Celebrating the Fair

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Island’s beloved Ag Fair, which honors the Vineyard’s agricultural traditions, fosters community participation, and offers all kinds of fun food, games, and carnival rides.

Farmer or heiress, toddler or teen, Island native or day-tripper, you’re likely to be one of nearly thirty thousand to attend what promises to be a very special Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair, the 150th anniversary of this time-honored Island tradition. “Timeless Traditions,” this year’s theme, serves as recognition of the fair’s longevity. The event will be launched with a parade on Tuesday, August 16, followed by the usual four-day schedule of activities and contests Thursday through Sunday, August 18 to 21, at the Agricultural Hall and fairgrounds in West Tisbury.

While many might view the Vineyard as a summer destination linked with the excesses of the rich and famous, they obviously have not attended the much-beloved Ag Fair. With events like Cow Chip Bingo, Judging of Cattle and Swine, Robinson’s Racing Pigs, and music by the Slippery Sneakers Zydeco Band, the Ag Fair may be a tribute to a time gone by, but it is a time that remains zealously protected by generations of down-to-earth Island folk.

Men, women, and children of all ages participate in everything from baking double-crusted pies to long-distance skillet throwing, from growing the perfect giant pumpkin to harnessing the strongest ox. The Ag Fair lures hundreds of Island families to begin planning months ahead, honing their skills for the fleeting four days of festivities. The fair offers arcade games, rides, and delectable foods, including such guilty pleasures as cotton candy, onion rings, and fried dough, as well as the chance to admire the well-groomed livestock and handiwork of others.

Here, through the voices of a dozen or so Ag Fair “regulars,” we offer our own homage to a proud, albeit somewhat quirky, Island tradition.

Eleanor Neubert, fair manager

Raised on Flat Point Farm in West Tisbury, Eleanor Neubert comes from a long line of farmers and Ag Fair enthusiasts. Her late father was president of the Agricultural Society for many years and served on the board of trustees, so it was no surprise when the fair needed a new manager in 1984, Eleanor succumbed to the pleading. Twenty-seven years later, she makes the quantum task of coordinating roughly 250 volunteers and staff members look as easy as pie.

“The first three years were the hardest thing I had to do in my life,” she recollects. “And it’s even bigger now.” The toughest challenge, Eleanor admits, is finding the time for twelve months of Ag Fair planning along with her other commitments. She’s a teaching assistant at the Chilmark School, booking manager for all functions at the Ag Hall, bookkeeper for her family’s hundred-acre Flat Point Farm, and an actively involved grandmother to seven-year-old Kayla deBettencourt.

While a lesser woman might be armed with laptop and smart phone, Eleanor accomplishes her mission each year wielding only an eighty-page steno pad. “It’s my Bible,” she explains. Spurning e-mail, spreadsheets, and text messaging, she purchases a new pad every January and enters every detail of the fair by hand, the old-fashioned way, on crisp lined paper.

Her proudest accomplishment, she says, was the smooth transition to new fairgrounds in 1995, a difficult move but one that had to be made when the event simply outgrew its home at the Grange Hall. Other than the change in venue, Eleanor works hard to preserve tradition. “The event is still basically the same as when I was a child,” she says. “The feel of it is the same. The excitement. I try to keep as much commercialism out as possible.”

And while she is the acknowledged ringmaster, Eleanor is humble to the core. “I give credit to the fair committee,” she says. “We’ve worked together for so many years. It’s a good group and we have fun.”

Looking ahead to the next 150 years, Eleanor sees no reason that the Ag Fair won’t continue to make its appearance every August. “There’s a resurgence of agriculture on the Island. The next generation is growing its own food again and younger people are becoming involved in spinning, weaving, and making cheese. I see great interest in every aspect.” As for her own future with the fair, she says she’s “taking it one year at a time.”

Albert “Ozzie” Fischer, former Ag Society president

Ozzie Fischer is no stranger to the Ag Fair. Born into an Island farming family in 1914, Ozzie has spent a lifetime cultivating the land and raising animals. At ninety-seven, he remembers just about everything, including getting a half day off from school to go to the fair as a young boy.

