“Let me get this straight,” the boss told my son, who was putting in for vacation time from his job in Portland. “You want a week off from cooking in my restaurant so you can cook nothing but potatoes and gravy for eight days at Fryeburg. Is that right?”

Chris told him yes, he had it right, and the boss sighed and logged in Chris’s vacation for October, so Chris could cook at the Fryeburg Fair. Like his father, Chris has the carnie gene. It’s in our blood. But for my late wife Marilyn and older son Robbie, not so much. They might rather duck and cover when fair time came around.

Every autumn means big fairs in Maine, and we rev up. Oxford Fair. Windsor Fair. Farmington Fair. Common Ground Fair. Cumberland Fair. Fryeburg Fair, which opens today. The juices are flowing. Get me to the fairgrounds on time.

After 2010, when we got done working the “shows,” as carnies call the fairs, Marilyn and I attended several a year, until last year, when she had become too ill. Still, two days this year at Common Ground and one or more at Fryeburg will feed my need. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go back in a Fryeburg minute to work the show as a carnie.

We started our food concession in 1987 at Common Ground, selling Turkey dinners and sandwiches. All the family, plus a married couple we knew from Wilton. Her skill as a professional cook got us through that first show.

In all, we worked Common Ground 13 times and Fryeburg 21 times. Other shows, too. Blue Hill twice. Windsor twice. Cumberland Craft Fair four times. Maine Festival five times. Portland Flower Show three. Etc.


Through all that, I still haven’t figured out what siren lures us to the show. We often talked among ourselves about whether the draw was the opportunity to really push our limits, to see how much we could accomplish in eight days of adrenaline and caffeine.

If that rush is the attraction, consider a typical day at Fryeburg. Leave the campground at 5 a.m. to get to the “joint” — that’s the carnie term for a booth — and start coffee so the garbage crew can have free cups when it comes by to pick up our trash.

By 6 a.m. Marv arrives in the joint, and, from our refrigerator truck, 100 yards away, we pull 16 turkeys, 25-pounders all, and load them into four convection ovens. A bit later, start prep for the day, as our crew arrives on staggered shifts. By 8 a.m., orders go to the vendors. Pepsi for water and soda. Oakhurst for milk, butter, half-and-half. BNI for plates, forks, towels. And, start the order that goes later to US Foods for cranberry sauce, celery, onions and other items. That order will be delivered at midnight. We didn’t order all this every day. Before the show, we had bought potatoes from Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg. And we took bread with us, baked by the Livermore Falls Baking Co.

One crew member prepped all day. He peeled and cut potatoes, chopped onions and celery for stuffing. Others helped. Marv roasted and cut up the turkeys. Another person worked all day to stock and hand out beverages, make coffee, clean the dining tent. Yet another cut bread for stuffing. From three to seven of us worked “on the line,” filling orders from the steam table. At our busiest, seven of us worked on the line.

A bit before 11 o’clock, we got super busy and crew moved up from the back to help us on the line. Only the roaster, the potato masher and the potato cutter stayed in the back, while the rest of us served customers. When we were jammed, we could slam. We closed at 9 p.m., usually were done in the joint a bit after 10 p.m. Tomorrow starts soon.

If the adrenaline was what drew us, by the end of the show the supply had dried up. But there were still three days of tearing down and taking everything back to the farm.


If not the rush, maybe it was the ambience that drew us. Eight days a year, we were part of a community, some of whom would lift a bus off you to save you, others who would throw you under the bus.

Billy D once caught a man casing our joint. Fairgrounds police ushered the guy to the Oxford County guest house. He had warrants for parole violations. I once yelled to Billy D when I saw a guy grab Harley gear from Billy’s joint. Billy’s men caught the thief.

Pizza Vinnie from Brownfield lent me a gas regulator when mine conked out. I took an extra convection oven to Pretzel Ed when his oven died. And so on. We competed with one another for fairgoers’ scarce dollars. But we all wanted the competition to be fair, and most of us would bend over backward to help a fellow carnie.

One other way to explain the lure of the show. We made people happy. This motivated me strongly at farmers markets, where I sold turkey sausage and cutlets and chili and the like. And at Thanksgiving, when stores ordered hundreds of turkeys and hundreds of folks picked up turkeys at our farm or at one of our farmers markets. Same at the show.

We did this for a living, but maybe the money wasn’t enough. When a customer came by to show us an empty plate — a plate on which we had loaded two pounds of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, cranberry — and thank us, the entire effort was worthwhile. Acceptance.

Almost two years after retiring, I come most often to the notion that pleasing people may have been the loudest siren call from the fairgrounds. But, oh, the rush of the adrenaline. And, oh, the community and how hard it has been to say goodbye to Billy D and to Vinnie and to Ed and to everyone else at the show.

Bob Neal farmed until 2015. He’ll be at Fryeburg this year, as a fairgoer, unless some food vendor needs a 77-year-old carnie to work on the line.

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