A summer spent touring Maine’s agricultural fairs reveals the state in all its wonder and weirdness.
- By: Michael Burke
Photography by Alan & Linda Eastman
A small crowd has gathered around a barn stall at the Blue Hill Fair in late August. It is the kind of gathering that pulls other people to it, everyone staring at the same thing. I stop at the fringe and peer over heads. We are all looking at a large buff cow, lying on her side, rear towards us, out of which a hoof protrudes.
Who knew there would be calf birthing at the fair, as though it were another exhibit, among the displays of chickens, rabbits, pigs, horses, oxen, steer, lambs? In another half-hour the crowd will double, and the calf will now be a hoof and a leg, and the cow will moo loudly, sometimes moan low, and we will all be moved by the sight, by the sound, by the experience of a public birth.
It’s all here at the fair, everything is here at the fair! The fair is a universe, as rich as a forest in diversity, more colorful than any art museum, having the variety of an entire city.
One summer a couple of years ago I immersed myself in the Maine fair experience. I made it to almost half of them, saw things I’d never seen before, or even imagined, and wondered at many aspects of the fair, including why there is such a fascination with pulling heavy objects.
Who can resist a fair that is both “free” and in Harmony? The Harmony Free Fair is a tiny fair in a tiny town, hidden in a tiny valley where a cluster of roads come together. No signs are posted directing you to this fair, because anyone who is going to it already knows where it is. The fair experience is distilled to its essence at Harmony, which means there will be rides, a midway of games, food, live music, animal and agricultural exhibitions, a demolition derby ring, a demonstration area for traditional skills, and various types of “pulls.”
I eat a hamburger made specially for me at the Patriarch Club booth, watch a blacksmith demonstration, the wood-cutting, the antique engine set-up, a horse dressage competition for youngsters dressed in their western best; watch a display of weaving, the animal “barn” (a three-walled shed with three or four cows, two calves, and a tired-looking pony), and walk up and down the “midway,” which takes me but three minutes to traverse, even while strolling. I listen for a while to the local band, Miles to Go. Like most local bands, they aren’t bad, as long as they stick to what they have played a hundred times before. I somehow miss the Women’s Skillet Tossing contest, and the parade. I particularly regret the parade, as I would have liked to see what kind of parade could do justice to the hundred yards of Harmony.
There is nothing like fair food. Fair food is food you would never eat on your own, at any other time or in any other location. Between the grease, the fat, the meat, the reused grease, the fat, the oil, the sweets that rival the grease, fair food is an exercise in blissful mass suicide. After eating at the fair one feels that is the end of eating, that one will never take pleasure in food ever again. Until the next fair.
At the Windsor Fair, I encounter the problem of having so many choices, the choices a kind of chant.
French fries, curly fries, fried dough, fried scallops, fried chicken fingers, fried clams, clam chowder, lobster roll, ice cream, hot dogs, hamburgers, gyros, cotton candy, candy apples, roasted nuts, blooming onions, onion rings, apple crisp, baked potatoes, stuffed potatoes, Thai noodles, funnel cake, pork wings, whoopie pies, vegetable soup, baked beans, corn chowder, Italian sausage, kielbasa, falafel, lemonade, steak, kettle corn.
I settle on onion rings, Moxie, and a red hot dog.
Agricultural displays are a form of witnessing: you might not care about them, but you are obliged to visit them, to honor the labor of your fellow citizens.
Finished with my onion rings, I turn into a long shed displaying vegetables and crafts. There are quilts, garlic, green tomatoes, bonsai trees, an eclectic mix. Then I notice the ribbons, hundreds of ribbons, ribbons on every single item. I stop to look at First Place in the category of “Tomatoes, Plum” in the Windsor County Fair. The tomato is starting to slump on its plate, has sprung some cracks, and may be leaking a little juice. I’m wondering what second place looks like.
From vegetables I head to history and antique farm implements. This is always an important part of a fair, as it is the past that fairs celebrate, and only grudgingly the present. There is a barn full of farm equipment, including a thresher, a hay wagon, a one-horsepower Johnson outboard motor. All of the people in the museum are old enough to have once used the harrow, the thresher, the motor.