“My earliest memory of the fair is that the kids were turned loose in the afternoon,” he says. “It used to be held in October. There were track meets and ring toss in the early years. I used to enter my chickens and won first prize when I was about ten years old.”

For the past eight decades, Ozzie has won prizes every year for his chickens or his carefully tended flowers and vegetables. A typical take in recent years: about fifty dollars, he estimates. But as he’s gotten older, gardening has become a family affair. At last count, he and Rena, his wife of more than seventy years, had four children, fifteen grandchildren, twelve great-grandchildren, and more on the way.

A former president of the Agricultural Society and student of agriculture at the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, Ozzie knows his way around the garden. At eighty, he retired as manager of the Keith Farm in Chilmark. And today, with help from his daughter and grandchildren, he applies his expertise toward growing award-winning vegetables, flowers, and fruit on his Chilmark property.

“The Ag Fair is a challenge,” he explains. “It’s in your blood. You keep saying, ‘This is my last year,’ but it’s bred into you.”

Manny Estrella, fire chief

A forty-year veteran of the West Tisbury Fire Department and its chief for the past eighteen years, Manny Estrella III has been a familiar face at the Ag Fair for more than thirty years. His staff of thirty firefighters rotates through traffic control in the bustling parking lot and running the hamburger booth inside the fairgrounds. Funds raised from parking fees and from the sale of more than five thousand burgers a year go toward the Fireman’s Civic Association scholarship fund for graduating seniors and continuing education.

“We practically live there for four days,” Manny says. His volunteer staff’s official hours are from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. but it’s tough work, more like “twenty-four/seven,” he explains, without complaining. “It’s fun. You see people you haven’t seen for years.”

The hamburger booth workers have the harder job, according to Manny. “The parking lot’s not so bad,” he says. “We’ve had the same guys for years.”

While he predicts that there will always be a fair, his own tenure as chief may be more limited. “I’ll keep at it for a few more years,” he promises. “I like the job and the guys.”

Mia Arenburg, avid competitor

At fourteen, Mia Arenburg of Oak Bluffs has been coming to the fair for as long as she can remember. While she did work the trash detail and the gate several years ago, she typically stays busy preparing Coco Puff and Snickerdoodle – her miniature pony and donkey – for competition, baking her award-winning Chewy Chocolate Cookies, and cultivating her fruits and vegetables in her garden. A former participant in the draft horse show, Mia has glued seashells on cardboard, sewn a pillow, and chosen the best of her peas, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, and other crops for entrance in the Ag Fair judging.

“It’s fun to win but I don’t care if I win or lose,” Mia announces. Then, apparently reconsidering, she adds, “It’s just fun being there, but it’s better if I win.”

Patrick Best, all-around contender

The word “precocious” may have been invented to describe Patrick Best of Vineyard Haven. Patrick has been going to the Ag Fair since he was “really little,” he says. Now twelve, he’s developed his own system for gobbling up an unprecedented number of awards. Each year, he explains, he gets the Ag Fair entry booklet and pores over it, deciding what to enter the following August.

“He’s very methodical,” says John Best, his father. Every year for the last six, Patrick has entered up to thirty different categories: gathering wild foods; canning; making butter, flower arrangements, and sculptures; growing potatoes, beans, garlic, sweet potatoes, and strawberries; sewing; weaving baskets; and baking brownies. He’s even found time to enter his schnoodle, a schnauzer-poodle mix, in the dog show. Father and son sound fatigued just reciting the list of entries. “He takes it very seriously,” John explains. “The fair just hit a chord.”

In addition to winning ribbons in traditional categories, Patrick has earned special awards for canning and for exhibiting the highest degree of interest in agriculture. In 2009, his best year at the fair, he won about $200 in prizes. This year, in honor of the 150th anniversary, he’d hoped to enter 150 items. While his parents don’t like to squelch his enthusiasm, they talked him down to just more than one hundred entries.

