Crispy vegetable tempura. The Salt and Pepper shaker. Low-fat muffins. These are the things which were not at the first Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair held in West Tisbury 147 years ago.
And here are the things that were: goats for milking, oxen for pulling carts and chickens whose eggs made breakfast in the morning and whose meat went into supper.
The crowds will begin lining up early Thursday morning for the fair. When the gates open at 10 a.m., children and parents will flood the grounds. They will rush off to buy tickets for the amusement rides and try their luck at games of chance. But behind the rides and slides and games, in back of the food booths teaming with their treats fried up (the dough, the quesadillas) or served cold (the smoothies, the lemonade, the refreshing ice cream cones) the society barns will be filled with animals and the program of events chock-full with tractor pulls and draft horse shows, just as it was 147 summers ago.
“In the 1850s, there was a movement afoot by some to improve the current state of agriculture, to introduce improved breeds and to do it through competition,” Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and a vice president of the society, told the Gazette a few weeks ago when construction began on a new barn at the fairgrounds. When it is finished in September, the barn will be the third there and will provide more space for livestock. “That was what the fair was designed to do,” continued Mr. Athearn. “Through the vehicle of competition, to try to upgrade people’s activities in agriculture. So I suppose the principles stay the same today.”
This year the annual theme of the fair, chosen each year after a winner is selected from the poster competition, is homegrown favorites. It recalls those old days when the answer to, “What’s for dinner?” was, “Look out in the backyard and see.” Vegetables and potatoes came from the backyard, beef from Edgartown cows and pie was stuffed with huckleberries and blueberries handpicked in the woods of Chilmark.
“The poster winner is Caryn King and it shows a little girl bringing flowers and animals and big red tomatoes to the fair,” said fair manager Eleanor Neubert. “She’s entering all the stuff she grew at her house — her tomatoes, her poultry and her flowers. Everything she’s grown, she’s entering into the fair. In this day and age, we’re talking about living local, eating things that are grown close by, and it seemed to be an appropriate theme for this year.”
The deadline to submit entry forms for garden zucchinis, homemade cookies and cakes and flowers arranged just so was yesterday at five. At five this morning, entry clerk Eve Heyman and her team of volunteers began stringing the nametags and ribbons for displaying the homegrown favorites submitted for competition. It is a project which will keep Ms. Heyman at the hall until at least ten tonight.
“It’s a big project. There are thousands of exhibitor tags,” Ms. Neubert said. Once all is set up and strung, the judges’ books will be printed so each team of judges can be ready to sample brownies or critique photographs, whatever their assignment may be.
Tomorrow afternoon between noon and five, all the junior entries and adult perishables will be dropped off at the hall. Adult perishables can be submitted then as well, or between 7 and 8:45 Thursday morning. Although the fair opens Thursday at ten, the hall will not open to the public until every last item is sampled and every piece of art judged.
When asked about entries, Ms. Heywood said numbers were consistent with last year. “It’s similar to previous years at this time,” she said.
Early trends seem to indicate it is a year for tomatoes and quilts. “We have a lot of tomatoes — all kinds — cherry, regular. And there are a lot of quilts.” Other trends will not become apparent until the last entry comes in. “It’s hard to tell at this point because people are probably still looking at their gardens and seeing what will be perfect for Wednesday or Thursday morning,” Ms. Neubert said.
Amid the old, there is plenty new at the fair this year. There will be a bone marrow drive on the grounds and the West Tisbury police department will be giving away over 70 bicycle helmets for adults and children while encouraging donations to the Island Food Pantry. For the first time, brightly colored recycling bins, a project spearheaded by the Vineyard Conservation Society, will be scattered throughout the grounds to collect bottles, cans, paper and plastic. Earlier this year, the society helped outfit the Steamship Authority ferries and terminals with bins made from recycled milk bottles. “It’s a major accomplishment,” said society communications coordinator Kaysea Cole. “Our goal is to have all the towns recycling so we are looking for big venues where a lot of waste is generated, but not a lot is recycled.” She continued: “The Agricultural Hall seemed like a natural partner for recycling. They obviously care about recycling and the environment and the whole living local sentiment.”
Entertainment will also bring something new. Local musician Brad Tucker has arranged for different Island groups to perform during the evenings (the lineup has not yet been announced) and a Zydeco band will take the stage Friday at three. Old favorites like the Sting Rays and the strolling Blue Hills Brass Quintet will be around as well.
It is these old favorites that keep Ms. Neubert and fairgoers returning to West Tisbury year after year. The fiber tent will be out back and busy with weaving and spinning demonstrations. Thursday brings the ox show, Friday the clam and oyster shucking contest. On Saturday morning, the antique tractor pull will take place behind the pulling ring at ten and at noon, the 32nd annual woodsmen’s contest will begin. On Sunday at three, the women will throw their skillets. “We don’t try for new,” Ms. Neubert said from the hall on Panhandle Road. “We try for consistency, for keeping it an old-fashioned country fair.”
The 147th annual Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday until 7 p.m. On Friday from 6 to 10 p.m., buy a wristband for unlimited amusement rides. Admission to the fair is $8; $5 for seniors and youth ages five to 12. Children under five are free. The price of admission goes to the society, which awards annual grants to Island farmers and gives scholarships to Island high school and college students. The society also uses the money to maintain the buildings and fairgrounds. For further details, call 508-693-9549.