The Common Ground Fair: My September tradition

By Eva Murray | Sep 22, 2011
Photo by: Eva Murray

I have been to the Common Ground Country Fair every year for something like 25 years, except for 1989, when Paul and I were in Canada on our honeymoon. People ask me how I first started going. A few folks in South Thomaston might enjoy this little bit of reminiscence: Back in the mid-1980s, before I took the teaching job and moved to Matinicus Island, I lived in South Thomaston and worked each summer at my family’s campground hauling trash, painting picnic tables, bundling firewood and cooking breakfasts — lots of breakfasts.

We had a regular all-season camper there, an old trapper from way over in the remote sticks of western Maine who seemed to be about a 100, had the accumulated wisdom to prove it, and who struck us on occasion like he was someone out of another century. He took his breakfast in my little prefab-garage food shack most days, each time telling me, as he slathered a big hunk of Kate’s Butter onto his homemade-bread French toast, that I was not to tell “Twiggy” (meaning his long-suffering wife, Alice, who was a sweetheart and a regular riot in her own right and no bull, ever).

She knew perfectly well that he was eating more butter than the doctor would countenance, but he liked to remind me to keep it all hush-hush. Mont was so cool, but you’d have to talk to him to know it. He always wore Dickies work pants and shirts (normally the green kind, if I remember right) and he liked to catch mackerel. One year, Mont rigged up a homemade smokehouse built out of an old wood stove he found at the dump or got for five bucks at a yard sale or whatever, and a bunch of stovepipe or ductwork much the same, and for several summers thereafter he smoked his carefully cleaned and filleted mackerel all through August. It tasted a lot better than it sounds.

Anyway, each year in late September, Alice and Mont liked to go to what he called “the hippie fair.” He said that with a smile, actually, and with none of the hostility you might assume were you to stereotype his generation (or his outfit). He told us it was “a real good fair.” Fay-uh. He just laughed off all the potheads, pasty-white Maine girls in dreadlocks, boys in long skirts, and the all-night drummers, who were somewhat more prevalent at the Common Ground Country Fair in those days. Mont figured they were more or less part of the entertainment.

When a year finally came in which I was free that whole weekend I borrowed the pickup truck with the cap, tossed in my sleeping bag, and headed over to the Windsor Fairgrounds, where the Common Ground Fair was held in those days. I had a coffee can full of quarters that I’d saved up all summer to keep me in sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, whole wheat pizza and blueberry-whipped cream rosettes for two days. At the time, you did not have to volunteer in order to camp at the fair; you just parked your truck or pitched your tent along the edge of the parking lot and walked a long way to find a potty. The all-night drummers did the same, and too bad for anybody who wanted to go to sleep early.

The “Social and Political Action” section was somewhat smaller in those days. I recall how one year somebody in an organizational capacity with a strange sense of humor put the PETA table right across from the Maine Trapper’s Association. It was sort of fun to hang around there and watch them make uncomfortable faces at each other. A few other things were a bit different, too. There were scheduled concerts in the evenings, there was a home-brew contest, I think there were more sheep for some reason, apples and cider were ubiquitous, and the only coffee was secretly in the First Aid room for people with unexplained headaches, although supposedly most of it got drunk up by the Kennebec County Sheriff deputies.

The Windsor fairground was a rented site each year, of course (and before Windsor, the Common Ground Fair spent its early years at the Litchfield fairground). Windsor was often dusty and dry (or muddy, if it was raining). More suitable for the type of fair with midway rides and such, there was no place for the fair’s sponsoring organization, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, to demonstrate what it does best. Now, the fair has a lovely permanent home at the MOFGA property and fairground in Unity, filled with real gardens, trees, demonstration plantings, flower patches and soft green grass. There is no midway.

