Standing before the Enter sign at the Agricultural Society fairgrounds the week before the annual fair, there is a strong sense of anticipation. There’s not much to see. Foot-tall pink flags mark the spots for the vendors that will sell food and goods on the lawn. A few rides sit folded in the corner of the property. People drift in and out of the hall, submitting entries. The commotion is only beginning.
On Friday afternoon, Julia Sayre, seven, stood at the entry table with her mom, Dawn. Julia’s entry form listed cookies, artwork and her bunny Chesca. The family has been entering the fair for several years. Julia’s brother once entered a frilled lizard made out of newspaper, which Julia said “was kind of weird.”
“It’s like a mini-vacation,” Julia’s mom said. “It signifies the end of summer and going back to a quieter time.” The family comes to the fair day and night, several times during the week. Julia is looking forward to riding the Aladdin Ride, the “one that goes sideways and stuff,” she said before scampering outside to cartwheel on the wide-open field around the hall.
The field won’t be empty for long. On Thursday, the crowds will begin lining up at the entrance gate to enjoy live music and shows, ride the carnival rides, view arts and crafts of all kinds, see a variety of farm animals and eat some grilled and fried food.
The 151st Agricultural Fair will feature many of the same attractions of previous years. “We are expecting more cattle than last year, more sheep, our usual assortment of poultry,” listed Eleanor Neubert, who has been fair manager since 1984. The daily spinning competition, the pet show and the all-popular skillet throw, which is “open to the world’s women,” according to the handbook, are also returning fair staples.
“People will be thrilled to hear that the pigs are back,” said Mrs. Neubert. Robsinson’s Racing pigs went on a one-year hiatus while Malcom’s Jumping Frogs took their place.
And there are new attractions to look for. Frisbee dogs will perform in the Show Ring on Thursday and Friday, and there will be a corn husking contest for kids on Friday afternoon. The Martha’s Vineyard Horse Council drill team is also back after a break, and will perform in the show ring on Saturday morning.
For the first time, the fair will feature a pair of water buffalo, originally from New York. The animals belong to Scottie Browning, who teaches at the Farm Institute. The buffalo are one and two years old, and will participate in an obstacle course at the fair.
In the hall, a few exhibit categories have been carried over from last year’s 150th fair, which featured skills relevant the year the fair opened. These include cheese making, colonial crafts and a chopstick knitting competition. In the spirit of Jawsfest, there is an award for the vegetable that most resembles a shark.
Jim Norton, owner of Bayes Norton Farm in Vineyard Haven, came to the Agricultural Hall to enter his tomatoes Friday afternoon with his wife, Sonya. His most-prized tomato is a one-pound eight-ounce heirloom of the Old German variety. He gave up management of the farm to his son and daughter in law four years ago, and began tending exclusively to his tomato garden.
“I do the tomatoes, and they do everything else,” Mr. Norton said. Though he claims he’s not competitive, he hopes they win. “I think of it as an experience with the tomato,” he said. “I don’t win, [the tomatoes] win. All I did was create an environment for them to do their best.”
Entries poured in over the weekend. Eve Heyman, the fair’s official entry clerk, was especially excited about a participating Parisian family of exhibitors and an increased number of livestock entries.
Ms. Heyman, 42, is the youngest of 11 organizers — Fair Ladies, as the group calls themselves. They have been preparing for the upcoming weekend since last September. Ms. Heyman is currently working from 6 a.m. to midnight entering items into the computer. “Once they enter for the first time, they get addicted,” she said. “For some people, it’s a family competition — every member of the family enters items. A husband and wife will enter against each other [in the same category]. There’s a lot of healthy competition and fun-loving spirit.”
This year, the Ladies have been missing the contributions of Kathleen Brady, whose more than 20-year tenure as a Fair Lady earned her the nickname Nanny. She died over the winter. “We have been feeling the hole,” Ms. Heyman said. Nanny was one of the dedicated organizers who hand-wrote every entry tag, back when the entries were all recorded by hand. When entries were first computerized in 2002, Ms. Brady became “the queen of alphabetizing,” Eve said. She spent hours alphabetizing all 4,000 entries in brown shoeboxes.
The fair ladies’ twice-monthly get-togethers are “full of laughter and some sarcasm,” Ms. Heyman said. The ladies plan the August festivities at each other’s houses while noshing on (deliberately not-fair-themed) desserts. “We start out being task-oriented and end up off-task.” But in the end, they always seem to pull it off smoothly.
Charlotte Hall, 17, is the next generation of fair ladies. She began volunteering at the fair in seventh grade at the suggestion of her math teacher. “I like giving back to the community,” she said, while sorting through entry forms and assigning tags to each item. “The ladies have become part of my family — my fair godmothers,” she said. “Every year it gets better.”
Ms. Hall describes the fair as “four days of nonstop fun,” a time of year she looks forward to every year. This year she is submitting 20 items, including a two-finger metal ring with an animal cracker core. In another year, she will be leaving for college, but Ms. Hall said she’ll always return to the fair in August.
“They wouldn’t let me leave,” she said. “It’s going to be a lifelong experience with the fair for me.”
After the fair ends, the Ladies feel exhausted. “You pretty much sleep for days and don’t want to be anywhere in public, don’t want to answer any questions,” Ms. Heyman said, laughing. The Ladies get together for a pros-and-cons session to debrief, but not for awhile. “We have to wait a couple weeks before we even want to look at each other again.”
The fair is open Thursday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. the first three days, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, August 19. See a full schedule of events in today’s paper.