FRYEBURG – Changes to the Saco Valley Woodsmen’s Field Day over the last 37 years reflect changes in the industry, where mechanical harvesting machines has replaced axes and chain saws.

In the mid-1990s officials terminated the chain saw competition for local loggers simply because there were not enough competitors. It was limited to people from the 16 Maine and six New Hampshire towns that make up the West Oxford Agricultural Society, which sponsors Fryeburg Fair and, in turn, the Saco Valley Woodsmen’s Day.

David Billings of Oxford, a full-time logger, was a multiple repeat winner in the local chain saw competition in the 1980s and 1990s. He sadly remembers the day when the local chain saw contest ended. He still competes today and finished last year with a respectable 6.78-second run, but far off the 4.77-second winning pace.

Today, many of the top money earners compete on a professional circuit here and around the world.

Gaston Duperre, the 2004 champion woodsman, travels down from Chicoutimi, Quebec, to compete. His specialty is the open, or supersaw, competition, which he won last year in a record time of 3.325 seconds. The rest of the year, Gaston works for AlCan, a Canadian aluminum packing company, as a light millwright. He also owns his own business making bow saw blades.

While many competitors compete as a hobby, others compete as an extension of their careers in the wood industry.

Mike Sullivan, a repeat champion woodsman, makes his living from trees. The Winsted, Conn., man is a licensed arborist. He recalls coming out of professional baseball as a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds and meeting Jim Colbert, another veteran competitor, who introduced him to timber sports. He was hooked. Sullivan has competed for nearly a quarter century and won 13 world titles and more than 100 overall titles. In his mid-40s, he says this year will be his last.

While Sullivan may be contemplating retirement, legendary Dave Geer, 79, is still going strong. Despite cancer and aging knees, the former world champion and winner of 44 world title events won the masters ax-throwing contest with a score of 23. In 2003, the Jewett City, Conn., resident set the record for the new masters division with a perfect 25.

At the other end of the spectrum are youthful competitors such as Fred Kitka Jr. of Webster, Mass., and Tate Conner of Tupper Lake, N.Y. Both have their degrees in forestry from the University of Maine and now have their own tree and logging company. They also have a cable skidder and circular sawmill, cutting mostly pine and hemlock.

A newcomer to Fryeburg is Nancy Zalewski of Plymouth, Wis. She won the Women’s Champion Woodsman award in its inaugural year. A chemist for a Wisconsin pharmaceutical company, she flies around the country to compete, often with Mike Sullivan, her coach and mentor.

Winning the 2004 Jack and Jill were Erica and Andy Schreiner of Fulton, N.Y. They are sponsored by Woodmizer, the portable-sawmill company. Andy Schreiner served in Iraq in 2003 but has returned and is back competing. Erica Schreiner is the night manager for a printing company.

While the local angle that started the contest has been lost, the Saco Valley Woodsmen’s Field Day remains one of the most popular.

“I think it’s a safe claim to make that there are more people watching the woodsmen’s contest at Fryeburg Fair than any other woodsmen’s contest in the world” Don Quigley said a few years ago. Quigley, now retired, was champion woodsman in 1987. He is a professor at University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School of Forest Technology.

He recognizes the many changes, but acknowledges that the escalation in competition has been a natural evolution. He said those “who are competing and winning the top dollar have a significant investment in the sport, so it’s kind of nice to have just the competitive people out there.”


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