Ox Teamster’s Challenge 2000
by Nan Clark, West Hartford, CT
photos by David Brooks
This is April 9th, 2001, and I’m sitting in the 70 degree sunshine at my daughter’s home in Connecticut. The grass is greening, spring flowers are blooming and birds are chattering as they choose their mates. The CT fairgrounds are probably dry. However, back home in my beloved Berkshires there is still snow – lots of it – and I know that all the far northern New England fairgrounds are still dressed in white. It was a very hard, old-fashioned winter, not even awfully good for the maple syrup season I’m told. Still, I’m pretty sure that by August the Cummington, Mass. fairgrounds will be ready for the 7th annual Ox Teamster’s Challenge.
For those of you who are new to the Small Farmer’s Journal here’s a history of the Challenge: It was the brainchild of Mernie Clark, a well-known Ox man and craftsman from Chesterfield, MA. and twice President of the Association of New England Ox Teamsters. For 4 years starting in 1995 Mernie designed and judged the Challenge which is a competition open to all teamsters of any age, male or female. Mernie retired in 1999 and turned over his Challenge to his capable son, Steve Clark, a surveyor and ox teamster from Williamsburg, MA.
In this Cummington Fair event teamsters must work alone with their team, load an unruly log onto a wood-shod sled and then take the loaded sled through an obstacle course, watching out for tennis balls on pylons. Competitors start with 100 points and lose points for mistakes. Some are eliminated by the judge for reasons such as: tipping the sled over or team unable to load the log or move sled. This is a timed contest which often decides the winner. Cummington Fair provides an outdoor arena with plenty of space for spectators, generous premiums, and beautiful ribbons for 10 places plus an engraved trophy for the winning team.
As you can imagine, this has been one of the most interesting and successful events at the fair. The youngest teamster to try so far was only 10 and the oldest definitely a capable Senior Citizen. Writing this today I’m using my grandson’s Star Wars pencil. You can be sure that last August at the 2000 Challenge there was no War but Stars-a-plenty, both human and bovine! Each year the Challenge attracts a few more teams. This year there were 16 contenders altogether, the most ever; 7 new teamsters, 2 ladies, 3 from Western Mass 4-H Ox Teamsters, and of course all 3 winners so far – Howard Booker, Ryan Hicks, and Don Silkey.
The bleachers and fenced area filled early and stayed filled all afternoon. Folks really like this show and sometimes come quite a distance to swell the crowd. This day a retired teamster from Cottondale, Florida came for the weekend and spent all afternoon enjoying the Challenge. He gave us high compliments! Judge Steve Clark laid out a tight course using pylons topped with those tormenting tennis balls – you know, the ones some cattle enjoy toppling with their tail. A sure point loser! Then there was the log – never the same – ugly as usual. This one was knobby and bigger on one end making it a real bummer to load. Steve’s hardy helpers in the pit were the dependable standbys: his son, Shane Clark, in charge of the crucial time clock, and Joe-of-all-trades Hillman. Both men are also ox teamsters and Joe and his wife have a goat dairy in Colrain, Mass. Yours truly is the announcer.
One new feature in 2000 was a fleet-of-foot-and-shutter camera commander from Sandy, Oregon: David Brooks. He’s a long-time friend of my family and lived many years in this area. Cummington Fair was a homecoming for David. He was agile and fearless in the show ring and was himself a constant crowd pleaser.
On with the Challenge! The contestants came in a steady stream so there was no need to use the course at night. The three 4-H teamsters waited till last to see what the competition was like. Two of them nearly won it and will surely show up in 2001. For the first time we had teams from outside Massachusetts compete and all are welcome. I must compliment the crowd as they never make fun of mistakes and are quick with applause. Hardly any of them could get in the arena and do the course as well, so they are always kind.
As the Challenge Judge, Steve Clark shows why he is so well-liked throughout New England, His patience is perfect, his work is tireless, and he has a way of making every teamster feel important. He and Joe themselves are a great team often tossing in the humor everyone needs.
By the time Howard Booker tried the course with the Brown Swiss team raised by his daughter, Amy, he knew his guidance for “Ted” and “Mike” had to be perfect to win. His main foes were hot on his heels and hooves! Unfortunately, Ryan Hicks was not even in the running last year. “Jake” & “Joe” had a really off day and the crowd was very sympathetic. Later Ryan thought he knew why and will probably try a new approach this year. I must say that “Jake” and “Joe” did a fine job of entertaining kids in the Petting Barn.
In the end, Howard Booker took home the 1st prize for the 3rd time – only it was the first time with Amy’s favorites, “Ted” and “Mike.” Maybe this year she will drive them? “Ted” and “Mike” did have a perfect score and did the course in 9 minutes 25 seconds. Judge Steve allows 10 minutes. Second and third places were determined by time and Don Silkey beat Rich Guilford by only by only 2 seconds! Fourth and fifth places went to two of the 4-H teams and time was also the deciding factor: Jesse Dewkett beat Josh Sampson by only 2 seconds.
Many Bovine breeds participated this year (2000): Brown Swiss, Brown Swiss/Jersey cross, Holstein, Shorthorn (Durham), Devon/Holstein cross, Chianina/Holstein cross, Hereford/Holstein cross, Lineback/Dutch Belt cross. It’s truly a colorful competition.
Normally, I would be encouraging you to come see the Challenge which would be held at Cummington Fair this year on Saturday, August 25th. However, this year due to concerns relating to Foot and Mouth Disease, several bovine events have been canceled in New England this spring. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other sources are monitoring the outbreak in the United Kingdom. I have heard nothing as yet from the local fairs about this concern. Therefore, I strongly suggest you call the secretary of the Cummington Fair to find out in August whether or not there will be a Challenge. If the bovine events are canceled this year it will be for the safety and health of all the animals concerned. Even without this contest Cummington Fair is certainly worth the trip. See you there!