Over the years the fair has changed a little, and my family has changed, but some things have become family tradition and that includes volunteering. When the fair was obligated to limit camping to volunteers, we volunteered. I painted faces and Paul parked cars until they found out he was a master electrician. I became an EMT and worked at first aid. Our children were first carried in backpacks and pulled in little red wagons. As they got older, I recall that their first experience of being out after dark without parents was at the fair, where they ran around with the other kids whose dads did the wiring and the plumbing to set up the event (remember that Common Ground is a good deal safer than those fairs with a “carnie” going half the night).

Older still, they signed up to work at the fair, and they set up parking lots, strung out lights, staffed the information table, tended llamas, and chased after the next generation of Common Ground Fair little kids. Our daughter, a student at Bowdoin now, has a rugby game at Colby during the fair weekend this year; she intends to drive to the game herself so she can come straight over to the fair afterward. She means to help with those llamas.

Volunteering can be an adventure. The first year at the new Unity fairground a brand-new CMP transformer failed rather dramatically right in the middle of the evening concert and put the whole place in the dark. We were already nearly asleep and quite unashamedly stripped of our overalls. The other electrician came running through the line of tent sites yelling “Paul Murray! Where are you!?”  We got a designated campsite after that.

Much has not changed. For those smaller fair attendees who grow tired of being on their feet after a while, attached to adults who wish to do inexplicable things like watch boat builders, participate in shape-note singing or sample bean-hole beans, the Children’s Area still has hammers and secondhand nails and big slabs of wood to provide hours of hammering pleasure (this was one of the entertainments our children liked best when they were small).

The popularity of the steep bank grass amphitheater for “sledding” with flattened cardboard boxes has grown so much that some fair-going children now show up at the gate lugging their own piece of cardboard, just to be sure. Little kids still toddle around sucking on those bear-shaped honey containers, many wearing rather incredible hand-knit sweaters. The fair always was and still is a great place to admire other people’s artful handmade clothing, with handspun, hand-sewn, knitted, quilted, embroidered, and felted finery appearing everywhere as the temperature drops, and drop it does. For us, who live right on the coast, some early morning of the fair weekend is usually the first frost we experience each year.

The food is still wonderful, and although my much-beloved blueberry and whipped cream rosettes have been gone for years there are all sorts of new offerings including excellent chowder, crabmeat and other seafood and, in recent years, even organic fair-trade coffee (from our own nearby Rock City Coffee Roasters!)

Some of the die-hard purists wince at this rather drastic change in Common Ground Fair tradition (such tradition being that we made our own coffee on Coleman stoves on the tailgates of our pickups in the camping area, or bought it from “The Coffee Man” just outside the gate because, hey, you can’t grow coffee in Maine) but others say that selling coffee grown and sold with a sensitivity to the ethics and economics involved, not to mention the environmental issues, makes an appropriate statement.

I’ll be looking forward to familiar things that I do every year, like eating a falafel sandwich on wood stove pita bread, and buying some new daffodil bulbs, and dancing to the Ballad of Saint Anne’s Reel if Dave Mallett happens to be performing, which he sometimes is. I also look forward to the newer aspects of the fair, such as the Youth Enterprise Zone, where some of Maine’s youngest businesspeople offer their wares. Donovan, the oak trees you sold me are still alive and growing on Matinicus, and to the guys from Wrench and Sprocket Printing, my bike-racing daughter and I wear your T-shirts a lot.

We camp with the set-up and utilities people now, meaning the middle-aged, earlier-to-bed crowd who won’t put up with too many all-night drum circles. But, there is music everywhere at the fair through the daylight hours and into the evening, and plenty of talent turning up at unexpected moments.

The behind-the-scenes crowd who make the fair work, the kids who came as little children in their hand-knits to pound nails and eat honey and who are now electricians and tech geeks and hard-working volunteers of all sorts — those guys are the best part of the Common Ground Fair. With Paul volunteering as an electrician through the weekend, we arrive to start work a couple of days ahead of time, and thus don’t have to sit in hours of traffic to get in. That means we are also on the grounds early in the morning when the animals are starting to stir and bleat and baa and moo and bray and crow. I love that time of day the best at the fair.

Ol’ Mont would have approved.

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