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What's a Fair Without Oxen?

August 27, 2022

Fair-goer Ariel sat on Curious Bleu, a Scottish Highlander, at the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair. We were enchanted by the island and Bleu enchanted fair visitors with his calm and easy-going nature.

After months of preparation and a three-hour drive to Woods Hole, Mass., we finally drove our truck and trailer, with four bovines and one donkey, onto the ferry for a 45-minute boat ride to Martha's Vineyard for its 160th Agricultural Fair. This year farm helpers Diane Hersey and Maggie Harrington joined us to help clean stalls, brush animals, and tour the island.

Once aboard, we climbed the stairs to the upper deck, where cool ocean breezes carried away thoughts of the oppressive heat and unfinished chores left behind in New Hampshire. Curious Bleu, our 1,600-pound Scottish Highlander steer, would have liked the view from the deck, but I'm not sure he'd do so well on the stairs. Besides, he probably would have added emphasis to the term "poop deck." So he and his mates, Scottish Highlanders June, Bear, Daffney, and Eleanor, the donkey, stayed in the trailer.

This year, just like last, we were welcomed to the fairgrounds by Mark and Julie, the barn managers, who helped settle the livestock into their comfy box stalls. Then, in the dark, we found our campsite nearby. Husband Bruce likes camping about as much as hitting his head with a hammer, but in summer on Martha's Vineyard, there are no affordable rooms to rent. Besides, nearby outdoor showers and power at each campsite meant we could brew coffee, recharge cell phones and, most importantly, inflate our queen-size air bed.

Glamping

After fumbling and a few colorful words, Bruce and I got our cabin-sized tent erected and the bed inflated. With clean sheets, a comforter, pillows from home, and a separate dressing room, four nights in the tent would be more like glamping than camping.

Our animals were there to compete, but not in the oxen and working-steer classes. The unwritten rules say that a team must both be males, and June and Daffney are females. Curious Bleu's horns are too long to yoke him with another steer, and there was no event for a single ox like Bleu.

By the way, "ox" is an occupation, not a particular breed or species. And an ox's job is to pull a heavy load chained to his yoke.

Because there are few oxen on Martha's Vineyard, the island's ag commission pays the ferry ticket for mainland teams to attend the fair. Even though he didn't pull, Bleu and I marched in the Parade of Oxen along with 20 other off-island teams. 

More Than an Ox

Bleu is more than an ox; he is our riding and therapy steer. Most of the time, he hung out in the barn waiting for a carrot treat while watching a parade of visitors file by his stall. Generous Bleu even let some of the hard-working barn crew and fair-goers sit on him. When Ariel, a teenager, climbed on Bleu, her eyes lit up as she leaned forward, hugging him and giggling. Ariel participates in a horse-riding therapy program on the island and loves big animals; the bigger, the better. So Bleu was a dream come true. She could not get enough of him and returned to visit him the next day.

Best in Show

Even though our cattle didn't compete in the oxen classes, all four bovines got blue ribbons in the beef classes, and Eleanor got a blue ribbon in the donkey class. I'm also proud that Curious Bleu received "Best of Show." Bleu's championship ribbon was exciting, but delighting Ariel was a thousand times more rewarding. At ten years old, Bleu has a long life ahead as a therapy steer.

The Martha's Vineyard Fair is small compared to most of our New Hampshire fairs, but because the Agriculture Commission runs it, livestock are the stars. There was a midway, but as ag commission president Brian Athearn said, "Livestock are the life of this fair. Without them, we'd be nothing."

Besides tending the animals, Diane and I went to the Farmer's Market, a craft show, and the ocean. No swimming for us that day because just a few minutes before we arrived, two sharks were sighted 30 feet from the shore.

The Magic of Martha's Vineyard

We plan to return to the fair next year on an island where the residents are delightful and treat strangers like long-absent family members. Until then, we'll have memories of sandy beaches and friendly islanders.

Carole Soule

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