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2003 Fair Poster


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Barbara and Mort Mather
Mort Mather and his wife, Barbara, at their home. Photo courtesy of Scott Supak.

By Mort Mather

I settle into the seat of the old green Chevy pickup with a sigh – my first deep breath of the week; well, of the day, at least. The seat, held together by a Sears seat cover, feels wonderful. I couldn’t feel more relaxed if I were settling into the seat of a limousine that someone else was going to drive.

I always get this relaxed feeling when I get in a vehicle to go somewhere. Encapsulated in the vehicle, nothing needs to be done or, realistically, can be done until the vehicle reaches its destination. I just settle back and drive.

On this day, the third Thursday of September, the preparation for the trip is most intense. As we pull away from the farm, I think that someone ought to be taking a picture of the truck. The most prominent feature of the load is a 12-foot pole angled from the back of the truck up over the cab. The rest of the load is a jumble of wheelbarrows, bushel baskets, shovels and pitch forks, crates of vegetables covered with wet burlap, six bales of hay and other stuff that is indistinguishable in the load. We’re off to the Fair!

The key to being able to settle back and relax is lists – a list for the Tipsy Ladder, a list for the Harry S. Truman Manure Pitching Contest, a list for camping for three nights and a list for vegetable and dessert deliveries to make along the way. Each list was originally compiled by thinking through each activity from beginning to end. So many lists, it’s a wonder I didn’t have a list of lists!

First Fair Enchantment

One might wonder how I got myself into this very busy weekend. It started with Chaitanya York and the other wonderful people who conceived, planned and pulled off the first Common Ground Country Fair at the Litchfield Fairground. Our family attended just one day, and we were enchanted. Caitlin was in a backpack. Josh, at three-and-a-half, was in a stroller.

After that first fair I, as chair of the York County Chapter of MOFGA, suggested to the chapter that we come up with a concession to make money for our activities. Someone suggested a rope ladder they had seen that was at a 45-degree angle with a single pivot point at each end. The object was to try to climb the ladder without being flipped upside down onto a pile of hay. Someone in the chapter constructed it, and the Tipsy Ladder joined Common Ground the second year.

That year the chapter members took turns at the ladder. I filled in the gaps. My wife, Barbara, who was writing “Spoons and Spiders,” a cooking column for The MOF&G, was busy judging some of the food competitions. I can’t imagine it now and am embarrassed to say it, but I think our son, or rather our loose supervision of him, may have been the impetus for the children’s area. More than once someone announced over the public address system, “Will the parents of a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy in Oshkosh overalls please come to the Fair office.” We were embarrassed, but the feeling of being among people of good will enabled us to relax our guard. That feeling is still an important part of the Fair for me.

The list for the Tipsy Ladder includes the long pole, two 4-foot logs that get buried to anchor the ladder, the ladder, a post hole digger, a spade, a come-along to tighten the ladder, a cable, a length of chain … I think that’s it. Oh, and the six bales of hay to soften the contestants’ fall, a horn to honk at the top when contestants don’t fall and prizes for completing the climb—only about half a dozen needed. Every time I put a period at the end of the list, I think of something else: a “TIPSY LADDER 25 CENTS” sign.

Manure Toss – The First Fling at Litchfield

I’m not sure whether I came up with the idea for the manure pitch for the next year or the year after, but the first one was held at Litchfield also. I thought it would be a good way to promote the Fair. I won’t go into the details of the manure pitch except to give a much deserved plug to Yerxa’s in South Portland. I just walked in and asked for a donation of something I could give as a prize for contest winners. I described the event and was asked what I wanted. I walked out with a wheelbarrow, pitchforks and shovels. This was a wonderful response for my first attempt at seeking donations, since I had expected to have to make many stops to gather enough prizes.

By the time the Fair moved to Windsor, I was doing the Tipsy Ladder solo. Large sheets of black plastic had to be added to the manure pitch list, because the manure had to be picked up after being spread. (What a waste of effort!)

