For our very first installment of MOFGA Stories, the theme is the Common Ground Country Fair. What follows is a collection of stories from MOFGA members, staff, volunteers and fairgoers.
My favorite memory of the Fair is not so much a specific incident but rather a feeling. It’s a rhythmic sense of contentment and connectedness that washes over me every time I attend the Fair. It’s the crisp fall air filled with wood smoke, hot oil and the aroma of Sweet Annie. It’s the beat of the music and the sound of the speakers’ voices. It’s the familiar faces of people I’ve never met before but somehow feel I know. These aren’t strangers. These are my people. I feel it with every breath and every step. I remember being at the first Fair in Litchfield where my parents sold produce from our small, organic farm, and I flitted among the nearby booths and displays feeling like there was so much to see and explore. I was only 4 that first year. I also remember from the Litchfield days a children’s maze marked out with bailing twine and buying small, colored glass pebbles. In recent years, my Fair visits have been influenced by my young son, and I’ve now spent many happy hours at the Fair watching children line up and then launch themselves off the hay bale, pound nails into boards and make nature-themed crafts. And once I leave the Fair, it continues to swirl in my thoughts. I think of the Common Ground Fair every time I see the posters displayed, spot someone wearing a Fair T-shirt or hang my Christmas tree ornaments, many of which have been purchased from artists at the Fair. Each sight reminds me of all the happy times I’ve spent at the Fair over the years. And each reminder makes that rhythmic beat, that feeling of connection come alive again for a brief moment. It’s the feeling of being home. It’s the feeling of Common Ground.
• Avery Yale Kamila
One of the highlights of my times at the Fair was in 2003 when I was lucky enough to be able to introduce Juvelina Palmer, who was a small farmer and community organizer from El Salvador. The MOFGA-El Salvador Sistering Committee brought a group of organizers and farmers from El Salvador to Maine. MOFGA has an ongoing relationship with two organizations in El Salvador. They’re doing the same kind of work that we’re doing. It reminds us that organic is more than just Maine. It’s an important international activity, and we like to support small farmers around the world. Russ Libby, my wife Karen, and I had this kind of formula. We said we wanted to eat 80% of food that was grown locally, organically by our friends. The other 20% we would like to buy from small farmers who were doing the same thing that we’re doing around the world – so that we could get our chocolate and coffee fixes. It could be satisfying that way. A lot of times when I think back over the years of the Common Ground Country Fair, I think of the disasters – Hurricane Hugo and the year we had four inches of rain overnight. We spent that Saturday morning filling holes and pumping ponds where there were supposed to be roads, but the Fair still opened – though a little bit late. Those are not the real highlights. They stick in your head because you really had to work hard to make it happen, but the real highlights are what happens right on the fairgrounds and year-round at MOFGA.
• Paul Volckhausen
The Common Ground Country Fair has become a yearly ritual for me, since I first participated in the Social & Political Action Area 10 years ago as a Peace Action Maine board member. I enjoyed meeting thousands of people while helping Peace Action and also selling my line of peace T-shirts. I have had the pleasure of having several generations of customers from the same family and watching their children grow over the years. I feel the same way about the Fair that some of my customers feel about my T-shirts. My experience is just another reflection of the fact that “Common Grounders” have the aura of one big family. Once you experience this healthy and hopeful aura, you don’t want to take it off. I love the warm voices crackling over the announcement speaker greeting the new day, vendors and visitors each morning. I love the smell of warm shiitake mushrooms waking up my nose along with the scent of coffee. There is an overabundance of things to love about the Fair. They can be distilled into something I have been telling people each year at the Fair. I half-jokingly say, “We should all just stay at the fairgrounds and form an ideal community.” With the pandemic having dramatically altered Common Ground this year, I believe the principles that MOFGA stands for are more critical than ever.
• Stephen Oliver
I love working with the people at MOFGA and at the Common Ground Fair. I got connected with the Common Ground Country Store as a volunteer. I received the T-shirts and kept track of that. There’s so much involved with making sure everything arrives by the time the Fair begins. The new T-shirt design is picked before the Fair happens, so it really is a year-round process. It was interesting to be around and see that. Before I started volunteering, when I was attending the Fair, I just assumed the Fair happened and that people started getting ready a couple of weeks before. I realized how much work goes into it and how much it’s grown. MOFGA is so important to the state – especially at this time – because of the things it provides. MOFGA’s programs show how important it is to have local access to food and also encourage providing food for people in need. Right now, there are more and more people who need help with food security. I’m not online and I get some letters, but I haven’t been able to participate in the Fair this year. I miss seeing all the people, and I miss the vendors that I visit each year. It was very disorienting for it to be August and September and to not be helping out with MOFGA. The Fair is a chance for everybody to come together.
