Behind the scenes, the fair is jumping into the 21st century with both feet. The “Fair Ladies,” who began their careers at the fair in the mid-1980s, have handed the reins to the next generation. The new force behind the scenes is a group made up of both lifelong fair enthusiasts and relative newcomers to the island.
In December, Brian Athearn was elected president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society. He has a small farm, but he also runs MV Tech, where he builds and repairs computers and networks. He’s one of many Athearns involved in the Agricultural Society across the generations. His father, Harry Athearn, is a longtime custodian for at the Agricultural Hall, and is at the fairgrounds most of the time in the weeks running up to the fair. Now in his 40s, Brian Athearn spent as much of his childhood as possible at the fair. “I was there 15, 16 hours a day,” he says. Now his teenage sons Hunter and Emmet are also involved, helping out in the barn and setting up the fairgrounds.
While the young Brian Athearn was hanging out with the carnies, Eleanor Neubert stepped into her longtime role as fair manager. Neubert was sitting on Lambert’s Cove Beach one day in August when Abby Burt, a former fair manager, asked her if she would like to take on the position. “Oh no, I couldn’t do a job like that,” Neubert remembers saying. Six months later she accepted the job. “It was a challenge the first couple of years,” she says, “but the people that joined the team were very faithful and good at what they did.”
Kathy Lobb was department head of judging for the adult vegetables category before she became hall manager two years after Neubert became fair manager. “I didn’t think it was going to last 32 years,” she says. She began looking around for a successor, and she needed to find someone she could train. Janice Haynes is a lifelong fairgoer and volunteer. Her father, Billy Haynes, is the treasurer of the Agricultural Society, and her brother Bruce works as an EMT at the fair, along with doing plumbing at the fairgrounds. The Hayneses volunteered at the fire department’s booth for decades. Janice recalls being dunked in the old dunking booth, before the fire department started selling burgers instead. When she moved back home as an adult, she started working in the fair’s ticket booth, then at the EMT station, and as a judge in the kids’ art department.
A year ago, Janice Haynes was working in the school system. For the first time in her life she was able to take time off in the summer, so she let it be known that she wanted to get more involved. “I had known Janice since she was in middle school,” Lobb says. “I knew she was perfect. I was very comfortable handing it over to her.” Last year, Haynes shadowed Lobb through the week of the fair to learn the job. “It was really long hours, longer than I realized or expected,” she says. Since then, they’ve been talking regularly, at least monthly through the winter, and more often as the fair approaches.
Amy Coffey is the Agricultural Society’s new special events coordinator, a role that includes managing the fair, and she wasn’t sitting on the beach when she was offered the job. Instead, she wore a business suit to a formal job interview. A professional event manager and hospitality consultant, Coffey has been based on the Vineyard for 25 years. Along with her work in hospitality, she has also managed the MV Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby for many years. She and Athearn served on its committee together and became good friends, bonding through their shared love of fishing.
In the off-season, Coffey worked in the Caribbean and later at the Olympics, first as a housing manager for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and later as an employee of NBC Sports. She’s approaching the fair as something completely different. “I think when I originally came in, people thought I was going to run it like the Olympics,” she says, but she’s embracing it for what it is. “You can’t change the frame. A country fair is a country fair is a country fair. It’s lots of little events in a big event.” Together, she and Brian Athearn are building new systems to modernize the behind-the-scenes work.
“Eleanor and I have had many meetings since I started my job here at the Agricultural Society in February of this year, each time going over a specific element of the fair planning process,” Coffey says. “She has been enormously helpful in passing along not only important information but also history and details that make this fair so unique and authentic. It is a huge support to know that Eleanor is always just a phone call away.”
There are other new people in the office, along with some familiar faces. Sally Rizzo retired from her career in government in early 2017, and became the Agricultural Society’s new executive director. Joe Hughes worked in nonprofit organizations in New York State, then moved to the Island a few years ago. He’s helping to organize the office and bring it into the 21st century, working on social media, the website, and whatever else comes along. He says that he likes the variety of work he gets to do in small, nonprofit organizations — he also works as an administrative associate at Vineyard House.
Julie Scott has no official title yet, but she’s gradually become more and more involved in the fair, and is currently serving as one of the Agricultural Society’s vice presidents. She grew up on Cape Cod and moved to Martha’s Vineyard 10 years ago to work at the FARM Institute. She and her husband Laine Scott now run a nonprofit educational farm in Katama, the Slough Farm Foundation. She is working with Brian Athearn to manage the barn and with Kim Darcy of the Family Center to organize the free activities for children.
Garrison Vieira is younger than some of the new employees, but he’s been volunteering at the fair since he was a kid in the 1990s. This year, he’s helping to organize the booths, and in the past he’s done a bit of everything —“whatever needs to get done,” he says, “digging trenches, painting things, answering questions.” He’s also a police officer for the town of West Tisbury, and says that volunteering at the fair is part of community policing: “Being out and involved with community events is part of the job.”
The new team is coming together through the busy weeks leading up to the fair itself. “We’re going to have fun with it,” Brian says. “We’re going to focus on being positive and having a fun environment for people to be in. The bottom line is we’ve got a kick-ass organization with a great group of people, and we’re in a great position to do a lot of good for the agricultural community.”