It may be only a few minutes shy of 10:30 in the morning, but as Rocky Magnuson reminds the stream of people walking by, it's never too early to enjoy a little kettle corn.

Handing out ladelfuls of the sweet and salty treat, Mr. Magnuson looks every bit the role of cowboy in his denim jeans, scruffy beard and ten-gallon hat. As he stands next to a gate, watching people stroll onto the grounds of the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, he welcomes them with his popped delicacy and a thick accent. More than a few curious people stick out their hands.

"Oh, everybody loves the kettle corn," he says with a broad grin. "We like to announce that we are open for business."

Which is also to say that under this bright sky on a warm August morning, the 144th Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair is open for business, too.


Across the fairgrounds, the familiar sights and sounds of this seminal summer event are everywhere. Fair employees scurry to last minute tasks. Farmers hurry to ready their livestock for judging. Police officers prepare for the crush of patrons that will soon pack this dusty concourse.

But already the grounds are coming to life. Inside the horse ring, teams of oxen from across New England are busy competing for the blue ribbon. They have five minutes to drag a tire through an obstacle course of traffic cones. The early risers applaud the muscular animals as they navigate through the challenge.

On the edge of the ring, the MVTV crew has just kicked off their live coverage of the four-day event. Bob Tankard tests his microphones for his morning talk show. In the station's camper turned mobile control center, station manager Stephen Warriner prepares for a full day of filming.

Out among the whirling colors and shrieking sounds of the many rides and games, the crowd begins to swell. Kids drag their parents to the ticket booth, fidgeting for a trip down the Super Slide. Soon a long line snakes along the rows of game booths.

Free from the line, Nancy Gould of Connecticut cannot believe that it's not even 11 o'clock yet. Keeping one eye on her four children - who seem to be wandering off in all directions - she laments that while it hasn't even been an hour since the gates opened, her money supply is rapidly disappearing.


"I have already spent over $100," she says with a laugh. "But at least we have something to show for it." She notes the few stuffed animals in tow. "But this is the time to come. The first day is always the best because it isn't so crowded, and the night's better, too, because of the atmosphere."

With that she turns her attention to the kids, who have dispersed in search of junk food.

"I have to go rescue my kids from the fried dough," she says, disappearing into the growing crowd.

Just a few steps beyond, 12-year-old Tim Schreck is bravely entering the Gravitron, a stomach-dropping ride that spins so fast the riders become stuck to the walls while the floor falls out from below. As of yet he is the only passenger who dares go inside, and his family can only watch and shake their heads from a safe distance.

"He's not nervous," says his aunt, who laughs at any suggestion that he might be just a bit scared being the only rider. "Me? Yes. Him? Not a chance."

Kids swarm and run through the maze of rides, and lines of mothers and fathers and endless strollers begin clogging the lanes in between the games trailers.

At the Rope Ladder game, where you can win a prize for climbing an unsteady ladder to the top, more than one adolescent onlooker boasts that it looks so easy. But one after another they try and fail, falling into the air-cushioned pads below. It's a precarious balancing act, with victory only a few feet from their grasps.


Faron Young is used to watching such defeats during the first days of the fair. He has worked for the Cushing Amusement company for 15 years, and this year runs the Wacky Wire game booth. The game looks simple enough: navigate a small metal ring down a coiled, rotating wire without the wire touching the inside of the ring. The slightest contact between the two induces a loud buzzer, announcing failure.

Like the old Hasbro game Operation, it takes a very steady hand to win. It is the ultimate game of frustration, though not for Mr. Young, who slips the ring down the spiral without so much as a peep from the buzzer. Just for show, he slides it down again flawlessly.

That kind of skill could win you one of the fair's most coveted prizes: a miniature electric motorbike.

"Kids keep trying and trying, and get really close, but usually have trouble at the end," he says. "I've been coming here since I was 12. I have a head start on them."

Like clockwork, a new victim saunters up to the booth. Mr. Young demonstrates again how easy it is and the awesome prize that awaits, and the deal is sealed. Mr. Young's expression says it all: A sucker is born every minute.

Down in the barn, where cows, sheep, pigs and roosters show off their ribbons, nine-year-old Hartley Sierputoski and her five-year-old brother, Jack, are keeping their Alpine Nubian goat, Annabel, company in her pen. No ribbon dangles from the post where her registration tag is hung, but that doesn't seem to bother the siblings from Lambert's Cove. Bright smiles welcome the visitors who have come to see Annabel.

"She likes to eat a lot of food," says Jack, who laughs as he lists off Annabel's best qualities. "She likes to jump on stuff."


Almost on cue, Annabel props herself up to talk to her visitors, trying subtly to eat a reporter's notepad.

"She really likes to eat food," Jack repeats with a giggle.

Hartley and Jack welcome the stream of callers, and soon, more than half a dozen children are inside the pen petting Annabel. Parents stand outside, snapping pictures.

The main exhibit hall is still closed as judges make their final decisions. Soon the throngs will get to see who grew this year's best tomatoes, who baked the tastiest blueberry pie.

But it's still early.