Shirley Mayhew remembers The Fair

President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Shirley Mayhew's grandchildren on the stage at the Ag Fair in 1997. — Photo by Tony Omer

I have been to the Fair every year since 1946, and have seen it change in many ways. During my first few years, it was practically in my backyard, as I lived on Look’s Pond and it was held in the Grange Hall.

For three nights every August I fell asleep while the music wafted across the fields. It was not unpleasant; it was rather soothing, as it was country music played by local musicians on the front porch of the Grange.

When my children grew old enough, they and their friends would scour the Fairgrounds the day after it was over, and usually come up with a few coins (back when a few coins would buy a candy bar or an ice cream bar).

The Agricultural Fair first started in 1858, so by the time I went to my first one, it was already 88 years old. Now I am 88 years old and it is an effort to get to the Fairgrounds. But the Fair has moved and so have I. So I can still hear the music if the wind is right.

It was all to do with farming back then. For fun, the townspeople organized foot races, and high jumps and tugs of war. Many farmers entered their cows and sheep and chickens to be judged. Locals cooked and sold hot dogs and hamburgers. World War II interrupted the Fair, but it has been growing and changing ever since the war ended.

When my children were older, they would work for the Ag Society when the entries came in and do the clean-up work before the Fair opened, and for that they would earn free passes to the three days of the festivities. After the carnival got involved, cotton candy was favored over hot dogs, but the vegetable tempura became a favorite in the 1970s.

It was all fun and every August the whole Island looked forward to the fair, even though it signaled the end of summer and back to school time. My favorite years were the 1990s when the Fair returned to its original music and began to have fiddle contests. In the mid-90s a new building had been constructed on Panhandle Road and the Fair opened in 1995 in this new location with much more room for people and their exhibits, and plenty of parking places for their cars.

Nancy Jephcote had been teaching Island children the Suzuki method for the violin, and fiddling became popular once again. At first musical groups competed; some came from off Island to join the competition, and by the mid-90s fiddle competition had been added for children in three categories — advanced, intermediate, and beginner. Each year my husband and I would position ourselves in folding chairs we had brought with us. Then, while munching on our tempura in front of the platform, we would listen to our granddaughters compete in the fiddle contest.

1998 was a good year — granddaughter Caroline (12) won first prize in the advanced class, granddaughter Lucy (10) won first prize in the intermediate class, and granddaughter Katie Ann (6) won third prize in the beginner class.

1997 was an exciting year for all of us. Partway through the contest there was a great commotion as President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton arrived. Along with several grim-faced, burly men trying to blend into the crowd as ordinary Fairgoers, but obviously there to guard the president, they took seats to watch and listen to the music.

All the proud parents and grandparents tried to keep their attention on the young fiddle players, but it was difficult as we kept glancing at Bill and Hillary to see if they were enjoying it. And they were! As the last contestant finished playing, they rose and went up on the stage with the children gathered around them, and led the kids and the audience in a rousing version of “America the Beautiful”.

It was a touching moment for me as I realized that it wasn’t just a “photo op” for the president — he and Hillary stayed until the end and joined the excited children on stage. Perhaps he enjoyed it because he was mixing with the “ordinary” citizens of his country as opposed to heads of state and dignitaries from other countries. Presidents don’t get much chance to do that.

Shirley Mayhew contributes regularly to the Martha’s Vineyard Times and has just published a memoir, “Looking Back: My Long Life on Martha’s Vineyard,” which is available at the Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown books.