Tom Putnam

Few scenes are more charming than the sight of children enjoying a country fair.

This fall I attended the Common Ground Fair in Unity, sponsored by the state’s organic farmers. As I entered, I passed a parking lot full of yellow buses that had transported school groups to the fairgrounds.

Early in my wanderings, my heart was captured when seeing a boy in his wellies doing his best at the “strongman game” — swinging a large mallet with all the force he could muster to send the metal puck to the top of the tower and ring the beckoning bell.

Weeks later I traveled to Fryeburg, where the tradition is for parents and grandparents to take their children out of school for an annual trek to Maine’s largest fair.

There are many differences between these two gatherings, but what connects them — beyond the delights of hand-cut fries and caramel apples — is a dedication to farming, gardening, animal husbandry, and the crafts and food products that stem from those endeavors.

Maine songwriter Dave Mallett puts it this way: “And I could be a farmer because I have a way / With plants and I make them grow well so they say / You just take what it gives you and give what you can / But a man could do worse than be one with the land.”


Another of the pleasures of fair hopping is to drive along the state’s less traveled roads to appreciate the beauty of our shared landscape. In an election year, the foliage is rivaled only by the sea of colorful campaign signs that populate many lawns and byways.

I’m not blind to the political divisions that have befallen us. Yet much as our ties to the land connect us as a people — our “common ground” as it were — I prefer to see such electioneering placards not as dividing us as neighbors but as uniting us in our commitment to the democratic processes that bind us as a nation.

“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe,” stated Winston Churchill. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

“But there is a broad feeling in our country,” Churchill went on, “that the people should rule, and that public opinion expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of elected officials who are their servants and not their masters.”

Just as farmers work diligently to maintain a rich and fertile soil for their crops, we need to sustain and fertilize the democratic foundations which support our electoral process. The efforts of town clerks, poll workers, and the public safety professionals who protect them are essential to ensure the integrity of our elections, the primary “constitutional means” by which the will of the people is determined.

We bring children to country fairs, in part, to pass along certain values and traditions. So, too, must we impress upon them the importance of these democratic principles on which all other labors rest.


The winsome boy at the “high striker” game never did ring the bell that day. One could imagine, however, that with nourishment, discipline, and luck he would return in years to come as a strapping young man and confidently do so.

Such a bright future is not guaranteed. There are forces, natural and man-made, that can impede a child’s growth into adulthood.

The same is true with our democracy.

Whatever our political leanings, let us unite not only to maintain it but to dispel any forces that might prompt its unraveling. Let us do our part to pass it on — with all its imperfections and fragilities — to our children and grandchildren and their confident, mallet-wielding hands.

Tom Putnam of Cape Porpoise is a former history teacher and museum director.  Early in his career he worked for a federally-funded Upward Bound program serving students from Lewiston, Lisbon and Oxford Hills high schools.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.