• Sylvia Smith
Stockton Springs, Maine
The first time I went to the Fair was in ’79 or ’78. Mort Mather, who was a deeply involved member and founder of a lot of wonderful things at MOFGA, was running a station with an old carnival setup called a tippy ladder. It was a rope ladder with a swivel on each end, suspended between a stake in the ground and a screw eye in a cedar post about 7 feet off the ground. Above that was a bell. Underneath there was a big pile of sawdust or shavings, and you gave him a quarter to try and climb up and a ring the bell. This, and the rest of the Fair, was how MOFGA was making money to pay for its early organizational development. What better way to raise money then to have a big fair, have a big party? I considered myself pretty agile – a tree-climbing kind of kid – and I thought, “I’ll go right up there and ring that bell.” But I fell right off! Not only did I fall off a couple of times, but I fell off until I was pretty much out of quarters. Right when I was about to leave with an empty pocket, a girl came along and zipped right up that ladder and rang the bell. And I thought, “Oh, man! I’m going to do this!” So I went and borrowed a few more quarters from my brother, begged a few more from my stepmother and headed back to try again. When I came back I saw that the girl was talking to her dad, Mort Mather! She knew how to do it! And I don’t know whether it was just knowing that somebody else could do it or that maybe there was a trick to it, but I did – about $1.75 later – manage to ring the bell. It was a good exercise in that I would have likely given up if somebody didn’t show me that it could be done. I think that’s something that the Fair does. Whether it’s, “Wow, I’ve never seen a dog that could make sheep do that,” or “Did you see what that little girl and that team of oxen were able to do?” The Fair opens up your imagination and your confidence.
• Eli Berry
I’ve been farming in Maine since 1981. I actually moved back to the East Coast around that time and came to the 1981 Common Ground Fair, which was held in Windsor. It was MOFGA’s first year in Windsor. I have been so involved with MOFGA ever since: I was on the board of directors, part of the Fair and now I’m on the staff. The Fair has just grown incredibly. I remember the Unity site was a giant cornfield the year that we surveyed it. The year before we’d had immense rains and the fairgrounds were flooded at Windsor, where we were holding the Fair at the time. We were really concerned that we had a site that would drain well, and we were driving around in the back of the truck, kind of looking over the top of the corn, trying to get some idea of the lay of the land. And one thing we did notice is: it was dry, and that was the biggest thing we were looking at for at the time. It was a little hard to tell what the grounds were going to look like, but they’ve evolved dramatically since that period of time. The plantings that are here now – the trees, the various gardens and the Maine Heritage Orchard – show incredible growth here.
• Dave Colson
My wife and I built a straw bale home in 2007, and we met our builder at the Fair in the Energy and Shelter Area. That was a really great experience. We developed a design/build relationship with the builder and his team. The Fair provided a great opportunity for us to connect – we would have likely not met the builder and moved forward with the project if we hadn’t had that experience at the Fair. One of the great things about meeting our builder at the Fair was that in future years, once we built the house and moved closer to Unity, we would come back to the Fair and go to the builder’s booth and see pictures of our house displayed as a project that they’d worked on. It’s just a great example of meeting somebody at the Fair, seeding an idea, thinking it through and then having an opportunity to follow it through. I can say with firsthand experience that straw bale houses are amazing because of their utilization of thermal mass. Their thick walls, which use an agricultural byproduct for insulation, really help to keep energy costs down.
• Chris Grigsby
My favorite volunteer gig for the Fair is what I call “the Rose Gate Wrangler.” I got up very early: When the sheep bells started ringing really loud and the rooster started crowing, I knew it was time to get out of bed. And I’d get out of my tent and I’d walk down to the Rose Gate. From about 5:30 to 6 o’clock on, I was there to make sure that the people coming onto the fairgrounds before the Fair opened were there to work and that they had a pass of some kind. The people who made the Fair happen needed the space and time to do that. There were vehicles running around. There would be cursing going on … it’s like backstage. And somebody, meaning me in this particular situation, had to find a way to convince the early-arriving fairgoers that it’s really ok for them to wait. And sometimes it’s pouring rain. I found myself wanting to find creative ways to let them know that the Fair was coming together just for them and, if they’d only be patient, it would be an awesome day. It was really fun to do that – I was like a rodeo clown. At 9 o’clock we moved the gates around so people could come in and I’d go walking down this long line of people that stretched from the Rose Gate to Crosby Brook Road and say, “Welcome to Common Ground Country Fair.” It felt like such a wonderful job to be able to be the first face people saw, saying, “Come on in.”
• Shlomit Auciello