Diane Bolduc, from Farmington, offers a spinning demonstration in the Agricultural Museum during the 180th Farmington Fair on Monday, Sept. 20. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Growing up on the outskirts of New York City, my knowledge of rural culture and the kind of fun this community gets up to was fairly limited. The majority of fairs I attended were Italian in origin; streets lined with loud men donning thick New York accents taking orders for zeppoles; the kinds of fairs that have cannoli-eating contests.

I was pretty eager to attend the 180th Farmington Fair, which ran Sept. 19-25. It was my first agricultural fair.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, that I had no idea what the events listed were. A read through of the fair program pretty much left me in the dark. What are “oxen sweepstakes” and “horse twitching”? What happens at Drag Your Neighbor?

I was lucky to have Livermore Falls Advertiser Staff Writer Pam Harnden – who grew up owning dairy animals, attending Maine fairs and involved with 4-H since she was 13 – on my side. Harnden walked me through what the schedule meant and I sorted out my priorities.

When I arrived at the fair on Monday, Sept. 20, I made a beeline for the Pari-mutuel racing at the race track.

Gamblers and onlookers alike watch as horses speed by in the Pari-Mutuel Racing on Monday, Sept. 20. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

I’ve never made a bet on horse racing before and felt a bit clueless. I figured it prudent to ask some of the onlookers and betters for some tricks of the trade. However, when I inquired, I didn’t get much clarity.

“Everyone here who’s betting has no idea what they’re doing,” said Livermore Falls-resident John, known by the other gamblers as “the legend of horse betting.” “No one knows what the hell is going on.”

John, who’s been coming to the Farmington Fair for over 50 years, said he simply follows his intuition. I suspected he was holding some of his cards close to his chest, but hey, that’s the name of the game.

I approached the teller, Norma Fisher from Waterville, ever in the dark on strategy. Fisher tried to help me, but it was impossible for me to comprehend and time was running out.

In the end, I closed my eyes and pointed at the list to pick my horse, American Proud. Much to my chagrin, I realized I had only two dollars in my wallet when it came time to pay. That was all the money needed for the bet, but it left me broke. I crossed my fingers that my bet paid off and approached the fence to watch the race.

By the time I put down my bet, I had already seen two races, but I had no idea what was going on. Now that I was rooting for my guy, American Proud, the race was much more thrilling. I followed him around the track and watched as he inched his way to the front during the first lap.

American Proud ultimately finished fourth out of fifth and I walked away two dollars poorer, unlikely to gamble on horses again.

As I left the track, my stomach grumbled and I realized my gamble was an irresponsible choice. Of course, cash is king at the fair. And of course, the ATM was down.

I worked my way to the center of the fairgrounds and found a booth offering tests to find out if you are a “good person.” I was intrigued and game.

I soon learned that it was a Christian organization run by David Leak that encouraged attendees to accept Jesus Christ into their lives. I engaged with Leak for about 10 minutes, curious to see how I’d score on my test. I made my exit after Leak compared homosexuality to Hitler’s desire to kill all Jews. I never did find out if I was a good person.

That Christian presence was a distinct aspect I found at the Farmington Fair. Another booth offered Bible story times for children.

Though I’ve attended fairs at various churches in New York, they’ve been fairly secular, no preaching or conversion efforts.

This presence did make me wonder how welcomed or included people of other religions or sexualities might feel at the fair.

I also wondered if these Christian groups are, like agriculture, a part of the fair’s roots dating back 180 years.

Rupert Pratt, chair of the fair committee, said that these Christian groups have been coming to the fair for “several years now, but not that long.”

Following my incomplete test, I made my way to the pulling ring for some ox pulling.

Drivers guide their oxen along at the pulling ring at the Farmington Fair on Monday, Sept. 20. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Drivers led their oxen to the center of the ring, attached them to the blocks of cement and off they went. I flinched a few times when drivers used their whips. I didn’t grow up on a farm, so I wasn’t used to seeing that kind of force used on animals.

It wasn’t the only time I saw some of the animals manhandled. At the 4-H competitions, I watched an adult owner forcefully slap his calf while waiting for his son to compete.

Robin Palmer, who runs the pulling competitions, said the whipping isn’t as harsh as it looks.

“If you think about how large these animals are, wearing a leather jacket, a cow’s hide protects them,” she said.

I understood it, but I still didn’t care for it.

I wandered some of the merchant booths while waiting for the next event I planned to attend. I came across everything from TikTok-famous products and farm grown goods to multiple booths with confederate flag merchandise and t-shirts with pictures of stick figures humping the names “Mills” and “Biden.”