This past and present tension is everywhere in the fair: Are we in the past, or are we in the present? The rides are now, the fairgrounds are yesterday, the food is current, the barns are the past, and so on. Anything that smacks of the future is banished.
In North New Portland at the Lion’s Club Fair, on a miserably wet Sunday, I see my first demolition derby. A heat of ten cars enters the square ring, made of concrete barriers and boulders. They form two rows of five across from each other, each row facing the outside of the ring. I couldn’t understand at first why the cars were arrayed with their rears facing each other, but it quickly becomes obvious: hitting with the front end would destroy the engine, and then — tragically — one would lose the derby.
The derby begins at the shrill sound of a horn and the cars burp into action. Motors roaring, tires screaming, mud flying, they back into each other and soon smoke fills the air. The entire scene, oily smoke obscuring it, is beyond satire, too bizarre to require commentary — nothing could heighten the absurdity of people destroying automobiles for no good reason, other than the thrill. I am amazed at the sheer waste; “derby” is far too genteel a name for it. It is also great fun, to watch the cars slam and jerk around. An old sedan smashes into the side of a station wagon and the tire of the wagon falls off. It can no longer move, so the driver just sits inside and waits for the mayhem to end.
If demolition derbies are not the part of fair culture that would be most puzzling to someone from, say, Afghanistan, then truck pulling would have to be. I heard one before I ever saw one. Having just arrived at the Clinton Fair, I am assaulted by a roaring, whining, terrible sound, and I wiggle through the crowd to get to a chain-link fence where I can see as well as hear. A pickup truck, motor shrieking, front wheels in the air, and huge rear wheels spitting up dirt, is attempting to pull a bizarre machine from my left to right. The sight of the truck straining in agony at its task is weird enough, but weirder is the thing it is pulling: a long, flat vehicle, with a sort of pilot house on the back end. The vehicle is chained to the truck, which has now given up, the front wheels dropping to the ground, the engine reduced to an idle. Someone comes out and marks the spot where the strange thing has stopped. The strange thing turns out to be a pulling sled, a surprisingly complicated and sophisticated piece of machinery whose sole purpose is to be pulled in competitions by other vehicles.
Stenciled on the side of the sled is “Northern Penobscot Pullers Association,” which implies that this is an official activity, sanctioned and organized. The fair’s Web site says “Ear protection is Strongly Recommended for all spectators.” Indeed.
There are only two types who ride the rides at fairs: small children on the miniature rides and merry-go-round, and posses of teenagers who descend in packs on the wilder ones. Oh, I suppose there is a third group, too: older people, like me, who take the Ferris wheel into the soft sky on a clear night to face the full autumn moon, feeling as though you are approaching it, rising to its level.
The rides never change, but the names are magic: Octopus, Round-up, Tempest, Aladdin, Super Slide, Sizzler, Gravitron, Mind Power, Cat House, Zippy (and also the Zipper), Haunted House, Lightning Bolt, Tiltawhirl, Thunder Bolt, Rope Ladder, 1001 Nachts (“Night,” in German for some reason), Sea Dragon, Rock and Roll, Hammer, Typhoon, Flying Bob’s, and for the kids, Jeep Safari, Super Slide, Churning Around, Ferris Wheel, Dragon, Dizzy Dragons (distinct from regular dragons), Train Station, and Bumper Cars. On a rainy night at the Cumberland County Fair, there is one lonely child riding on the Rock and Roll. Music blares and the ride races around and up and down, but he doesn’t seem to be either rocking or rolling.
The Farmington Fair is not a fair so much as it is a meteorological marvel. Locals know to plan for fair week — “the best week for painting houses is fair week,” I’ve been told. From the start of fair week, in flip-flops, to the end, in a sweatshirt or fleece, the weather in this mid-September stretch is the best of Maine. And somehow there is always a full moon during fair week — I don’t know how this can be, but it is.
I spend many days at Farmington watching the pulling contests. This is another event that couldn’t possibly occur anywhere other than at a fair. My favorite is the obstacle course to test one’s “twitching” skills, that traditional art of hauling logs out of the woods using a team of horse or oxen. The contest involves pulling a log around and between cones set in a sort of figure-eight pattern. One contestant, a toddling older man named Jesse Pierce, leads two oxen that tower over him as he hobbles around the course, as though they were loyal dogs, desperate to stay close to their master.
