There was a time when spinning, twisting, terrifying rides with names like “Zero Gravity” and “Typhoon” were not the big attractions at your local fair.

Maine fairs were started by farmers who were pretty darn proud of their animals and wanted to show them off to the world. So really, they were the first stars.

That’s not to say all the extra trappings that fairs have adopted over the years aren’t thrilling and fun and delicious, from the carnival rides and pop concerts to demolition derbies, corn dogs and deep-fried Twinkies.

But this year when you venture off to one of Maine’s fall fairs, you might want to pay extra attention to the animals and all they can do, from giving milk or plowing fields to herding sheep or pulling thousands of pounds of weight.

“The farmers really appreciate it when people want to talk about their livestock or ask questions,” said Lyle Merrifield, president of the Cumberland County Fair. “We always try to put the animals at the forefront, and we always will.”

Maine’s fair season started in June, but there are still several happening this fall that are within an hour or two of Portland. The Common Ground Country Fair in Unity runs Friday through Sunday, Cumberland County Fair in Cumberland runs Sunday through Sept. 30, and the Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg is scheduled for Oct. 1-8. Here are some of the animal-related highlights at each.


Horses plow at last year’s Common Ground Country Fair in Unity. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel


The Common Ground Country Fair has built its reputation as a fair that’s focused on sustainable farming and gardening, so animals and how to care for them are a big theme. Starting on Friday, there’s a morning demonstration on how to harness a horse (or horses), followed by wagon rides. This way you can see just what a good horse and harness can do. Also during the fair, there will be demos on cattle grooming, clipping and hygiene, followed by sessions where people can learn about sheep and goats. One program is titled “Ask Me About My Goats,” so questions are obviously welcome. There are also sheep and goat barns where you can get face to face with the critters.

There’s a chicken first aid program and a session called “Teach Your Horse Some Manners.” There are also events that highlight the work needed to take care of animals, including the very popular Harry S. Truman Manure Pitch contests, held throughout the fair. You can also see one of the farm’s hardest-working animals, the sheep dog, at various sheep dog demos throughout the fair. For more information, go to

Watch goats getting groomed for their big day in public, at the Cumberland County Fair. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


If you think animal contests at fairs are just small-town spectacles, think again. Cumberland County Fair is proud this year to host its International Ox Pull on Sept. 27 at 6 p.m. Teams of oxen and their drivers from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, will compete against local teams and drivers in Cumberland to see whose oxen can pull the most weight, or pull that weight the farthest.

It’s a chance for our two great nations to bridge some of our differences, especially when it comes to oxen-pull styles. Mainers use an oxbow, a wooden contraption around the animal’s necks, while Canadians use a harness around the horns, said Tammy Sawyer, who runs the ox and horse pulling events at Cumberland County Fair.


The fair, of course, has lots of other animals on display and squaring off in contests or being judged, including sheep, horses and pigs. If you think pigs are mostly fat and lazy, check out the nightly piglet races and see how speedy they can be. For more information, go to

Harriet, a junior ewe lamb, bleats while owner Bill Webster of Windham grooms her for a contest at the Fryeburg Fair on October 4. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


Maine’s biggest fair has some 3,000 animals, so you are very likely to get your fill. The first day of the fair always features morning sheep dog trials, where super-fast border collies can be seen herding flocks of sheep through an obstacle course and into pens. There are shows every day, where animals are shown to judges to see which chicken, pig, sheep, dairy goat or draft horse is the best in its class.

There are also sheep shearing demonstrations and pig scrambles, where youngsters try to catch speeding piglets, a skill most of us never learned but is crucial work on a pig farm. Then there are the horse and oxen pulls.

Pulling heavy weights with oxen and horses dates to the early days of Maine logging, said Stacy McConkey, who helps manage the pulling events at Fryeburg Fair. The oxen were tougher and stronger, so were used to haul the felled trees through the woods to the road. Then the horses, which were faster, pulled them down to the river or wherever they were headed.

The people who today train animals for pulling competitions are keeping a very old tradition alive, since horses and oxen no longer work in big numbers in the Maine woods. Tractors and trucks took over most of those jobs soon after they came into existence.

“It’s a hobby now for people who really want to do it,” said McConkey.

For more information, go to

Why not check out some sheep shearing at this year’s Fryeburg Fair? Photo courtesy of the Fryeburg Fair.

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