“When the udder is nicely attached like this, that’s good,” explained the pretty, blue-eyed member of the 4-H goat program. Then she moved gracefully over to another goat in the small pen and swung her hand to its underside to demonstrate a dangling udder, pointing out, “Not like this.”
What makes an award-winning goat was what had piqued my curiosity as I wandered among the livestock shows at the Blue Hill Fair, which was celebrating 100 years of 4-H in Maine. In addition to these exhibits, which highlight the skills of 4-H members in animal husbandry, the fair draws over 30,000 locals and visitors each year to flower and vegetable shows, midway rides, special events, and entertainment. It has run continuously since 1891 and, in fact, was the fair that provided E. B. White’s imagination with the details for Wilbur’s competition, Fern’s Ferris wheel ride, Templeton’s foraging, and, of course, Charlotte’s web. Along with other Maine fairs, including the granddaddy of them all, the Fryeburg Fair, which takes place September 29th through October 6th this year and draws ten times the audience, it is an important part of Maine’s agricultural heritage and a great thing to do on a vacation to Maine in early fall.
A couple of days before we went to the Blue Hill Fair I read Charlotte’s Web. Like a magical travel brochure, it lit my anticipation to go back in time to an old-fashioned country fair. But, when we finally got around to going on Sunday afternoon, my spirits dipped. The Open Sheep Dog Trials were over, and the Farmers Ox Pull had come and gone. But the sun was shining, and crowds gathered casually around the barns to witness young 4-H members exhibit the skills they’d mastered in agriculture, community involvement, and leadership. “There’s no place like a country fair for the youth of 4-H to showcase their skills,” I read in the program, and my enthusiasm built as I chatted with the girls about their Nubians, LaManchas, and Alpines. (LaManchas are the ones with such tiny ears that they appear to have none at all.)
After applauding the rescued dogs who demonstrated their Frisbee-catching skills in the “Disc-Connected K9 Show,” we headed toward the grandstand to view the 3600 Horse Pull. This was a contest to see how far teams of two weighing no more than 3600 pounds could pull a sled of weights in five minutes. Here the crowd watched intensely, politely but firmly asking those standing in front to sit down.
Heading back to the barns, I ogled accomplishments of those who had grown everything from sunflowers to peppers to tomatoes to squash. I watched an old gentleman demonstrating how to cane a chair. “It’s a lot of work, but you feel good to see it when it’s done,” he said.
Finally, it was time to find a seat in the packed grandstand to watch more than 100 women compete in the much-anticipated Women’s Skillet Toss. The announcer’s voice boomed that “The World’s Women” were invited to the Intercontinental and Greater Hancock County Women’s Skillet Toss Championship, and representatives from Maine, New York, California, New Hampshire, and Florida filed in to compete in the Kittens and Cougars classes.
The contestants hurled cast iron skillets down a center line, suffering deductions when the skillet went off course. Stacy Connor of Dedham, Maine, who won last year with a throw of 80 feet, 6 inches, demonstrated her dominance again this year, although her footage declined to 57 feet, 9 inches. (I think she herself got a little “thrown off,” when her first toss in the final round flew over the fence and, as the crowd ducked and gasped, hit the announcer’s stand.
It was time to go home. I hadn’t thought about 4-H in a long time. I had lived in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York since my childhood years in Massachusetts, when I sewed aprons and pin cushions in 4-H. I remembered the pledge that encapsulates the four H’s—head, heart, hands, health—and thought that, at least on this sunny afternoon at a country fair in Maine, they all added up to a fifth: happiness.