In some circles, saying that someone does a fair job is not a great compliment.
But this time of year, in rural towns all over Maine, it’s one of the most important things you can say about a person.
Think about it. If you are a yearly attendee of a fair, you likely see the same faces every year. People in all corners of the fairgrounds doing all the little things, and big things, that ensure a great time for thousands of folks.
There are goat superintendents (a real job) to make sure the goat barns are ready for visitors. There are 4-H leaders who cook breakfast at 5 a.m. for all those kids who bring their animals to the fair. There are folks who lend their talented taste buds to judging pies or breads or cakes. And there are those generous gardeners who thrill us all by growing 800-pound pumpkins for us to gawk at. There are the people who show you where to park, the people who keep the fair clean, the food sellers, the rider operators, the announcers, the crafters, the sheep dog trainers, and dozens of other folks.
Maine’s fair season gears up this week with two biggies. The Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, run by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, will run Friday through Sunday. The Cumberland County Fair in Cumberland, known for its giant pumpkins and pig races, will run Sunday through Oct. 3.
Maine’s fair season will close out with the Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg, Oct. 4 through 11.
No matter what fair you go to this year, make sure to look at the faces of the people working so hard to make the experience unique and memorable.
Here’s a guide to just a few of the faces you’ll see.
Bill and Carolyn Verrill, 66 and 70, of North Yarmouth, food contest judges.
WHERE TO SEE THEM: At the Cumberland County Fair, at cooking competitions in various categories.
HOW THEY GOT STARTED: Carolyn was asked to judge first, more than 40 years ago, after entering her own baked goods for several years. “One day one of the judges didn’t show up and they asked her,” said Bill. Carolyn has been a home economics teacher and caterer, while Bill was director of food services for Portland’s schools.
WHAT IT TAKES TO DO THE JOB: “A light breakfast and no lunch,” says Bill. The judging is usually done in one day, so the couple may have to sample dozens of breads, brownies, pies and other foods between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on judging day. The Verrills take very small bites and spend a good deal of time looking at the food as well, studying the texture and giving each item a good sniff to sample the aroma. “We don’t leave stuffed,” Bill said.
WHY THEY KEEP COMING BACK: They both love to cook and love to see what others can come up with in their own kitchens. They also enjoy helping cooks. Some winners at the Cumberland County Fair may go on to larger contests, and the Verrills like to think that some of their advice will help those contesters go far.
Steve Aucoin, 64, of Litchfield, runs Steve’s French Fries, as well as a lemonade booth and a fried dough booth.
WHERE TO SEE HIM: Fryeburg Fair, in any one of his family’s food booths, usually working alongside his wife, Kathy.
HOW HE GOT STARTED: Aucoin was studying accounting in college, circa 1973, when he began working in the family business: fair food. His father and grandfather both sold food at Maine fairs, dating back to at least the 1940s.
WHAT IT TAKES TO DO THE JOB: The biggest challenge is moving all the equipment and setting it up, Aucoin says. He and his family travel to 25 or 30 events each year with a motor home, two travel trailers, two stock trucks that carry the concession trailers, plus myriad food and supplies. Preparing the food itself is the easier part, Aucoin says, though most of us wouldn’t relish peeling and slicing potatoes for eight hours at a time. “We peel and slice them by hand, but it’s not that bad. If it’s busy we have one person do just that, but if it’s slow we take turns.”
WHY HE KEEPS COMING BACK: He likes working outside, in picturesque settings, with his family at his side. Plus, he says, “You know when it’s going to end.”
John Chandler, 72, of Cumberland, retired insurance agent and avid pumpkin grower.
WHERE TO SEE HIM: At the Cumberland Fair Pumpkin Contest’s weigh-in and judging, 11 a.m. Sunday.
HOW HE GOT STARTED: He’s always been a gardener, but about ten years ago a friend said, “Why don’t you try giant pumpkins. I’ll give you a seedling.” His first one got to 400 pounds, so he brought it to the fair, and has kept coming back ever since.
WHAT IT TAKES TO DO THE JOB: Chandler starts growing his pumpkins in spring, indoors. Then in late May he digs a big hole in the ground at a nearby farm and fills it with manure, compost, fish, seaweed and other nutrients. Once he plants the seedling outdoors, he props up boards around it to protect it from the wind. He says there’s enough to do growing a pumpkin that he could spend an hour a day on pumpkin chores. “You could marry the thing if you want.” When it’s time to bring the giant pumpkin to the fair, he finds “four of the biggest, youngest friends I have” to lift the pumpkin, using a tarp, onto a pallet. Then he has to get someone with a forklift to lift the pallet onto a pickup truck.
WHY HE KEEPS COMING BACK: “I have a lot of fun doing it,” says Chandler, whose pumpkin this year will likely be 600 pounds or more. Once, a local TV station did a feature on him. “I get more notoriety from this than I probably deserve.”
Paul Hopkins, 65, of West Baldwin, Goat Superintendent at Fryeburg Fair, whose day job involves working with adults with developmental challenges at Spurwink Services.
WHERE TO SEE HIM: In the goat barn at Fryeburg Fair, and at the fair’s Dairy Goat Show on Oct. 5.
HOW HE GOT STARTED: He and his wife, Marilyn, used to raise goats and started going to the fair with the goats around 1983. He was asked to be superintendent in the late 1990s, with his wife serving as assistant superintendent.
WHAT IT TAKES TO DO THE JOB: Planning the housing for some 100 or more goats, and organizing and announcing the goat show. Hopkins says he tries to announce the show in an informative manner, so non-goat people know what’s going on. “Animal shows can be mystifying for the uninitiated, so I let them know what the judges are looking for, how the structure of the animal lends itself to longevity and milk production. They can tell a lot about the mammary capacity and how well the udder is attached. It gets pretty technical.”
WHY HE KEEPS COMING BACK: The “tremendous number of friends” he’s made during years of fair-going. He especially likes working at the Fryeburg Fair because “it’s the last big thing before all go hunker down for the winter.”
David Smith, 49, of Gorham, proprietor of Breezy Knoll Farm and 4-H leader.
WHERE TO SEE HIM: All over the barns at both Cumberland and Fryeburg.
HOW HE GOT STARTED: His three children all raised animals in 4-H programs. Twenty years later, his kids are grown but Smith is still helping other kids raise cows and sheep and get them to the fair.
WHAT IT TAKES TO DO THE JOB: In Smith’s case, it’s taken a sizable investment of money. He has a barn full of animals, many of which he leases to 4-H kids. To transport the animals he recently spent $12,000 on a used livestock trailer. During fair weeks, he is often at the fair before dawn and after sunset, so he bought a used camper about ten years ago, for $7,000 to simplify the logistics. Besides cooking breakfast for his 4-H kids, something they all enjoy (and he is well-known for), he works in the stalls with the kids and their animals to make sure they all get to their appointed competitions, and have fun.
WHY HE KEEPS COMING BACK: “I really like being able to see the kids, how they progress. I had one girl who had been in competitive cheerleading. She had never done anything like this. To see her confidence grow… It just feels good to be doing something for kids.”