Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Fair: Like It Or Not

Everybody knows when it’s Fryeburg Fair week. You can’t live in western Maine with being affected. Everyone’s routine changes because, even if you never go to the fair, you have to plan on leaving earlier to get someplace if you’re going anywhere near Fryeburg village. A week earlier, all the highways leading into western Maine are filled with unusual-looking vehicles carrying fried dough stands and carnival rides. Seeing all this strange-looking cargo, school kids get keyed up and by the time the fair opens, they’re wired. Some work there, especially if their parents run a small business and depend on the income they earn in a booth during that frenetic week. Some park cars for property-owners near the fairgrounds. Others just go and hang out there every day. Whatever their reasons, a lot of school kids are tired or wired, or both. Others are just absent.

When my children were young, I took them to the fair. Money was tight in those days and I had to say no to them often. If I had to pay at the entrance I don’t think I could have afforded it, but I usually knew someone who worked there and would let us in free. I couldn’t pay for them to go on the rides until the last night when bracelets were sold for about $5 or $10 apiece, allowing them to ride them all until closing time. I’d buy a bracelet for myself too and we’d all be pretty tired when we got home. By the time my kids were teenagers, however, they wouldn’t want to be seen with parents in a public place like that, so my duty was to drop them off and pick them up. Once they got old enough to drive themselves to the fair, I stopped going altogether.

There’s one thing at the Fryeburg Fair I’ve never seen, however, and would really like to, and that’s Woodsman’s Day. For about twenty-five years, I cut wood from my family’s wood lot in West Lovell and from my own property here on Christian Hill. I’d work up at least seven or eight cords every year until my life got so busy with other jobs that I heat with oil now. Back in those days I was interested in tractors and chain saws and trucks and I wanted to watch the guys who were really good at it show off their skills. Woodsman’s Day is held on the Monday of fair week when school is in session. I couldn’t call in sick and show up at the fair because too many people knew me. Guess I’ll have to wait until I retire from teaching before I can finally go.

When my own and the area kids went off to college and it wasn’t too far away, their first visit back home was usually during the long Columbus Day weekend - which was also fair week. It became almost obligatory for the new freshmen to flash their faces and meet old friends at the Fryeburg Fair. After a few more years, grandchildren started coming along. My first grandson wasn’t quite a year old when his mother and his two aunts wanted to be present for his first fair experience as he was pushed around in a stroller. It became a rite of passage to watch the first member of the newest generation to experience his first Fryeburg Fair. He’ll never remember it of course, but my daughters will, and we have the pictures.

Though I hadn’t attended for five years or so, I returned to the fair this year with my now seven-year-old grandson. It was fun to follow a boy his age around the grounds and see it all through his eyes. Though my legs got tired faster than his did, his enthusiasm was a balm for this late-middle-aged columnist as we checked out rides, gaming booths, food stands, animal barns, and grown-up toys like ATVs, snowmobiles and trucks. What he seemed to like most was the sheep dog competition.

Fairs have a long history going back several centuries - to middle-age Europe at least where they were important social, political and economic events. In Old England, fairs were commissioned by the king and lots of wealth changed hands just as it does today. Our local fair shows no signs of waning early in the twenty-first century either. Like it or not, we’re all going to have to enjoy it or endure it every year for the foreseeable future.

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