20 years later, the new fairgrounds feel like home

The transition from the Grange to the new Ag Hall continues today.

In 1994, dozens of volunteers turned out for an old-fashioned barn raising of the new Ag Hall. — File photo MV Times

This week’s Ag Fair marks the 20th anniversary of the once brand-new Panhandle Road fairgrounds in West Tisbury. Enough time has gone by that the “fair ladies” can chuckle as they remember the pitfalls and challenges of those earliest years.

Despite a rocky beginning with nature refusing to cooperate and everyone trying to function normally in the unfamiliar setting, the Fair always went on. With adjustments each year, eventually the new fairgrounds became the welcoming, smoothly operating, and well-loved home that it is today. But it took vision, determination, and patience.

The new Agricultural Hall was raised at a vibrant community work party in November 1994. But by August 1995, separate offices had not been created, so organizers and entry clerks worked all together preparing for the Fair.

“In 1995 it was a dust bowl, not a blade of grass on the property,” reminisced Fair manager Eleanor Neubert. “It was very dusty, the wind howled.”

Youngsters on trash and security detail wore bandanas over their noses and mouths. Dust blew across the street into a neighbor’s window, covering her computer.

The hall was barely ready to welcome exhibitors and visitors in time. Carpenters and electricians worked feverishly to finish up. Faced with the daunting 20-acre parcel, unlike the cozy four-acre Grange fairgrounds, staff struggled to create a workable arrangement.

“We were trying to figure things out,” Ms. Neubert said. “We missed the old fairgrounds terribly.”

That first year the LMC Amusements carnival occupied a narrow strip on one side. Music took place on the original stage, moved from the old fairgrounds, set up in back between the two rings.

“Everything felt very, very separated,” said Ms. Neubert. “I don’t think anybody was happy.”

In one bright spot, carnival owner Larry Cushing presented the Fair Ladies with a golf cart to get around the large fairgrounds. Today they have a fleet.

There was no animal barn until 1998. Livestock had temporary stalls and pens rented from the Barnstable Fair, trucked here by Danny Whiting.

Hall manager Kathy Lobb remembers the last-minute rush to get everything in place. Electricians were hastily finishing details on Tuesday, with exhibitors slated to arrive Wednesday.

“We worked well past midnight to get ready,” Ms. Lobb said. “I thought we would never get everything done.”

Although it was wonderful to have so much space after cramped quarters at the Grange, deciding where to put things was overwhelming. Ms. Lobb wanted the cavernous hall to appear full and welcoming, and she sought ways to show off exhibits to their best advantage, like hanging quilts from beams.

“This was all new and scary,” Ms. Lobb admitted

Every year, Ms. Lobb and her crew have made small changes. New categories were added. The front room accommodates larger exhibits and displays by the M.V. Bonsai Club and local authors.

“Now we actually need more space because we have so many entries,” Ms. Lobb said, laughing.

A crisis every year

1996 brought a new crisis. Tests showed the water supply unsafe to drink. Tom Seeman of Vineyard Bottled Waters was enlisted to provide gallons and gallons, “a wall of water jugs,” Ms. Neubert recalled. Free drinking water was available to all, a tradition that continued for years. Ms. Neubert confirmed that the water is now safe to drink.

“The Monsoon,” fills Ms. Neubert’s memory of  the 1997 Fair. “It was a torrential downpour, howling wind,” Ms. Neubert recalled. “Booths and tents were going over backwards.”

The rain collected in a huge puddle on Panhandle Road, “and someone had put a little rowboat in it as a joke.”

Weather was so bad that Thursday’s Fair was cancelled. M.V. Agricultural Society president Arnie Fischer Jr. and others went to West Tisbury selectmen with an emergency request to operate Sunday. The board agreed, with the condition that hours be shortened.

Though it began in adversity, the Sunday opening proved widely popular. Soon a request was filed with selectmen and approved to institute a four-day Fair.

The change allowed flexible scheduling, time for adding events and attractions, more leisurely visits for patrons, extra income for vendors. Sunday is now a busy but mellow Fair day, ending at 7 pm.

Exciting years, many changes

Reminiscing in the Ag Hall recently, Ms. Neubert and others recalled how the Fair and grounds have evolved.

Parking began on three sites, but lots soon were reduced to two. Bus service expanded, allowing fairgoers to use public transportation.

Amish builders raised the second barn in 2008, space for animals and antique engines. The Ag Society acquired additional acreage, accommodating livestock exhibitors.

All agree these have been exciting years, including visits by President Bill Clinton and family, a jubilant 150th anniversary celebration in 2011 with a parade and tightrope walkers. “Bountiful” was published, rich in photos and lore, chronicling the Ag Society and Fair. Many new events and attractions have been added.

The Women’s Skillet Toss, begun in 1998, was an instant hit, as was the exuberantly noisy Antique Tractor Pull. The Fiber Tent launched in 2001 has grown, filled with animals and hands-on education. Baby Central gives young parents a quiet oasis. In 2002 the Ag Fair sign was stolen, never to be found. A colorful new sign was erected in 2003.

The local midway expanded, more vendors than ever offering tempting Fair food and shopping. The stage moved front and center to the local midway, scheduling entertainment day and night, including acts for youngsters. The Acoustic Corner became a venue for quieter traditional tunes.

In a revolutionary change, entries were computerized in 2002; a Fair Facebook page began in 2011. The Fair Premium book now appears on the Ag Society website (mvas.vineyard.net).

The spacious grounds permitted new bleachers and dozens of picnic tables to be added. Agricultural demonstrations such as sheep herding and goat milking are held; young gymnasts show their agility. Traditional fun for youngsters includes corn shucking, sack races, vegetable car races, and pony rides. The adult tug-o-war has been resuscitated.

“Everything evolved,”  Ms. Neubert said. “Nothing was cast in stone. And it still isn’t: we still make minor changes every year.”