Simpler times

Walk back 50 years to the 1969 Ag Fair.

“Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels …” — Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” (1969)

The Ag Fair, operated by the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society (MVAS), has been an annual marker for Island residents for 160 years. And 50 years ago, its roots would still have been recognizable to 19th century showgoers.

The fair was and remains a traditional event that Islanders use to meet and greet one another and the regular “summer families.” In 1969 some entertainment (e.g. a Ferris wheel and Tilt-a-Whirl) was different from the 19th century Ag Fairs, but the fair more resembled its past than today’s model.

Island folks generally still entertained themselves with athletic competitions — the Woodsman events and the Skillet Toss were yet unborn — and with food- and farming-related judgings. 

And at the end of the day, they still hung out together, as their grandparents had, in a very local midway featuring jury-rigged booths often leaning against each other for support. News stories from the Vineyard Gazette, oral histories by Linsey Lee, and records kept by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum describe an Ag Fair that at its core, was an extension of everyday shared Island life. 

In that era, “The Ferris wheel was on the left and the merry-go-round was on the right of the Grange Hall, right in front of State Road, greeting you as you entered the fair,” Eleanor Neubert recalled this week. Neubert was the MVAS show manager for several decades beginning in the 1980s, and has remarkable visual recall of that time.

“There were a few other rides, Tilt-a-Whirl, the Octopus, and swings by the fence separating the fair from town hall. There might have been a few local [booth] games on the side of the hall. The Soup Kitchen was open in the back of the Grange Hall; the Grange ladies, and maybe the Rotary, served breakfast and lunch. I’m sure the ride concessionaires brought cotton candy, candied apples, and probably a hot dog stand,” she said.

“But it was a period of transition. Local people were more concerned with making a living, and while the society had to adjust to more of the fair ‘real estate’ going away from locals and to professionals, the change produced more revenue at a time when locals needed to do their work to get ready for winter,” she said.

“I can still hear the merry-go-round music, the same music year after year. I don’t know where it came from, but Harry Athearn does,” she said. Harry Athearn, MVAS past president, does know. “It was Ken Griffin’s organ music. He was popular back then, and his music was played at roller-skating rinks all over the country,” Athearn said this week.

In 1969, the big Ag Fair news was the debut of an exciting new deadweight horse pull competition, bringing in 15 off-Island teams. The change was the brainchild of Ag Fair impresario Robert Woodruff, in an attempt to reverse several years of slumping attendance. Until then, teams were judged on efficiency and finesse in maneuvering their similarly weighted loads. Fred Fisher of Nip ’n’ Tuck Farm had his Percherons, Bob and Barney, in the newfangled horse pull, but pulled them out after harnesses began breaking, noting that his giant horses were needed for farm work.

“Old Man Fred loved the draft horse show, no one was more supportive of it, but the arrival of professional off-Island draft teams probably opened his eyes to the change,” Neubert said.

But if Fisher saw the future, few others knew that 1969, the new “Age of Aquarius,” was to be the year of change, the year of the Chappaquiddick tragedy, bringing worldwide attention to the Island. The year that Islandwide change began, including gradual movement toward the Ag Fair we have today. 

Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t other excitement in the air in 1969. The fair accepted milk goat breeds for judging that year for the first time, and the 1969 fair dates (August 14-16) competed with a weekend music festival called Woodstock in upstate New York. Locally, Island cops had just completed a “drug sweep,” netting 11 people, mainly for possession of marijuana. An American man had just landed on the moon, and Islanders were generally mad as wet hens about plans to extend the airport runway to accommodate jet planes.

The hippie fashion revolution, an exciting bit of sociology, was in full bloom, with Frye boots, Levi 501 button-fly jeans, bell bottoms, wildly colored flowing dresses, Native American themes, and, oh my, the miniskirt.

But there likely were more overalls than miniskirts at the 1969 Ag Fair. Fifty years ago, most Islanders ate what they grew, raised, caught, or hunted. Cash was precious.

The majority of Ag Fair prize money for livestock judging in 1969 came from the state agriculture extension program, in exchange for five Ag Fair tickets and free parking.

Today’s artistically fabulous Ag Fair posters, a tradition that began in the late 1970s, were nowhere to be found. The 1969 Ag Fair ‘art’ was a 6- by 9-inch booklet, which featured the same cover art year after year, changing only the fair dates and year. 

The largest fair cash prize in 1969 was $12 for the best beef cattle over two years old, or for a sow and litter, but the best draft horse and best 5- to 10-year-old cow were prized at $10. Prize money for goats, sheep, and poultry ranged from $8 to $3. Turkeys and ducks were state-welcome entrants, but pigeons were not. (The Ag Fair had to put up $2 for the winning pigeon.)

And the state wouldn’t pay prizes for winning food or arts or crafts entries. The Ag Fair ponied up prize money for those contests while reserving the right to only pay a percentage of the prize if it ran out of money. Exhibitors were not charged entry fees, but were required to buy a ticket to the fair.

Despite change, the Ag Fair is part of Island DNA. Athern said the Ag Fair essentials are unchanged. “Changes have come, gradually over time. A lot more exhibits and booths today because there are lots more people here now, but [the Ag Fair] is essentially still a livestock and farming show,” he told the Times.

“Fair Time” was the second song that Island singer-songwriter Kate Taylor wrote. Taylor worked the Ag Fair during her teen years, and told Linsey Lee in Vineyard Voices Three, “The fair was the promise that something special could happen at any moment.”