On the Farm: At the Fair

Rolling up our sleeves, and getting back to work.

For more than 150 years, the Fair has featured contests — wrestling, running, pole vaulting— and exhibitions of all sorts. —Courtesy M.V. Agricultural Society

I started helping out with the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair in 2018, for the same reason I do most things: My husband is very charming. 

Brian had just been elected president of the Agricultural Society, and as young, idealistic leaders are known to do, he had a number of highly ambitious ideas for improvement, and didn’t realize exactly how much work was involved until he was truly in the thick of it, and fair time was drawing near. He was passionate about his mission, but beginning to get overwhelmed. So I stepped into my official role as First Lady of the Agricultural Society, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work. 

I had some experience running fundraisers and organizing volunteers, so I quickly slid into a similar role for the fair. The work itself was fun and rewarding, but I wasn’t prepared for just how well the whole team, the self-described Fair Gang, worked together. In real life, they are farmers and police officers, chicken whisperers and artisans. They bake and do needlecraft, drive tractors and educate children. But for a few weeks every summer, they eat, sleep, and breathe the fair. They accepted me immediately, admired my unique skills, and appreciated my time. It was apparent none of them were there to push their own agenda, or get in anyone’s way. They were simply there for the love of the fair. They were honored to have been trusted to uphold an Island tradition, their collective mission to make this year’s the best one ever.

Despite the exhaustion, working at the fair has always felt a bit like summer camp to me: Spending all day outdoors in matching T shirts, working together on projects, not seeing our families or pets for weeks on end. We bond in our sleep-deprived state; fueled by endless espresso floats and frozen pie on a stick, we giggle inappropriately over misspellings on entry forms, convince ride operators to let us cut that giant Ferris wheel line, and gather ’round the glow of the Gravitron, telling stories and singing songs late into the night.

The decision to cancel the 2020 fair, though clearly the only option, weighed heavily on my husband and the other trustees. The fair had continued for more than 150 years, previously stopping only in wartime. He didn’t want his legacy to be “the Grinch who stole the fair,” but with words like “unprecedented” and “these trying times” worming their way into our vernacular, it was clear we would have to make some sacrifices in order to preserve the health of our community. 

That fall, when work would usually start on next year’s fair, case numbers soared on the island, and the Agricultural Society watched and waited. They met on Zoom and spoke on the phone. They speculated and found false hope. They convinced themselves there was no way a fair would happen, and then in the same meeting convinced themselves there was no way they could let it NOT happen. Through the uncertainty, they nonchalantly made some plans, nothing that couldn’t be canceled — boat reservations for draft horse trailers; lined up some bands. No one knew for sure when things would get better, and even if we could have a fair, how would we know if we should? Wouldn’t having a fair with tens of thousands of people in attendance be asserting that the pandemic was over? Who were a group of Island farmers to make that claim?

By spring, vaccinations were up, and Massachusetts cases were dropping dramatically. Governor Baker, who people had complained was too careful with his restrictions, suddenly started rolling them back with gusto. The Fair Gang started to feel a feeling we hadn’t let ourselves feel in so long a time, we had nearly forgotten how to recognize it: Hope. Finally, in early May, the word came that all restrictions would be lifted by August, and, if things stayed on course, there would be nothing stopping the fair from happening. 

We didn’t have long to process our newly rediscovered feelings, since we were so very far behind. Preparations began to take on a frantic pace, and there will surely be some things we run out of time for. Our crew has also shrunk a bit — department heads from years past are stepping back and shifting roles for various reasons: illness, new jobs, caring for grandchildren and aging parents, and all those socially anxious pandemic puppies … 

Luckily, we don’t have to do it all on our own. This Island is literally overflowing with people who are just as insane about those four days in late August as my husband is. 

They flock to the fairgrounds to help, giving up their precious personal time to paint furniture and move picnic tables, judge junior baking and push strings though teeny-tiny holes on entry tags over and over and over again. They spend their summers carving wooden kayaks, and growing giant sunflowers and alpacas with impossibly long eyelashes. They toss skillets and cheer for their favorite woodsman and stuff themselves with strawberry shortcake and ride the Zipper until they can’t see straight. And this year, more than ever, they honestly cannot wait to share smiles, and yes, maybe even a few hugs, and celebrate the simple joy of being together.