Vineyard Voices: Fair old memories

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Photo courtesy of Arnie and Priscilla Fischer

Interviews by Linsey Lee

Excerpted from interviews that appeared in “Vineyard Voices” and “More Vineyard Voices” by Linsey Lee and the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. More oral histories are available at

Jane Newhall

In the real early days at the fair, they used to have plowing contests. Not at the Hall, but at the farms. And the judges would go around and watch them plow a portion of the field, and then they’d go to another farm and watch them plow a portion of a field, and judge which was done best. But that was a long time ago.

At the fair when I was young, there used to be exhibits for hunting and fishing that were quite interesting. Way back in the ’30s, Gay Head people used to have a big exhibit all across the back of the Hall with their wares and suchlike. And they would bring down their oxen.

I don’t think there were as many children’s things as there are now. There wasn’t nearly as much artwork. There was not as much food to be bought. The Eastern Star had the Soup Kitchen in the little ell out in the back of the Hall. They used to have sandwiches and pies, and chowder. The Soup Kitchen, as they called it then. Some of us still call it the Soup Kitchen. Homemade pies that the ladies made themselves. And they’d make up the sandwiches for you there. They used to be that main food department. There weren’t nearly as many local booths.

In the early days of the fair, they used to have a sort of track meet for the local youngsters. My father won a little cup for a race. The children would have races and shot put and javelin and high jump and pole vault and things like that. That’s when my cousins John Whiting and Everett Whiting were young. John used to organize things like that. He showed us all how to throw a javelin and how to put the shot, and that sort of thing.

It was more local. Well, of course there weren’t so many summer people then as now. But usually the fair was in September. That’s why they changed it and brought it forward to August, so summer people could attend and enter in more.

It used to be more local carnival stuff. You know, throwing a baseball at tenpins, knocking them down, and different things like that, that local people would think up to do. There is a story about the early days that they used to sell cigars. And whoever had the cigar booth would buy a box of cigars and put them out in three glasses, and mark them 5¢, 10¢, and 25¢. The same cigar. So the people would come buy, especially ones that had their girls with them. So they’d splurge and buy the 25¢ cigar. And as the 25¢ cigars were depleted, they just moved them all up. So that was one story about years ago, the turn of the century. So I guess people got cheated always at the carnival part.

We started coming regularly in ’47. I got interested in working with the fair. When fair time came, one of my cousins, Jane Whiting, was entry clerk, and so I would help her. And so I just stayed with the Entry Department at the fair.

There didn’t used to be a category for pies, because pies seem to attract flies more than cakes and cookies and bread and so on. And, also, if it’s hot, humid weather, they mold faster. And so by the third day, they look pretty sad, the pies. But so many people wanted to enter pies that we put the classification back in.

And then it used to be that people entered a whole cake. And then the judge would just take a little bit out of it. And by the end of the third day, of course, the cake was no good. There were flies around and dust. Even though they were in cases, the dust gets in, and then they wouldn’t really be edible. So people thought, “Why do I have to bring a whole, beautiful cake, and I can’t eat it?” So they decided to have half a cake exhibited, and people could keep half to enjoy.

Jane Newhall was born in West Tisbury in 1913, and died in 2011.

Polly Meinelt

When I was young they had the fair in September. But we always had to get back in time for school. I think we got Mother to let us stay twice for the fair. But that was all. We went to the fair and Norman Benson was in charge of the ring toss, and George Mag worked for him, George Magnuson. And that was all there was to spend your money on.

All the old-timers would sit on the porch and visit there. And then when Johnny Whiting went to college, he started the athletics for the fair, so that there were races and jumping — broad jump — and javelin throw and shot put and all those things. We all had medals we won. We participated in all of that. And that’s when they had the first grandstand. For the races. That was in the late Thirties.

Polly Meinelt was born in 1912 and lived in Chilmark. She died in 2008.

Ozzie Fisher

I think it was in September, it might have been October, and you’d get half a day off from school, and that was a big event. Then they had athletic events, and I’ve still got a little medal I got for entering and winning the high jump. Right in the field there, and I think they had ballgames. There was a fellow, Billy Barnstrom, was a well-known mile runner. He married a girl from Edgartown, and he used to run there. I think he married a Lineaweaver girl.

Athletically, there was a lot of competition then. Of course, your local ones against the summer people, that was a highlight. You’d just volunteer, nothing signed up or anything, you just walked on: “Here I am!” And ballgames and band concerts. The Vineyard Haven band would play, probably in the evening.

As I got older, I would enter chickens and vegetables, and now I still do a lot of flowers and vegetables.

I was Poultry Judge one or two years, most difficult. People are quite competitive. There was a couple of fellows that were competing against each other, they were friends, but ordinarily when you’re judging you stay away from it. “No, Ozzie, my chicken is better than his!” I had an awful time with them, so I refused to do it anymore.

Ozzie Fisher was born in 1914, and was a farmer in Chilmark. He died in 2011.