“Some friends think I’m crazy,” he says, sounding unconcerned. He’s already looking forward to his favorite aspect of the fair: delivering his two carloads of entries and waiting in suspense until the judges award their prizes.

This fall, Patrick will begin his studies at Falmouth Academy. He swims nearly every day, bikes, gardens, and plays trombone and violin. With the daily ferry commute added to his schedule, he’s already figured out how he’ll have time for his annual half year of Ag Fair preparations: “I’ll learn to get up at 4:30 in the morning,” he vows.

Nancy Jephcote, musician

Nancy Jephcote remembers when fiddlers used to flock to the Island in the 1980s to perform at the Ag Fair’s Fiddle Contest. “But it’s harder to come here and harder to stay here now,” she says ruefully. “Fiddlers don’t tend to be real wealthy.”

According to Nancy, a fiddler with the band Flying Elbows, the contest “grew lukewarm” by 1999 and was taken off the program. Musician Tristan Israel lobbied for an “Acoustic Corner,” a place where fiddlers could make their way to the stage and perform traditional music, the kind favored by the Flying Elbows. Thanks to his efforts, Nancy says, the fair carved out space for a small stage near the Ag Hall porch.

While she and her fellow fiddlers are grateful for the venue, she says she’d like to see the Acoustic Corner get larger and more comfortable, with picnic tables for the audience and better signage to let people know they’re there. But even if they stay put, Nancy says they love their traditional slot on the Thursday night schedule. “It’s a party for the locals,” she explains. “A party to celebrate on a local scale achievements that matter in this little rural community.”

Fred and Betsy Fisher, farmers

Owner of Nip ’n Tuck Farm in West Tisbury, one of the last working dairy farms on the Island, Fred Fisher has been involved with the Ag Fair his whole life. His late parents were deeply entrenched in the fair, active in the horse shows, and founders of both the horse and ox pulls more than thirty years ago. His father, Fred says, insisted on adding the fourth day of the fair although the concept was initially opposed.

As a child, Fred and his family showed their horses, cattle, and goats, and entered bread and butter, pickles, flowers, baked beans, and eggs. At fifty-four, he “lives at the fair,” according to his wife, Betsy, showing beef cows and pigs, and helping organize and compete in the horse and oxen pulls, the tractor pull, and the draft-horse event.

“The fair has been a large part of my life since childhood,” he explains. “I’ve only missed one or two. It helps keep agriculture alive on the Island.”

Fred and Betsy raised their own three children, all adults now, to be avid fair participants as well. “It taught them responsibility, good sportsmanship, winning, losing, and how to play the game,” Fred says.

Betsy adds: “It’s a strongly rooted Island tradition. As elders pass on, families and farms step into place. That’s how it keeps going.”

Peter and Andrew Ruimerman, young workers

Hauling a large trash can on wheels around the fair isn’t a glamorous job but it’s one that fourteen-year-old fraternal twins Peter and Andrew Ruimerman have enjoyed for the last few years. The Chilmark brothers have turned their excitement about the Ag Fair into part-time jobs since they were about nine, working either as runners (transporting fair entries to their proper places in the hall for judging) or on trash detail. Both agree that trash is the way to go.

“It’s more flexible than other jobs at the fair; you can work more hours and you get more pay,” Andrew explains. Both seek assignments to work all four days, at the same time soaking in all that the fair has to offer.

“It’s only a few days and there are so many things to do,” Peter says. He and his brother enter their chickens, eggs, and an occasional art project such as a photograph. “We’ve won lots of blue and red ribbons,” he reports, adding he’s usually competing against Andrew in the same categories.

“I like winning prizes,” Andrew says, “but I don’t get upset if I don’t earn a ribbon. But I prefer winning,” he adds thoughtfully. “And it’s fun beating my brother.”

