2011 Ox Teamster’s Challenge: Still Going Strong
by Nanette Clark of Chesterfield, MA
The Ox Teamster’s Challenge is one of the most crowd-pleasing contests at the Cummington Fair in western Massachusetts. Always on the last full weekend of August, this exciting and educational event marked its 17th year in 2011. SRO spectators were treated to beautiful, brawny Bovines; talented, top-notch Teamsters; a good-natured, groovy Gateman; a tenacious, tie-breaking Time-keeper; a phenomenal, free-lance Photographer; a just and jovial Judge; and an absolutely awesome Announcer.
The Challenge Crew has presented this impressive show in all kinds of weather. In 2009 most of the fair weekend was pretty much a wash out. Oh, a few brave souls sloshed around the muddy fairgrounds and huddled under umbrellas. The Challenge area is grass and gravel so we were not cancelled. The bottom line at the fair gate was not good. Like baseball: “There’s always next year!”
In 2010 hopes were high weather-wise as well as ox-wise (my word). Instead of rainy it was Hazy, Hot, and Humid. Would you believe 100 degrees?! Yes, it surely was. Like my Uncle Ross Andre used to say, “It’s 100 degrees in the shade, but you don’t have to go in the shade.” I can add only that the Ox Teamster’s Challenge goes on regardless.
Teamsters were keeping their animals well watered and in the shade of a tree or trailer whenever possible. Every 15 minutes I announced to the sizzling spectators, “Time to take a drink of water! If you happen to pass out from the excitement of this contest, we will understand; but no fair passing out from dehydration!” Everyone carried a water bottle and there was more available on the fairgrounds. The bleachers were in the direct, hazy sun so I invited the crowd to come sit on the bank under the trees. Many did so. Humans and animals all survived that sweltering day although none were in much of a hurry. Little did we know what the forecast would be for the following year!
2011 really tested our metal. All day there was tension among the Crew, the Oxen, the Teamsters and the Crowd. Why? Hurricane Irene was ever so slowly worming her way up the east coast, leaving havoc in her wake. She was aimed directly at New England and the Cummington Fair. By Saturday (which is known as OX DAY) Irene was so close that the air was deadly calm and the sky an unhealthy yellow-green. All the fair animals were restless, as was the overflow crowd, many of whom were tuned to hand-held technology for updates on Irene’s progress. Livestock shows continued as planned; however, as each show ended, the Fair Officials asked farmers and teamsters to “load up and head home.” Some had come quite a distance and needed time to get safely ahead of the approaching storm. All the Sunday events were cancelled and the Fair closed its entrance gate at 6 p.m. Saturday. Rides shut down, the Midway closed and Vendors hurried away.
The Ox Teamster’s Challenge begins at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and lasts four or five hours, depending on the number of teams that compete. For those readers who don’t already know, here’s the skinny on this contest. Each teamster must work alone with his/her cattle as if they were clearing a wood lot. They need to know how to use the chains, cant hook and wood-shod sled that are provided by Howard Booker, a five-time winner of early challenges. First an odd-shaped log is to be dragged through the course. Next the log is loaded onto the sled without mishap and secured. The oxen are then guided through the course hauling the sled. The obstacle course is comprised of timbers, pylons and 2 x 4s used to simulate trees, narrow paths and mud holes which might be in an actual wood lot. We have added 2 buckets of water on stumps, which can be upset by the far end of the log—with some expertise! You probably won’t find this in a wood lot, but a spilled bucket gets the teamster an extra $20.00. Nor will you find the tempting tennis balls balanced atop each pylon. Spill any of those and the teamster loses points from his/her final score, which starts at 100 points. The event is carefully timed and often Time is the deciding factor.
The Ox Teamster’s Challenge is the brainchild of Mernie Clark, a retired teamster who was twice President of the Association of New England Ox Teamsters. In keeping with Mernie’s original vision the Challenge continues to present the beauty and intelligence of many different Bovine breeds with the emphasis on Voice Commands. Judges so far have been Mernie, his son Steve Clark, Ray Ludwig, Don Silkey, and, since 2009, Joe Hillman. Joe is a teamster and wheelwright who now runs a goat dairy with his wife, Caroline. Their cheeses are the Blue Ribbon variety! Our Gateman since 2004 is Lloyd Cutting, a woodsman and retired teamster. Our current Timekeeper is Sebastian Ross who keeps one eye on Judge Joe and the other on the stopwatch. Yours truly is the coordinator and announcer, as well as the writer of these stories. Tammy Hicks, Alma Owen, Susan Schroder and now Tracey Eller have provided expressive pictures that are worth much more than 1000 words.
Some teamsters have participated for many years: Ryan Hicks, Don Silkey, Brian Mollison, Ron and Josh Sampson, Howard Booker. Some contestants have won several times: Howard Booker, Ryan Hicks, and David Armbruster. So far we have only one Lady Teamster and she has won the Challenge twice: Beverly Chappell. In 2010 Alice Jenkins, from a 10th generation teamster family, tried the obstacle course with her team of Jerseys, “Maple” and “Sugar”. Allie was only 5 years old! Imagine that.
Many contestants come from families that have owned and raised oxen for several generations. I once asked a 12-year-old teamster how old he was when he got his first pair of calves. He pondered a moment and then said, “Well– -I was walkin’.” Daniel went on to take second place in the Challenge when he was 16. And that’s the story in many families. The younger you start the better. Little kids and little calves can grow and learn together with patient guidance from adults, esp. kids in a 4-H Ox Teamsters Club. New England has many of these active clubs and their members are well represented with their awesome teams every fall at the Eastern States Exposition.
In spite of the threat of Hurricane Irene, nine teams tried the obstacle course in 2011. Three of them managed to spill a water bucket which won the teamster $20.00 over and above the premiums, beautiful trophy and rosette ribbons provided by the Fair. The anxious audience stayed to the end and was thrilled to see Beverly win again. She and Ryan Hicks each had perfect scores so TIME decided the winner by only 11 seconds!! I do think Beverly is still smiling.
Now the Challenge Crew wonders what our 18th year will offer us for weather: Heat, Cold, Rain, Wind, Snow? Whatever it is we’ll be there on August 25, 2012, at Cummington Fair where there is always plenty of parking space for campers, trailers and cars. Come for the whole 4-day fair. The Ox Teamster’s Challenge is a must-see!!