What makes the fair tick?

Janice Haynes gives an insider's look at some of the traditions behind the Agricultural Fair.

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When I sat down to talk with Janice Haynes at her home in West Tisbury, she had just returned from a trip to Ireland the night before and was a little exhausted from her travels but seemed to be rejuvenated sitting on her patio surrounded by flowers and her pets.

Haynes has been the hall manager of the Agricultural Fair for the last four years, which entails organizing, staging, and awarding ribbons to thousands of baked goods, floral arrangements, vegetables, works of art and handicrafts that reside in the grand hall — arguably the beating heart of the fair — each year.

“I’ve been around the fair all my life,” Haynes said. “My dad was the chief of the West Tisbury fire department; they sponsored the dunking booth at the old fairgrounds and the famous hamburger booth at the new fairgrounds.”

As a girl Haynes pretty much lived at the fair, playing with all the kids in her neighborhood, and in her teens she started volunteering — “I’ve done just about everything at the fair, including helping to raise the barn in1994,” she said. “I must confess, I’ve always been interested in being a fair lady.”

Five years ago Janice would get her wish. Kathy Lobb, who had been the hall manager for about 30 years, was ready to retire and she approached Haynes and asked her if she’d be interested in taking her place. Does a horse want to run, does a fish want to swim? Interested was putting it mildly.

The first year Haynes spent shadowing Kathy, asking questions and learning the ropes, but by the second year she was ready to take over and she was loving it. The third year, last year, the fair was held online because of the pandemic but this year Haynes is right back in the thick of it.

“It’s a lot of work,” Haynes said. “My job technically starts in the early spring, I’m one of the many people who edit the book of entries and get it updated for the new season.” She also has to go through the inventory and make sure she has all the ribbons and special awards she’ll need for the new year.

In July she starts contacting more than 100 judges needed to judge the show and since there’s always turnover, she’ll recruit new ones, often finding them through social media. “The only judging position I never have a problem filling is for baked goods,” Haynes said. “Everybody wants to do that.”

While Haynes tries to find judges with expertise in specific disciplines — knitters judge needlework, etc.; there are standards for judging agricultural fairs laid out by the Department of Agriculture that go back for hundreds of years.

Once the judges are lined up, on August 1 it’s time to start assembling all the different parts of the hall that have been kept in storage over the winter out in the animal barns. Haynes and her team literally haul barnloads of partitions and tables, put up the walls, build new shelves, and by the second week of August everything is starting to take shape with just a week to go before the fair.

The entry deadline for the fair is on the Sunday before the fair and Kristy Rose, the entry clerk, must create tags to go on some 3,000 items. “But drop-off day is when things really get frenetic,” Haynes said. “Starting at 10 am the Wednesday before the fair, people come in with their entries and teams of kids deliver the entries to their proper department.”

And 5 o’clock is cut off time, if entries are not in by 5 it’s too late. The judging starts promptly at 7 and must be done by Thursday morning. But between 5 and 7 o’clock it’s time for one of the traditions that makes working on the fair such a rich experience — the pre-fair dinner. Everyone gathers out at the picnic tables and volunteers provide food for 25 or 30 tired and hungry workers.

Another of the traditions that enrich the fair experience is what Haynes calls, “The hanging of the quilts.”

“It’s on Thursday morning and it signifies the hall is ready to be open to the public,” Haynes said.

“You stand at one end of the hall and look down and see all these quilts, I actually get goosebumps just thinking about it.” Once the quilts are hung from the rafters, it’s time to open the doors and let in a mob of people, some of whom have been waiting for hours.

A large part of Hayne’s job then becomes answering questions people may have and directing them to find their entries. “One thing I learned from Kathy Lobb,” Haynes said, “is that it’s always good to learn an interesting story behind an entry that can bring it to life.”

Haynes told me about the story of a 14-year-old boy who hand-built a kayak in 2018. It seems his mother had given him a choice: for the summer he could either go to a camp or he could stay at home and work on a project with his dad. The boy’s dad was a woodworker. They decided to build a kayak and it turned out to be a beauty. The boy stretched layer after layer of fabric over the frame, varnishing each layer until it was impervious to water. “The kayak was so cool,” Haynes said, “and the kid was so proud of himself and it won a best in show for the junior handicraft category. I always look for those special stories I can share with people. It’s one of my favorite things about the fair.”

The final tradition that puts a punctuation mark at the end of the fair is something that stretches back some 30 years. The fair closes at 6 pm on Sunday and the Cushings, who run the carnival side of the Fair, immediately start breaking down the rides but they hold off on breaking down the merry-go-round. To celebrate the end of the fair, all the Ag Fair staffers and crew go for one final merry-go-round ride. “It’s such a happy moment,” Haynes said, “and I always end up crying — happy tears.”

 

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article. Such fun memories! I wish everyone a fun, safe, and successful Fair!

    Also, MV Times, I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but can you please correct the spelling of Kathy’s name? It is with a K, not a C. Thanks a lot!

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