Hottest Fair in History Wins Cheers from Public

Sweltering Weather Drops Attendance to 25,000 Visitors


Two days after the close of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Livestock Show and Fair, the blue reentry stamp still won't quite wash off. The ink's durability through sweat and swim and shower is pretty amazing - and a bit frustrating - but ultimately a good thing. Most everyone left and returned, and that stamp was their ticket back in.

Attacking this year's fair in bits and pieces was more than strategy; it was necessity. Partly because there was so much to see and do, but also because the heat just wouldn't quit. More than a few hours in the sun and one's energy was sapped. The shade offered little relief, drinking water only a temporary solution; better to go home, recharge and then return.

"It was hotter than I can remember, and for such a long stretch," said fair manager Eleanor Neubert. Considering the heat, which topped 90 degrees over the four-day fair, Ms. Neubert said she was surprised as many people came through as did - about 25,000. "Everything moved a little more slowly," she said, "but it was still one of the smoothest-running fairs."

The heat even seemed to take something out of the animals, who were mostly quiet in their barn stalls. Only the roosters and geese squawked back and forth at each other. The cows and miniature ponies remained docile as passersby stopped to admire and pet them. Four prone sheep were enticed to their gate by offerings of hay from two little boys. They laughed as the sheep jockeyed for position, one even standing on his hind legs to outmaneuver the others.

A few stalls down, Susie Schwoch leaned over the rail as Dave Schwoch sat between their two Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. "I'm keeping the peace," Mr. Schwoch said. "Every time I step out, one of ‘em goes after the other." Hard to believe, to look at the pigs: one on her side, the other on his stomach, conked out and oblivious to the world.

"I'd always wanted a pig, ever since I was a kid at the fair," said Mrs. Schwoch, an Island native. "They're just like having a dog. They lay around the house quite a bit, beg for food. They'll even jump up on your lap if you let them. They don't know tricks yet, but I know they'd learn."

Even without tricks, the pigs earned blue ribbons, which the Schwochs posted proudly beside the stall.

The animals weren't only in the barn: Dogs were in the ring for best of breeds and obedience competition, sheep were on hand for shearing and horses were out for an equestrian demonstration. Summer resident Cynthia Oakes sat ringside on the grass with friend Susan Austrian. She stood after a moment: "I'm just recovering from a ride," she said with a laugh.

Ms. Austrian kept her eyes trained on the horses: "I'd watch them the whole time if I could," she said. "The kids can do the rides. That's one of the nice things, there's so much for so many different ages. And the kids can really be independent."

"But the animals are nice for the kids, too," Ms. Oakes added. "It's nice for city kids like ours to see animals. And the people who have them are so friendly and tireless. They don't mind answering the same questions zillions of times."

That kind of scene played out inside a nearby tent, where yet another demonstration was going on with alpacas, llamas and Angora goats. They were part of an exhibit showcasing older crafts such as spinning and weaving.

Harriet Bechtold and Rick Hamilton were at the spinning wheel, pumping the foot pedal and turning wool to thread. "We love to share what we do, and that's really what this is," Mr. Hamilton said. "We don't usually do this in the summer," he said, fanning his red face. "It's more of a November and a winter thing. But for four days it's fun, and people enjoy it."

A few feet away Tom Vogl invited people to try their hand at weaving. "I call this my string-tangling machine," he said. He patiently sat to one side as he explained the workings of the loom. At first it was difficult to coordinate movement with instruction - pedals pushed when a handle should have been pulled - and forget about passing the shuttle smoothly across the surface of all that thread, it just got caught between strands. After a while something of a rhythm developed, as well as an appreciation for the practice of such an intricate craft.

Besides the ongoing attractions, there were the scheduled events that brought the crowds to the metal bleachers by the main ring. Saturday afternoon saw the 26th annual woodsmen's contest. Some onlookers tried to stay cool by watching from the shade of the trees; others hung over the fence for the best vantage point.

Competing woodsmen revved chainsaws like car engines, and the contest got under way with a roar as the first of three chainsaw events began. In three clean cuts - down, up, down - they sawed off blocks of wood as easily and quickly as if they were soft butter. Between events, the woodsmen gathered under tents in the far corner of the ring. They changed shoes and outerwear, tested blades and took practice swings of the axe. This was serious stuff, with points won at the Island competition going toward the distinction of Massachusetts Woodsman of the Year.

On Sunday afternoon, a more motley crew gathered in that same corner. These were the women of the skillet throw, and they were out for nothing but a good time. In their spandex and shorts, visors and wide-brimmed straw hats, they chatted and laughed and cheered for their fellow competitors. Egged on by their children, some raced to enter on the spur of the moment, only to find that registration had closed at noon.

Preschool teachers Jane Joyce and Ann Magnesio were raring to go. "We get together and do crazy things," Ms. Magnesio said by way of explaining her entry in the contest.

They admitted to a bit of preparation, but also that their practicing was cut short in no time: "We threw a skillet, once, twice," said Ms. Joyce. "But then the handle broke, and that was the end of that."

"Yeah, we don't really have any technique," added Ms. Magnesio. "We'll just throw - and hopefully no one will get hurt."

It was clear, however, that not everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. With a few underhand swings and steps forward for momentum, some sent the three-pound, 11-ounce skillet sailing well over 40 feet. The crowd showed their appreciation with generous applause after each throw, no matter the distance. Cambridge visitor Karen Pratt said with a laugh, "Women have been slinging the skillet around the kitchen for a long time. It's nice to see them do it outdoors."

Considering the entire fair, she said: "It's such a wonderful integration of so many kinds of people enjoying the same delicious experience." She thought for a moment, then added, "When you go to the beach and the stores, you don't think of this as a place where people live. But seeing all the exhibits, you're reminded that this is a real community.

"We're just here for the weekend," she said, "but we timed it perfectly. If you're gonna be here for just one, this is it."