Nearly sixty years after E.B. White penned Charlotte’s Web, Elizabeth Peavey returns to the Blue Hill Fair in search of Wilbur a
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo
When most people think of E.B. White’s beloved children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, their response is generally more “Aw” than “Ew.” But then, they’re probably conjuring images of that terrific, radiant, and humble pig, Wilbur, rather than the spiny, hairy, black-and-yellow striped arachnid with bulging abdomen staring back at me from my computer screen. In other words, Charlotte.
Definitely an “Ew.”
But I am about to embark on a literary pilgrimage in search of her and her famous web, and I want to make sure I know what I’m looking for. While White largely leaves Charlotte’s appearance in the shadows, he drops hints. Her full name, Charlotte A. (Aranea) Cavatica, for example, is a play on the scientific name, Araneus cavaticus, more commonly known to us as a barn spider. White is frank about her insect-killing and blood-sucking, but he also describes her as “the size of a gumdrop” and possessing eight legs, one of which she uses to wave to Wilbur — a clash of cute and creepy. I regard the barn spider image on my screen. If I saw one of those legs waving at me, I’d bolt, pilgrimage or not.
Now, most E.B. White fans know he called the teeny, tiny burg of North Brooklin, located in an eastern crook of the Blue Hill peninsula, home. His farm there, and the fair that bears the peninsula’s, bay’s, town’s, and nearby mountain’s name served as a backdrop for Charlotte’s Web. It’s funny, then, that this White enthusiast who has spent years exploring these stomping grounds — the peninsula and the adjacent Deer Isle, both by land and sea — has never thought to seek out the place where all those wonderful essays — “Home-Coming,” “Death of a Pig” — and, of course, Charlotte, were set.
I dig out my copy of Charlotte’s Web for a refresher and am delighted to find that one of the two days Wilbur’s entourage made its way to the fair — September 5 — is the same as my planned visit. I note rides to look for (especially the Ferris wheel, on which Fern wished to be stalled in the top car with Henry Fussy by her side), foods and games to try, and livestock to admire. I also find a lengthy inventory of fairground trash — “popcorn, frozen custard dribblings, candied apples, sugarfluff, salted almonds” etc., arguably the most appealing description of detritus ever penned.
As enticing as all these details are, however, I am not just after the specifics of the book. What I really want to know is: Does White’s version of the fair exist in a lost Maine? Or could this story take place today? Is Charlotte — or one of her offspring’s offspring — with us yet? Is she still waving to a young Wilbur descendant? With my hit list prepped and my own version of Henry Fussy (my husband, John) by my side, I’m about to find out.
Because the gates open at 8 a.m., and I want to be there when they do, we arrive the night before from Portland and plan to rise early. We’ve chosen to stay at the tip of Deer Isle, in Stonington, so that in the morning we can wend our way through White country on the eastern shore of the peninsula, taking the same route the Zuckermans took to bring Wilbur (and stowaways Charlotte and Templeton the rat) to the County Fair. I find an August 27 copy of the Ellsworth American that trumpets the fair as “Summer’s grand finale for 118 years.” If local excitement has diminished any since the book’s publication, you wouldn’t know it from the postering and press. It feels like it could be 1952 all over again.
“Summer is over and gone,” sing the crickets on page 113 of White’s tale. And indeed, this glorious morning on the coast of Maine is autumnally cool and clear as we set out for our day. We wend our way up to the mainland over the Deer Isle suspension bridge and Eggemoggin Reach, and then through the towns of Sargentville, Sedgwick, and Brooklin on Route 175, toward Blue Hill (the town). This winding, hilly road makes rushing impossible. But then, who’d want to? We pass by farmhouse and Cape, Cape and farmhouse. Each barn I see, spikes my curiosity. Is that the one? Could that be it? And then, near the North Brooklin line, we pass a farm with a sign out front: “Pig Farm.” “That’s it!” I shriek, as we motor by. “We found it!” I make John turn around and go back. As I am basking in my successful sleuthing — this handsome farmhouse and barn with stone foundation now before me is, of course, the ideal Charlotte setting — John interrupts my reverie by pointing out that the sign actually reads “Big Farm.”
By the time we pull into the fair’s lot, I am already chomping at the bit. I have a mission, and it’s time to get to it. I have all my senses sharpened from White’s descriptions. I will be alert for the sight of the Ferris wheel turning in the sky and of balloons aloft, for the smell of dust on the racetrack, and of hamburgers frying, and for the sound of sheep blatting, and the bark of the loudspeaker. We pay our admission and pass through the gate into Wilbur’s World.
And yet, things are strangely subdued. Where’s the sizzle of fried food? The tinny din of midway music? The churn and spin of rides? Have the health nuts and safety police ushered us into an era of county fair-lite?
No, thankfully. It’s just that we have arrived so early that the midway isn’t open yet. Until it does, it’s just us and the other early attendees, the 4-H livestock shows and the pancake breakfast at the 4-H shack. (An absolute steal at three dollars for two giant, fluffy pancakes studded with berries and your choice of coffee or juice.)
