries and fried dough.'" The Vineyard, apparently out of step with this trend as well as so many others, gives way more gradually to advancing gentrification, so while fair attendance is declining nationwide, giving rise to suggestions that perhaps fairs are phenomena whose time is up, the trend, happily, does not prevail here.