The gates opened half an hour early this year for the 146th annual Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair because of the number of people milling in the parking lot. And at 10:45 a.m. yesterday the line in front of the West Tisbury firemen's hamburger booth was the shortest it will be all weekend. At peak hours, the wait for a grilled-to-perfection burger can take up to 15 minutes, but on this morning, only two people were waiting, their elbows up on the counter.
"We come every year for the first hamburgers," said Hermine Hull, who stood at the booth with her friend Leslie Baker. Mrs. Hull's husband, Mike, is one of the firemen behind the grill and this is her favorite summer ritual. "It's wonderful for me because it's the one time that my husband cooks all year," she said.
As the two waited for the grills to fire up (the firemen don't start flipping until 11 a.m.), Mrs. Baker admitted to trying to sneak a bite the night before while judging the adult art entries. "They were testing the grill last night and we could smell it," she said. "So, we came over hoping for a stray, but there was no such luck."
While the morning hour made for longer lines at booths serving coffee than at those with the usual favorites like strawberry shortcake, vegetable tempura and cotton candy, some had ventured out to eat fair fare for breakfast. "A few people have come over," said Lisa Wheaton, a longtime fixture behind the fried dough window. Behind her, coworkers were busy rolling out the dough before it hit the frialator. "We mix the ingredients together," she said, divulging the mix as a combination of yeast, powdered milk, Crisco, sugar and salt. "We toss in some flour to let it rise and throw it in the fryer."
Some rides sat motionless, waiting for more people to arrive, but the perennial hot ones were in full swing. "I have one daughter and a niece up there," Maude Chilton of South Orange, Conn., said as she shielded her eyes from the twist and turns of the Salt and Pepper Shaker. "It makes me queasy just looking at it." Next to her stood seven-year-old daughter Maudie Schmidt, who had also opted out of the ride. Instead, Miss Schmidt admired the stuffed walrus she had won at the Whack-a-Mole. "Well, my mom won the walrus and gave it to me," she said. Ms. Chilton said that she and the girls had arrived early armed with a game plan. Next up was the Octopus and from there, the Super Slide. "We wanted to be here first and," she said with a laugh, "we like to be the first to leave."
As people streamed in, the lines started to grow. Outside of the fair T-shirt booth, stocked with everything from posters and T-shirts to aprons emblazoned with this year's winning poster design, fair-goers waited to buy memorabilia. Jackie Mendez-Diaz, this year's winning artist for the fair design, sat outside the booth signing posters. "I don't think I've ever had so much fun on the Vineyard," she said.
For one fair guest, the fun has been going strong for 60 years. "I have come every year since 1947," said 93-year-old Jane Newhall. Henry Lawrence Whiting, Mrs. Newhall's great-grandfather, was one of the fair's original founders. Back when everything at the fair was done by hand, Mrs. Newhall wrote out the tag for every entry, the ribbon for every winner and recorded every detail about the judging process. "I don't think it's changed much," she said as she made her way through the fiber tent. "It helps keep us an agricultural area and I think that's nice."
Over at the pulling ring, Bob Steiner was busy inspecting oxen. Mr. Steiner, a retired agricultural teacher who once worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, has judged the fair's cattle and oxen since 1982. He lives in Manchester, N.H., and makes the trip to the Vineyard once a year. "For dairy cattle, it's strong legs and good udder placement," he said, explaining what makes a blue-ribbon animal. "For beef cattle, their square blockiness shows that they're good meat animals and for oxen, it's their muscular ability and the size of their legs." With that, he took the microphone and began judging the oxen for beauty and handling.
As the oxen made their way around the ring, entry clerk Eve Heyman said she had counted over 4,000 entries this year. "It's the most since I've been the entry clerk," she said. She has held the position for the past six years. At the hall, which remains closed until all the judging is complete, the judges were busy tasting treats and inspecting vegetables. Fair manager Eleanor Neubert said she was surprised by the number of entries this year. "The quantity and quality of the flowers and vegetables far surpassed last year," she said. "We've never had quite so many cherry tomatoes and the tomatoes in general, the size is huge," she exclaimed, gesturing to a tomato that, true to her word, was as big as the face of the judge inspecting it. Based on the number of entries, Mrs. Neubert also speculated that it was a good year for quilting, canning and preserving.
The judging job that inspires the most jealousy are the taste testers. The judges of the adult baked goods, who taste every pie, brownie and cookie, took up their forks at nine Thursday morning. By noon, they had finished with cheesecakes and were moving on to breads. Armed with bottles of water, they bit into tiny slices of rye loaves, saving some to pass back to other judges and to curious, hungry onlookers peeking in through the hall's closed doors. Of all of the judges, Joseph E. Sollitto Jr., the clerk of superior court for Dukes County and a Chilmark resident, has been there the longest. "Since 1974 or '75," he guessed in between bites. "It's a coveted spot that can only be grandfathered down when someone dies," he explained. Asked to name his favorite category for tasting, he clutched his stomach.
"All of it is my favorite," he said.
The Agricultural Fair runs today, tomorrow and Sunday. Gates open at 10 a.m. and close at 11 p.m., except for Sunday when gates close at 7 p.m.