A series of hand gestures and shouts were the ways Jesse and beasts communicated, impossible to decipher by a layman, except that you could tell love was involved. Jesse led his oxen around in smart order, speaking sharply if they headed out of line, but that was all he used for motivation. Another driver, when his team had paused between pulls in a weight-pulling contest, would suddenly run at them, roaring and waving his arms to get them moving. He was a big man, tall and powerful, but no one seemed particularly disturbed by his methods.
And then, finally, the end of the season came, as it does every year, at Fryeburg. No one calls it “the Fryeburg Fair” — it is only “Fryeburg.” Fryeburg feels as though it has absorbed every other fair — it has the elements of them all, it combines them all. It is a planet, exerting gravitational force, pulling in people from all over northern New England, even people who will camp for the week in the parking lot across Route 5 from the fairgrounds.
Fryeburg has the biggest racetrack and grandstand, the largest number of animal barns and exhibition halls, the most rides, food, games, and the only marching band I’ve seen during fair season. The aisles for food and games are tight, and tall, with facades stretching up high, and walking this alley feels most like being in a medieval city — dirt and sawdust beneath you, a slightly crazed jumble of desperate and rowdy minstrels hounding you from all sides.
I finally engage with cows at Fryeburg. On this last weekend the judging is over, and navigating through the stalls I see ribbon after ribbon. One winner is standing out in front of a barn, being hosed off. A crowd gathers around and the cow patiently poses for picture after picture with kids who want to stand next to, but not too close to, this enormous being, as though doing so is a kind of dare.
Someone tells me there are 330 cows showing at the fair this year. They can’t all be placing first, second, or third, or even tenth. What about the others, I ask one owner. “Oh, some guys’ll use them in the woods, all right, and some guys, if they [the cows] don’t show, they’ll beef ’em.”
I’m stumped by “beef ’em” but don’t ask for an explanation, not wanting to appear ignorant about this technical term. It dawns on me later: “beef ’em” means to turn them into beef, of course. It seems like an unfitting end for these nurtured beasts, but with the smell of hamburgers drifting over the fair, along with lamb and chicken and fish, it is hard to argue with the order of things. The fair deals in both ends of life. I am reminded of that cow back in Blue Hill, a month before, giving birth with a crowd of witnesses.
I have had my fair season. I have ridden the rides, played the games, witnessed the vegetables and quilts. There is one more thing to do, here at my last fair. And that is to try. . . .
Fried dough. I avoided it all season, even while willing to consume falafel, hot dogs, two bites of kielbasa, fried haddock, gyros, candy apples, and other exotics.
So on the last half hour of my last day on nearly the last day of the last fair of the summer, I step up to a fried dough stand and place my order. The woman inside the trailer smiles wryly, as though she is in on the fact that this is my first time. “One dough,” I say, like a veteran.
“What kind?” she asks.
Kinds? How could there be kinds of fried dough? I look more closely at the menu. I could have dough with cinnamon, with maple syrup, with powdered sugar, with stewed apples.
I take the powdered sugar. The woman hands me my dough, a big flat cylinder of hot dough, glistening from the fryer. I spoon some powdered sugar on to it and eat.
And discover a doughnut. Fried dough is a big, flat doughnut, that is all. Like many other things at the fair, fried dough is not quite what it seems — it is neither exotic nor pedestrian, neither ordinary nor unusual.
But that’s okay, because it is an experience, a novelty. The fair introduces you to a country, a country that vaguely resembles the one you are a citizen of, but that you had forgotten existed; one where you might own a cow, or need to knit something, or wonder how maple syrup is made, or what an old schoolhouse in Maine looked like, or what kind of tools they used on farms back then, or what it takes to be a First Prize Tomato. Maybe you’ll have a desire to see a pig, a horse straining to pull cement blocks, kids on a merry-go-round, cars smashing backwards into each other, or want to try out the stuffed-toy games you know you’ll fail at, or eat the fried thing you never would otherwise eat, or watch the couples and families stroll along absorbed in their own private fair, and in the air feel fall coming and see the full moon which is always — always — there.
- By: Michael Burke