Andrew Jacobs, kid at heart

Although he’s now twenty-seven years old, Andrew Jacobs still sounds boyish in his delight when discussing his love of the Ag Fair. “I’ve been coming to the Island every summer since I was an infant,” he explains. Today he’s a full-time resident in Vineyard Haven and a biologist for the Wampanoag Tribe in Aquinnah. As a child, he volunteered at the fair, working the gate, in security, and as a runner. He also entered the arts and crafts, flower arranging, and baking competitions.

“I love the food, the agricultural exhibits, the dog show, and the horse pull,” he says, the enthusiasm evident in his voice. Last year, he entered his own dog, Sasha, an English bulldog pup, then just six months old. “We got best in breed, best in class, and almost got best in show,” he boasts.

This year he plans to enter the dog show again; Sasha is a veteran now. He still volunteers as much as possible, coming in after work to help hang paintings in the hall at night. “Time permitting, I’m happy to help anywhere I can.”

Faron Young, midway game owner

He came of age working the Ag Fair and other festivals and fairs all over the northeast United States from April to the end of October each year. Faron Young, thirty-three, travels with Cushing Amusements of Wilmington, Massachusetts, the company that has brought rides and games to the midway for the past forty years.

“I’ve been working at the Ag Fair since I was twelve or thirteen years old,” Faron says. “My oldest sister was married to a member of the Cushing family, so I came over as a boy and worked the fried dough stand.”

Now an entrepreneur himself, Faron has purchased six concession games of his own that he transports to events. With the crowd favorite Whac-A-Mole, a game that involves competing against others to bash pop-up critters on the head with a mallet, and a NASCAR-inspired remote-control race car game, Faron has turned fun and games into a busy livelihood. In addition to managing his own concessions, he plays a key role in setting up the midway, helping to configure the rides and concessions to fit the available space with the best possible flow.

The toughest part of working the Ag Fair, he says, is in the transportation. “You have to be a really good driver,” he says, describing the stresses of negotiating the unwieldy gear on and off of the ferries, particularly backing onto the freight boats. But, once he’s arrived, the Vineyard is always a pleasure.

“The crowds are friendly, the people associated with the fair are great, and you get to see a lot of movie stars and other famous people,” he explains. Bill Clinton, Meg Ryan, Larry David, Jim Belushi, and Tony Shalhoub are just a few of the familiar faces who have stepped up to take their chances throwing darts, basketballs, or softballs, hoping to take home a giant stuffed animal from one of Faron’s attractions along the midway.

He points to the men and women running the concessions nearby: “That’s my wife, my father, my brother, my wife’s cousin, an old friend, and my best friend,” he says, the sense of accomplishment unmistakable in his voice.

Cathy Weiss, baker

She has the good sense to sound somewhat embarrassed about the blue ribbons she’s won for her pies and cakes year after year since she first entered the baking contest twenty-three years ago. Cathy Weiss, the Tisbury School science staffer and choreographer, wins in multiple categories, mastering subtleties like “Double Crust” and “Fancy Cake.”

“I very innocently entered a peach pie with lattice crust my first year and was surprised to win a blue ribbon. I was hooked,” she says.

Over the years she has honed her skills. She uses what she calls “a lot of visuals on toppings,” borrows the best ingredients from different recipes, and never bakes the same entry twice. “I collect recipes all year long and then think about it two nights before entries are due. I become a whirling dervish. My husband has to leave the house,” she admits.

The key to her unrelenting success: “I know what the judges like,” she says conspiratorially. “Chocolate, peanut butter, raspberry, banana.” One year they admired her award-winning chocolate banana cream pie so much that it disappeared from the table. In its place lay a blue ribbon. “It turns out it’s Fair Manager Eleanor Neubert’s favorite,” Cathy chuckles. “She ’fessed up later.”

Several years ago Cathy attended a friend’s birthday party the night she should have been home baking for the fair. She’d made a cake to bring to the party but realized she’d be too tired to bake another when she got home. When no one was looking, she sneaked off with the uneaten half and delivered it to the fairgrounds the next morning. “I never intended it to happen,” she says. Her friends searched for it the next day, befuddled. “Now,” she says, “they call me ‘the girl that takes the cake.’”