But first, a visit to the pig stalls is in order. While there is only one farm represented — Coots Roost Farm in Ellsworth — it is a grand show. Sows and piglets alike bask in the attention of their appreciative onlookers. Their owner Frank Herrick talks with me as his wife, Linda, bustles around with feed buckets and fields questions. He tells me that his pens (no grass, like Wilbur enjoyed, but shaded by a roof and as tidy as a pigpen could possibly be) are of his own construction and are left at the fairgrounds, year-round. A framed portrait of their (late) blue-ribbon winning pig, Beulah Jane, hangs in the stall above the last of her offspring, the seven hundred-pound Belle Jenna. In a stall all its own, the five-month-old Bambie (a spring pig, just like Wilbur) enthusiastically scratches its behind on the wire fencing. I learn from the signs that are posted around the pen that pigs are smart, smarter than dogs, in fact. In the animal-intelligence hierarchy, pigs rate fourth (right behind humans, monkeys, and dolphins/whales) to a dog’s measly tenth. They are born with eight teeth and anemia. They have four hooves but only walk on two, which gives them the appearance of tiptoeing. Pigs can’t sweat, so they have to roll around in the dirt to cool themselves. And, as Linda adds, eyeing with obvious affection a little guy at her feet, “Every litter has a runt,” (just like Wilbur was) adding, “They have to fight for everything.”
When a front-end loader arrives with a fresh pile of sawdust for the pens, I use the opportunity to snoop into corners, nooks, and crannies for any sign of a spider’s presence. I search high and low, but do not find so much as a strand of filament or even a dead fly. After close scrutiny, I declare the place Charlotte-free. Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Without tipping my hand too much or sounding like a kook, I casually mention, “Seen any spiders around here?” “Oh,” Linda tells me, “you need to go over to Zuckerman’s Farm.”
We wander over near the llama and alpaca pens and find a tent/petting zoo with a banner strung across the entrance, bearing said farm’s name. While there is an ample variety of farm animals (including two adorable, napping piglets), this clearly is Zuckerman’s in title only. When I (again, coyly) ask the two women manning the information table if they’ve seen Charlotte, one of them gestures to a pile of web-like black yarn beside her. She looks at it and shrugs, “We’re a little laid-back this year, I guess.” (When we return later in the day, however, “Charlotte” and her “web” have materialized at the tent’s entrance.)
We move on to the grandstands to watch the Three-Horse Hitch Pull. We’re packed pretty closely into the ancient wooden structure (read: fire hazard), and I am shocked — shocked — that the man sitting behind me is smoking a cigarette and, moreover, that no one is saying anything to him. (Country fair or not, this is New Age-y Blue Hill, after all.) A couple rows over, a middle-aged woman is intently bent over her phone, texting. Oddly enough, this is the only person I see with a device of this sort all day, including the bands of teens roaming the midway. After a couple rounds of watching the magnificent draft horses labor under the weight of their 8,400 drags, I’m ready to move on.
We make quick work of the exhibition halls, where — if you’ll excuse me — there seems to be a preponderance of blue ribbons. There are the usual pies and preserves, paintings and crafts, and 4-H exhibitions. Our favorite item is a quilt that features John Deere tractors.
We next thread our way past the ring-toss and target games and through the maze of food vendors, with their siren scents of bloomin’ onions, grilled sausage, burgers and dogs, cotton candy, popcorn, French fries, Thai food (Thai food?), barbecue from nearby Orland, fried dough and, intriguingly, bologna burgers. We visit with the syrupmakers from Kinney’s Sugarhouse, examine the wall of fake tattoos, and swing by the Maine Coffin booth, where the simple pine box is apparently enjoying a resurgence. (If you’re not planning to kick the bucket soon, you can also get a coffin-shaped wine rack or bookshelf.) We backtrack around to the rides, past the Tilt-A-Whirl, bumper cars, and the Zipper, to yet another part of my mission: a turn on the Ferris wheel. After recovering from the Smokey’s Greater Shows sticker shock (twelve dollars for the two of us to ride), we climb into our car and enjoy the view from aloft. From there, we can see horses trotting around the track, warming up for the harness races; the little dots of people moving up and down the midway, which is in full swing now; miniature animals being led around the rows of livestock stalls; rides spinning in our foreground in a blur; and Blue Hill — or, Awanadjo, the “small misty mountain” — overshadowing the whole scene, just as it has for more than a century. Llamas and Thai food aside, I think we can safely assert that all the beloved Maine agricultural fairground traditions are simply not subject to change.
By the time we check back at the 4-H shack for one of their famous burgers, inspect more livestock, and watch the Lumberjack Show, hours have passed. We take a pause at the end of one of the cattle stalls, where two tots — a brother and sister, maybe five and six — are perched atop a large stack of hay bales. As I look up, something glinting in the sun catches my eye. Could this be? Is it? I hoist myself up on one of the stall’s slats.
High in the corner, up in the far reaches, is a spider web. And not just a spider web, but a terrific spider web. I follow the strands. Spell out something, I silently intone. But no, it’s just the radiant architecture of a web. As I gaze up into the shadows, I see something else. Something gumdrop-like in size, with a big bulbous backside. I squint. Ew, is my first reaction, and then, Eureka! It is she. It’s Charlotte. I get John to climb up and document our discovery with his camera, the two kids watching us the whole time.
“See that spider up there?” I say to the boy, the older of the two. He nods. “Do you know who that is?” He doesn’t respond. “I think that’s Charlotte, from Charlotte’s Web,” I say. “Do you know that book?”
I catch my breath, feeling I am witnessing this lad’s first literary discovery, where imagination and experience merge. I envision how viewing this humble spider will be a moment he will hold in his heart and share with his friends, inspiring the next round of E.B. White fans. And how it will be the beginning of other such literary pursuits and pilgrimages for this boy, who will help keep alive the love of books for future generations.
“Well,” he says, “sort of.” He looks up at the spider, then at me. “We do have the movie at home.”
Okay, not exactly what I have in mind, but it’s a start.
IF YOU GO: The Blue Hill Fair runs September 2 through 6. $1-$8. Rte. 172. 207-374-3701. www.bluehillfair.com
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Jennifer Smith-Mayo