We were also selling organic vegetables to restaurants and natural food stores between Wells and Portland along the way, and we sold fudge pie and maple walnut pie to restaurants. The maple walnut pies had all natural ingredients. We won’t get into the fudge pies other than to say that they were sinfully good and the wages of sin kept us afloat.

So there we were with a truck load that looked something like the Beverly Hillbillies. Pulling out of our dooryard, I had to look around boxes of pies on the seat to see Josh strapped in with his feet on another box full of pies. It was beautiful. We would make deliveries in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, Biddeford and Portland, after which the cab of the truck would belong just to Josh and me; then we were off to Windsor. Barbara and Caitlin would come up the next morning.

Upon arrival we would check in and find out where the Tipsy Ladder was to be located. If we had vegetables to donate for the volunteer kitchen, they got delivered next. Then we unloaded the ladder and bales, dug the necessary hole and trenches and put up the ladder. By this time the sun was setting. The next job was to set up the tent, eat and sleep the sleep of the dead.

A Grubby Hand, a Weird Hat and the Governor

I have many fond memories of the fair. There was the year I met Governor Brennan. I was president of MOFGA and Bill Whitman was Fair director. We were summoned to the front gate because the governor was there and wanted to meet us. I was grubby from all my activities of the day. The governor’s hand was so clean and white compared with mine. Bill always wore a very weird hat. What a welcoming committee we made for the governor, his entourage and the press!

My only anxious memory is of the evening we lost Caitlin. Josh and Cait were among the children of Fair volunteers and vendors who owned the place. They roamed freely, and we parents were comfortable with the situation because it was a safe place. The Tipsy Ladder was our home base. I spent most of the day there, with Barbara checking in to relieve me occasionally or to bring me food. Josh and Cait would come by between adventures to download experiences or rest a bit. This particular time we had not seen Caitlin for a while. She was only five or six, but still we weren’t worried. Then the sun was setting. It was time to shut down the ladder and eat dinner. Barbara was approaching a frantic state as we recruited friends to help look for her while one of us stayed with the ladder anticipating her return.

She wasn’t lost. She was helping the popcorn lady. The popcorn lady asked where her parents were and shouldn’t she go to them. “It’s fine,” Caitlin said. “They’re right over there.” She had us in sight all the time. We just didn’t look closely at the place where she was, and she didn’t realize that we were looking for her.

Three favorite memories of the fair date back to the first manure pitching contest in Litchfield. That year the manure pitch included events that had to be judged. For the farmers’ spread, a dozen or so pickup trucks had to be corralled, filled with manure and sent to a field that was lined out with 50' by 60' rectangles. Each contestant had to spread the load as evenly as possible over the rectangle. We also had a gardeners’ spread (a wheelbarrow load spread over a smaller rectangle), a throw for distance and accuracy, and the basket pitch. All contestants that first year had to have qualified at a previous event.

The contest was a pretty big deal. Winners of each event got medals, and the overall winner got a small manure spreader that I promoted from a company in Wisconsin. One of my favorite memories was the scene when the starter’s gun was fired for the farmers’ spread, and manure started flying from the backs of all those trucks. Another is of the winners of the contest standing in the manure spreader with their medals around their necks (it was an Olympic year).

The third related memory was told to me afterward and has stayed with me because it expresses my own feelings about the best-fair-in-the-world. I recruited Betty Syvinsky, the head extension agent in York County, to be a judge. She told me that when she was leaving the fairground, she saw a good pair of sunglasses someone had dropped. She was tired, and if it had been a normal day or any other fair, she would have kept going, especially since she was near the parking area and far from the Fair headquarters. But spending the day surrounded by people of good will had been so uplifting that she was compelled to take the glasses to lost and found.

My number one reason for going to Common Ground Country Fair is to be surrounded by people of good will. It charges my battery every year.

About the author: Mort Mather is a past president of MOFGA. His “home base” at the Fair this year will be the Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), table in the Agricultural Demonstrations area. He administers a grant program for CEI called Farms for the Future that provides business planning help and cash grants to farmers in Maine.


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