Electricity, Water, and Muscle: Setting Up the Common Ground Fair
My desk, at the moment, is a large cable reel that once held electric wire. My office chair is a picnic cooler. Around me in my little campsite: balsam fir saplings and the breeze overhead in the pines (I do have to pick pine needles out of the keyboard from time to time). On the other side of a few trees, the sounds of livestock, power tools, laughter, and trucks. I am at the Common Ground Country Fair, in Unity, but few of you will see me. As I write it is the final day of “set-up” before the Fair opens, and all hands are busy.
Matthew, who organizes the communications, hands out two-way radios to the staff, electricians, first aid people, and safety coordinators. Noel, the electrical coordinator, has been here for many days already and sees to it that each food vendor, craftsperson, Maine business, and demonstration area has access to the power they need. This does not just happen by itself; to make the Common Ground Fair work, hundreds of people must work.
The amount of behind-the-scenes labor is impressive. Most of the year, this fairground sits empty; occasional agricultural or educational events take place here, but nothing on the scale of the Common Ground Fair. Thus, each year, miles of heavy black electric cords have to be made up, hundreds of lights have to be strung in the big tents, and everybody has to be connected to the right circuit breaker. Somebody has to make sure everything is working right. No, a lot of people have to make sure everything is working right.
As I sat beside the electrician’s shack this morning between odd jobs, while husband Paul put plugs and outlet boxes on fifty-foot lengths of three-wire cable (until he’d used up the whole reel,) draft horses arrived. Oxen and cows and mules and llamas arrived, in their trailers, pulled by their farmers from all over Maine. Antique tractors arrived. Golf carts arrived. Onions and lumber, folding chairs and sound systems, potatoes and apple cider, dumpsters and Adirondack chairs and spiral staircases and cedar hot tubs and bonsai trees and pumpkins and photo-voltaic equipment arrived. By 11 a.m. the fairground was filled with pickup trucks and rental box trucks and vans belonging to businesses. Stonecutters arrived. Herbal apothecaries arrived. Boatbuilders and basket makers and the guys who make the French fries arrived.
Coffee arrived too, for the first time in the Fair’s history. In order to demonstrate the availability and support the production of organic, fair-trade coffee, some specific coffee vendors have been invited this year, among them Rockland’s own Rock City Coffee Roasters. Noel the electrician says something about “those coffee people are going to use a lot of power!”
Bob the plumber is installing water meters on taps. This year, the Fair is encouraging people to refill their bottles rather than waste numerous single-use plastic water bottles. There was some interest in estimating how many bottles were saved. The fairground got the meters from the Portland Water District when Portland was changing them out anyway; I guess, as they say, the price was right. I get sent to the hardware store in Unity for more plumbing fittings. Paul, making up those power cords, runs out of Romex clamps. I offer to get more of those as well.
Volunteers set out trash barrels and prepare the large recycling tent for the lengthy trash-sorting job that is to come. The fair organizers and volunteers work very hard to minimize what has to be hauled off by Sullivan’s garbage trucks in those dumpsters; as much as possible is composted or recycled, and that means sorting through what tens of thousands of fairgoers drop into those barrels. I’ve done that job; it isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Gould Academy, where our son went to high school, is here with Dinah the horse; she is representing Gould’s Farm and Forest program. Soon, rabbits and chickens, string bands and singers, shiitake mushrooms and crabmeat and lamb chops and lemonade, honey and maple syrup, full-time farmers and foresters and Passamaquoddy healers and puppeteers and paramedics will be here, stilt-walkers will be here, volunteer firefighters will be here, radio personalities and blacksmiths and border collies and soapmakers and bread bakers and veterans and spinners and timberframers will be here. All have much to do before the gates open.
Yes, there will be a few “wackos.” That’s part of the fun. Today, however, even the “wackos,” if you want to be so callous, work hard. This fair exists because of the labor of many. None of this happens by itself.
More volunteers arrive, to paint signs and build benches, to pound stakes and hang tent sides, to wash dishes and string lights and unload trucks and run around looking for a cordless drill. Those with skills get put to work in their area of expertise, if they’re willing. I overhear somebody tell another fellow, “I said I was a carpenter and BANG! they had me building picnic tables before I even knew what happened!” Andy with his golf cart gets a large reel loaded with what looks like twenty miles of baling twine from a storage barn, used for setting up an enormous parking lot. The bits of flagging tape are still on there from last year. Waste not, want not.
Everywhere, chatter and smiles but under it all, work. They peel onions, they feed the animals, they share stories. Rail fan types all perk up when they hear the train blow a grade-crossing signal. We are saddened by the loss of passenger rail service from Belfast to the Fair, but it was fun while it lasted. Things do change over the years, and those of us who have been coming here for decades sometimes wax nostalgic. “I miss the turkey guy.” “Do you remember that great big cider press they used to have?” Other things, new things, are just as wonderful.
In general, set-up seems to be going smoothly this year. Cooperation seems to be the order of the day. Somebody asks, “You got some lag bolts?” Somebody mentions, “I’m going to the store, need anything?” A vendor gives order to his help: “When the potato guy gets here, you talk to him.” A young Amish fellow drives by in a large farm wagon pulled by two gorgeous draft horses. Somebody is calling for the electricians on the radio. “Hey, Paul, whereabouts are you?” Discussion ensues over the radio about somebody’s particular electrical requirements. The Waldo County sheriff’s deputy wanders over; he’s trying to find a good spot for the Emergency Management truck, but he needs power. Odd thing, everybody notices, that the electrician’s shack is not, itself, wired. There have been jokes about that all day. Too busy, I suppose, just like the bit about the shoemaker’s children.
Last night, as we slept in our tent, a gentle rain fell for a little while; today, the cool breeze and blue sky prevailed. Weather should be lovely for the fair. The foliage has just started around here, the brief shower “knocked the dust down,” but there are no puddles anywhere, and, might I add, mosquitoes are few. Come to the Fair. Come eat and sing and be merry. Come see all the hard work that everybody’s done.