The Fair is the end-of-summer signal, just two weeks away


August on Martha’s Vineyard is not about visits by the president. August’s hallmark feature is The Fair, now just two weeks away. There are fairs everywhere in the summer. State fairs, county fairs, country fairs, church fairs, and ours, the Annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair. The Ag Society describes it as a “real, old-fashioned agricultural country fair with mid-way.”

The hall exhibits, the animals, the contests, the food — in mid-August, all roads lead to the fair. The image from this year’s fair poster will appear on Fair tee-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 mid-August 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 big retailers know when it’s time for back-to-school promotions, but they don’t have the delicious autumn alert that is the Fair.

The Ag Fair is not listed on the national website 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 sometimes competes, 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.

And, speaking of Iowa, every summer, each of Iowa’s 99 counties throws its own fair. “Provincial and patriotic,” Iowa explains, “with beauty pageants and demolition derbies, polka dances and daredevil shows, these rural exhibitions reflect the traditional values and the countrified culture of America’s heartland.”

Then there’s the Wilson County, Tennessee fair with 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 TV.

And USA Today, which keeps track of all these changes, has reported that “Mexican and Middle Eastern food are a trend at New England fairs.” Bob Silk of the New Hampshire Association of Fairs and Expositions explained, “People are getting away from just eating the sausage, French fries, and fried dough.”

Not us. The Vineyard, provincial and patriotic as all get out, is apparently out of step with these trends as well as so many others. We give way more gradually to advancing gentrification, so while fair attendance is declining nationwide, despite the modernizing efforts of fair managers in the “countrified culture of America’s heartland,” giving rise to suggestions that perhaps fairs are phenomena whose time is up, that trend, happily, does not prevail here.

A version of this column appeared in 2006.