An Uncommon Common
by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
In New England and elsewhere many cities and towns have an area (generally in or near the center) which is called simply ‘The Common.’ I’m told that originally these areas were used by local farmers as pastures for sheep, goats, or cattle. Perhaps rent was paid to the town. Probably there was a herdsman or woman and/or dogs on hand to contain the animals. At any rate, over the years these ‘Commons’ were used less and less for pasture and more and more for other local activities such as musical performances, book and record sales, craft fairs, flower shows, dances, poetry readings, etc. In Boston Commons you are apt to hear erstwhile politicians holding forth, or witness a budding artist at work, or even see students from Emerson College Theatre Department rehearsing comic or tragic scenes.
In Belchertown, Massachusetts, for many years there was an agricultural fair held on the Common in the fall. Then there were a number of years when the fair was less agricultural and not very well-attended. In fact, in 1986 the fair nearly went out of business! Along came an enthusiastic group of residents who breathed new life into the dying event. They decided to return to the country fair idea which proved to be exactly the right move. Belchertown Fair soon blossomed with big crowds. There is no gate fee because attendance is free! In fact, there are no gates at all. All of the intown organizations are invited to rent space and set up booths or tents. At one end of the Common is the amusement and midway area with rides, music and games of chance. There is a free activity tent for the kids with games and crafts. The old Town Hall building is where flowers and crafts are judged and shown to the public. Of course, there’s a colorful parade complete with decorated floats, bands, clowns, and fire engines.
At the opposite end of the grounds from the rides is a fenced-off area where teams of draft horses or oxen compete drawing a weighted stone boat. Spectators sit comfortably on bleachers under large shade trees. This drawing ring was the site of an historical event in late September, 1999. At last we were to discover once-and-for-all which was more powerful – horses or oxen. This has been debated over the years by teamsters and their friends over coffee, at the kitchen table, in the barn and around the drawing ring for generations. It’s a conversation that warms many a New England winter day and sometimes generates more heat than the wood stove!
As a great way to finish off the century, Clyde Keyes had the idea to compete horses and oxen against each other, the same day at the same fair, in the same drawing ring. Clyde is well known throughout New England and beyond as an organizer and announcer of such events. He also had his own team of horses 42 years ago. He’s now planning retirement and thought this competition would be a unique way to highlight his career. The teams of heavyweight horses were already scheduled to attend so Clyde arranged for six teams of powerful oxen to be on hand.
Word got around that this would be an exciting draw so the bleachers were filled and there was standing-room-only along the fences. Bright September sun speckled its way through the shade trees and the crisp breeze carried with it the voices of folks placing friendly bets on which was stronger: horses or oxen. Someone yelled “there’s a helluva hump in the pit!” Which was true, but teams around here are used to that problem. One team of Belgian horses owned by Kris Provencio came from Fair Grove, Michigan. The ‘hump’ proved to be no trouble for them either.
Not only was this competition unique but we were pleased to see a woman driving one horse team. Shelley Hurlburt was both capable and quiet with ‘Dexter’ and ‘Spook.’ Also, she showed very good judgement when she dropped out of the race after the 5th round. She knew what amount of weight her team could handle and she cared enough for them not to continue. Poor judgement causes many problems in any kind of competition. Congratulations Shelley!
While the teams continue competing, let’s look at what else was going on round the Common. Each of the local churches had a booth where you could buy yummy homemade jams and jellies, handcrafted quilts and even the popular Taco Salad. At noon on Saturday the Congregational Church offered a turkey dinner with all the mouth-watering fixins. From the ‘Sweet Adelines’ you could get the best fried dough to ever tickle your tonsils. Lions Club had the choicest chicken nuggets and french fries. Or you could munch an awesome baked potato with your favorite toppings from the American Legion folks. If you were a risktaker (and who isn’t) the Fire Department raffle offered a chance to win money or prizes. A very popular booth is run each year by The Historical Society. They sell Christmas tree ornaments depicting local scenes from the fair and around town. You must never miss the Dunking Stool area run by high school students. For a fee you get a chance to dunk prominent local folks, especially the Selectmen! Fun to watch, also. As you meander back to the draft animal power struggle be sure to pick up a bag of popcorn. It’s perfection and the price is right!
Well, the competition went along without a hitch (pardon the pun) until suddenly the microphone power went off so no one could hear Clyde’s announcing. This would take some time to fix so the fair officials took the opportunity to congratulate Clyde on his long years of service to agricultural fairs. There was thunderous applause and a standing ovation as Clyde was presented with a large framed picture of himself taken in 1998 and signed by each teamster participating this day. Everyone wished him a happy, healthy retirement. On with the show! After much consulting, a new system was put in place and Clyde was back on the air.
Except for one broken tug, nothing else unusual happened – until the end, that is. Finally there were two teams of horses and two teams of oxen still able to draw a 16,000 lb. load the required six feet. The crowd, somewhat chilled by the breeze, was now greatly warmed with anticipation, everyone cheering for his or her favorite team. Clyde could hardly contain himself. The two ox teams took their turns and drew the load 47″ and 24″ respectively. It was then up to the horses. As eager eyes turned to the two horse teamsters we were astonished to see them wave the signal that they were all done. There was an uproar from the spectators and Clyde called for quiet. He urged both horse teamsters to come in and hitch but neither would, even though they had powerful teams. Just like that the competition was over and the oxen had won. But wait –
As the ribbons were being given out there was an altercation at the announcers table. It seems the top horse teamster thought he was competing only with other horses and that’s why he waved off. The second place horse teamster refused to hitch again because he was a visitor and staying with the first teamster. He didn’t think it would be polite to try to beat his host! A perfect example of mid-west manners. There was such confusion I’m not sure how the officials worked it out. I only know that after the teams left the drawing ring the 3rd place ribbon was still on the table. What can I say? Is this a reporter’s dilemma or what? Did the oxen win the draw by reason of power or was it won by default? I don’t know. Probably Clyde doesn’t know. Maybe nobody knows. And so the great debate goes on – and on – and on – until maybe someday, somewhere, someone will sponsor another such competition.
Just maybe it isn’t important who won or lost. Perhaps the best thing to remember about the event is the beauty of the day, the beauty of the well-groomed oxen and horses, the intelligence of the animals, the ability of the teamsters with voice commands, the good judgement and even the good manners. Win or lose, it was a day well spent at Belchertown Fair. If you are ever in the New England area in the late fall you now know there is an opportunity and a place for you to have a great time at an Uncommon Common.