I found a spinning demonstration, a display on women’s suffrage in Franklin County from the Farmington Historical Society and met Rep. Sheila Lyman (R-74) at the Franklin County Republicans booth.

Next, I attended the 4-H dairy show, where young people compete to show their ability to handle and take care of their calves.

Kelsey Stevenson and her mother, Becky Lewis, wait to compete with Cheddar the calf at the Farmington Fair’s 4-H Dairy competition on Monday, Sept. 20. Stevenson said Cheddar is effectively her pet and they often cuddle together. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

There, I met Kelsey Stevenson and Cheddar, her calf with sweet doe eyes and a brown-orange coat.

Stevenson’s mother, Becky Lewis, explained that for their family, like many others, participating in 4-H is a family tradition. Lewis has been in 4-H for 35 years. All five of her children participated in 4-H and Stevenson, who is living on her grandparents’ farm with Cheddar, has been competing at the fair for six years.

“It’s fun, I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Lewis said.

The feeling of jealousy flared up in me, seeing that Cheddar was effectively Stevenson’s pet. She said they cuddle together on the farm.

It certainly made me want a calf of my own, though where I would fit it in my apartment, I have no idea.

I found myself rooting for Cheddar and Stevenson when it came time for them to compete. I watched them circle the ring behind two other duos. The competition is all about control and ease, but Cheddar was feisty, giving Stevenson a bit of a hard time and jerking around.

Lewis said it was because Cheddar has been “cooped up for a few days” because of the fair.

“Cheddar’s also a teenager,” Lewis’ husband Earle added.

Cheddar and Stevenson came in third. Nonetheless, Lewis was proud.

I made my way into the poultry barn, where I discovered what seemed like an infinite amount of poultry. Tom Nelson explained some of the ins and outs of how judging for the poultry goes. Truthfully, dear reader, Nelson’s ample explanations went in one ear and out the other. By this point, I was fairly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new information I had already taken in across the fairgrounds. Still, Nelson’s lesson was much appreciated.

In my last hurrah at the fair, I returned on Saturday, Sept. 25, for the Demolition Derby, what I was told was the must-see event of the week.

I arrived with two friends, one a newcomer and one a veteran fair-goer with life-time tickets, right as the derby started at 7 p.m. This, we quickly realized was a mistake. The fairgrounds were packed with people of all ages and it was impossible to find a spot with a good view. The derby is what really brought in the crowds. Even from far away though, it was clear that there was some thrilling action going on on the racetrack.

I departed from my friends, determined to find the best seat in the house. I went to the inner-ring and finessed my way onto the field, where Chair Pratt was watching with his grandchildren.

Staff Writer Kay Neufeld has a front row seat at the Farmington Fair’s Demolition Derby on Saturday, Sept. 25. The derby, described as the fair’s can’t-miss event, was packed to the brim with onlookers. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Watching the cars demolish each other was even more exciting and satisfying when I was close up.

I involuntarily cringed when the cars would smash into each other but swiftly followed up the cringes with “Oh!”s and cheering.

I was somewhat concerned for the drivers, especially when a car would be thrown up onto the rocks, a car’s hood crunched down to nothing or a radiator blown while steam filled the car.

However, the drivers are pretty indifferent to the risks and eager to participate.

I overheard Shane Holden, a driver in the third heat, telling his friends his ribs were sore after competing. But Holden insisted to me that he was fine and had a great time. Darren Holman, a driver from Jay who has been participating in the derby for 27 years, said he is “not afraid of getting hurt.”

In the end, I was tempted by the idea of competing. Whether or not I will is another question.

As my experience came to an end, I was impressed by how many moving parts go into the fair. I imagine at the New York fairs, the bulk of work is lugging in equipment, games and rides.

At the Farmington Fair, I can only imagine the efforts that are made to bring in and house a seemingly endless number of animals, to drive in cars nearly on their death beds, to set up the agricultural exhibits so precisely.

I also learned attendees native to the area have been coming their whole lives. And each cherishes the fair for a different reason.

Those stationed at the race track are of course in it for the horses.

Todd Stevens, who’s been attending the fair for 57 years, says the pulling competitions are his “favorite” part, especially the horse versus ox pulls.

For as long as these people have been attending the fair, they are welcoming and eager to explain what it is you’re seeing. Not one person shooed me away or complained when I asked them to help me better understand the day.

I don’t know if I had a favorite part, myself. Rather, my time at the fair felt cumulative, blending together to round out a wholly new experience for me.

In the end, I left the fair with many takeaways. I loved all the action and the many animals I got to pet. And witnessing the agricultural elements gave me a greater appreciation for the fair’s roots — and Franklin County’s roots, as well.

Next year, I’ll be sure to attend with a loaded wallet.

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