They come for the fun and festivities or they come to claim a first place prize. No matter the motivation, they come — throngs of people eager to turn the turnstiles onto the grounds of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Show and Fair.
Starting Thursday, Island residents and visitors alike will swarm the 148th Annual Agricultural Fair for four days and nights, to hear thrumming tractors and bands of banjos, stain their lips and tongues with blue and red sno-cone juice and dizzy themselves on the chutes of the sky-high carnival slide.
The fair is hailed by many as the event of summer because, as Eleanor Neubert in her 25th year as fair manager says with a wink and a smile, “Once it’s in your blood . . .”
Once it’s in your blood, the annual fair, with its traditions, quirks and all, becomes an indisputable staple of a Vineyard summer.
“We have tried to keep an old-fashioned country fair feeling without a lot of commercialization,” Ms. Neubert says. “We try to have enough variety so that there is something for everyone to come and see.”
For some, the lure of the fair is the thrill of winning a blue ribbon and cash prize for baking the best pecan pie five miles east of America. Others enter the grounds to be rattled and reeled by the carnival rides, which, from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, will cost $20 for an all-you-can-ride wristband. Many more are drawn to the fair by the oddity and country charm of watching oxen stomp through an obstacle course or women hurling three pounds and 11 ounces of rusted cast iron kitchenware across a field in the skillet toss competition.
Or, as Ms. Neubert suspects, the fair simply serves as a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the season. “Summer is very busy for everybody. This is a time for people to take a break from their hectic lives and come reunite with friends that they haven’t seen for perhaps a year,” she says, adding, “I guess because West Tisbury is considered the big agricultural town of the Island and it’s centrally located and the fair has always been held here, the whole Island community is sort of drawn in during the month of August. We have volunteers who come back year after year . . . because it’s fun. It’s part of the whole Island community getting together.”
Whatever the reason for the fuss and the flock, the fair staff and community members milling about the unassembled fairgrounds this weekend agreed on this point: Islanders talk about the fair all year long.
“We originated as a farming community,” entry clerk Eve Heyman says, “so I think there are generation after generation of farmers that may not necessarily be able to support their family by farming anymore, but they still take pride in exhibiting their vegetables and their flowers and their livestock.”
Some of the excitement surrounding the fair is attributed to the healthy spirit of competition. Contestants practice their oyster shucking, exercise their skillet-tossing arm, pamper and fluff their show dog and preen their flowerbeds year-round with motherly care and attention, just to one-up their neighbor or even their spouse.
“There is a lot of pride involved. This isn’t just fun and games,” hall manager Kathy Lobb says with a laugh.
The competition can be fierce, but the fairgrounds are sewn together by cooperation more than rivalry.
Consider the relationship between the teamster and his team of oxen during the ox pull competition. “Most of the contestants command their ox just by their voice. It’s amazing,” Ms. Lobb says. “And the people sleep right next to their oxen at night. They camp out on the grounds alongside them. We have showers and everything, so some people roll out their sleeping bag right next to their oxen and sleep right there next to them.”
It’s an image that embodies the theme of this year’s fair: teamwork.
And in the face of the economic recession, the agricultural society, fair staff and volunteers have hung together, too, to keep the fair running as usual.
Neither a blight-plagued tomato crop nor a crumpling economy soured the spirit brewing about the fairground this weekend. Though the agricultural society tapered its stock of souvenir shirts for sale, the cutbacks stopped there. The fairgrounds will teem on Thursday with all the exhibits of years past. In fact, the fair program has expanded this year, with the addition of a tent designated for nonprofit group peddling, new categories in the woodsman competitions and a just-built barn that will hold livestock and exhibit a collection of antique farming machinery.
The livestock and canning and preservation exhibits are particularly robust this year, Ms. Lobb says, because many Islanders have turned to sustainable living in the face of the recession.
Entries rolled in this weekend at a rate reflecting the yearly average number of exhibitors, but it is too soon to tell whether fair attendance will dwindle.
“If it’s too nice, people go to the beach. If it’s too rainy, they won’t come,” explains Ms. Neubert. “There are a lot of different factors. It’s in our minds that the economy is down a bit on the Island as a whole. It’s in our minds but we are hoping for the best.”
“We are worried,” Ms. Lobb agreed, “But anytime someone has come to us saying that they didn’t think they could afford the $8 to get into the fair, we always say: ‘Volunteer!’ If you volunteer as a judge [or] if you help clean up, you get a pass to the fair [for] free.”
This weekend, the exhibit tables in the agricultural hall were bare and the fairgrounds were barren, occupied only by the plans and plots projected from the minds of the volunteer staff: a wooden canoe hung from a ceiling beam, two go-carts fashioned by the Girl Scouts nestled against a wall, a chocolate booth manned by the West Tisbury School PTO standing on the grass and a live insect collection positioned on the junior nature table. Exhibits will sprout from the tabletops, hall walls and fields throughout the week until opening day when the entries and entertainments are positioned and ready for show time.
“It’s quiet now, but in a few days this will be a happening place,” says Ms. Lobb. “People don’t come to the fair unless they’re in a good mood and ready to have fun. Even with the economy the way it is right now, everyone can forget about it once they’re here.”
The 148th Annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Show and Fair will open to the public from Thursday, August 20 to Saturday, August 22 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Sunday, August 23 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the fairgrounds at 35 Panhandle Road in West Tisbury. Tickets cost $8 per day for adults, $5 for seniors and youth ages five to 12. Children under 5 are free.