Fair Skies Over Maine

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Dear Reader:

It’s the end of the special time of year known in Maine as “Fair Season.” Starting July 2nd up north in Houlton and ending in the southwest corner in the lovely town of Fryeburg on October 11th, Mainers enjoy a long summer and fall of carnival games, amusement rides, craft exhibits, Grange tableaux, livestock shows, and horseracing, not to mention cotton candy, sticky caramel apples, hot chocolate at the Bingo tent, sausages smothered in onions and peppers, fair fries doused in vinegar, and my family’s favorite: hot turkey sandwiches with the fixins at the Farmington Fair Elks Booth.

This year I was lucky enough to also attend the Fryeburg Fair which is down here in my neck of the woods. Between Farmington and Fryeburg, I was able to hit almost all my favorite goings-on. Heading to the racetrack is always on the agenda. Maine harness racing has been around a long time. In these “trotting” races, the horses pull two-wheeled contraptions called sulkies on which the driver sits and directs the horse. The sport has waxed and waned over the years, but the racing community is a tenacious one. The history of harness racing at the Fryeburg track can be read here.

While harness racing has a long and fascinating history, the agricultural fairs have an even longer one. According to the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs website, there are 25 fairs and the Skowhegan Fair is the grandmere of them all at age 190!

Skowhegan may be the oldest, but for me the Farmington Fair is dearest. Even though I grew up in the Bangor area, my family roots are in Farmington, so that is the fair we would attend every September. The weather was always a crap shoot. One year we’d be sweltering in the midst of an Indian Summer heatwave. The next year we’d bundle up in our winter coats and mittens. My sister remembers how cold the ferris wheel safety bar felt on her chin. Some years were rainy, and the walkways down past the exhibition hall, the livestock barns, the carny games, and the Merry-Go-Round would be slick and rutted with deep mud. Now they’ve paved the walkways, and while I suppose it is easier–not to mention cleaner–I rather miss the dirt.

Peekaboo

Peekaboo

No Maine Agricultural Fair would be complete without the barnyard animals. This beautiful beast is one of the many oxen I oggled (and who oggled right back as you can see) at the Fryeburg Fair last week. If you’ve never seen these animals up close, you’d be surprised at how huge they are. Walking behind them in the barn, we were very aware of the location of their large hooves and legs. Their backs were taller than my head. Their heads sported pointy spears of horns. They were gorgeous.

These strong, sturdy animals were once used on farms for pulling the plow, hauling logs out of the woods, and pulling carts full of hay or produce or maple syrup. Their equine counterparts, the large draft horses, are also impressive with their regal bearing and rippling muscles. While tractors took the place of oxen and draft horses on most farms when gasoline became cheap and easily available, some die-hard farmers chose to continue working with the large animals. They aren’t just used for cement-pulling shows at the fair, either.

Reading this article from the Amherst Bulletin, I smiled to learn that the farmers at Simple Gifts Farm have decided to train oxen to take the place of tractors. Red and Blue, five-month-old Jerseys are currently being trained in the yoke and will be doing some of the heavy pulling around the farm in the years ahead, replacing gas-guzzling tractors. I can’t help but think that using these animals rather than oil-powered machinery makes economic sense. What could be more efficient than harvesting hay with the very animals that will eat it? How about using the manure to replace nutrients used in the growing of food the season previous? The elegance–yes, elegance!–of such a cycle rivals mathematical equations in my romantic (and admittedly non-mathematical) mind. Someone else might just see poop. I see possibilities.

Like the oxen–and the goats and the horses and the chickens and the pigs and the rabbits–the craft and garden exhibits remind us of our agricutural heritage. Every year in Maine, women still create colorful quilts, warm woolen mittens and scarves, and other textile projects for entering in the contests at the fair. Grange members work together to fill their booths with rows of canned goods, fruits and vegetables, grains, eggs, baked products like breads and pies, and even displays of various tree-cuttings from someone’s back woodlot. Working farms create their own displays, showing off the products of their labor. Art exhibits line the walls with entrants of all ages–two to ninety-two. The 4-H clubs have their own shows and exhibits, sharing their projects with the community.

October 2009 070 One of my favorite exhibits this year at the Farmington Fair was the barn full of “old-timey” rooms. This kitchen has it all–wood cookstove, cooking utensils hanging on the wall, an iron warming on top of the stove, clothes drying on wooden arms behind.

Would I really like to go back to this way of living? Maybe not. But yeah, if I had to.

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And this is what I’d be doing! Oh, how I want to learn to spin wool. I’d love to take a fleece, comb it out, spin it up into some yarn, hand-dye it with some sort of natural, old-fashioned dye (bark for brown, some sort of flower for pink or yellow?), and knit up some socks or mittens or maybe even a sweater. Going to the fair reminds me that these arts and crafts and skills have not been lost, that all we have to do is take up mantle–err, handknit shawl.

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I’ll leave you with this final image taken from the Fryeburg Fair. As we head into the cooler months ahead, I wish you, my readers, a season of peace after the rush and bounty of the harvest.

Now, if only I could get my hands on some fried dough . . . . . . .

2 responses to “Fair Skies Over Maine

  1. Don’t you love fair season? We missed our local fair this year, but went to the (new and improved!) state fair a couple weekends ago and had so much fun! I hadn’t seen pig races in years. An artisans’ guild had set up live demonstrations (a potter and a woodcarver the day we went), and some of the handcrafting exhibits were drop-dead gorgeous. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who enjoys this stuff, so it was fun to see how many other thousands of people turned out for the same entertainment.

    I’ve heard about other efforts to use draft animals in farming again. I hope it really takes off! It just makes sense on so many levels.

    • Julie: Another fair lover–yay!! Your fair sounds really great. I’d love to see a pig race. I did see a pig show–boars. They were pretty fiesty and huge! I just love looking at all the farm animals.

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