Ox Teamster’s Challenge 20th Year
by Nan Clark of Chesterfield, MA
photos by Peter King II and Taka Hamada
Here I am again, on a cold winter day, writing about a hot summer event – the Ox Teamster’s Challenge at the Cummington, Massachusetts Fair. This is my way of keeping warm when the temperature resists getting above freezing and there is still a foot of hard packed snow on my spring bulbs. New England life must be hypnotic or I would be in Ft. Myers watching the Red Sox spring training. At least the ineffectual sun is shining to brighten my corner.
The Ox Teamster’s Challenge brightens my thoughts. Its founder, Mernie Clark, would be so proud and happy that his brainchild had lasted 20 years already. The first year was merely an experiment. Boy, did it take off! Two more Challenge events have begun at two other country fairs nearby – one in Harwinton, CT Fair run by David Armbruster and another in Northampton, MA at the Three County Fair run by Tom Jenkins. Both David and Tom have competed in Cummington several times.
In 2014 the Cummington Challenge celebrated 20 years of entertaining spellbound spectators while, at the same time, educating everyone about the beauty and intelligence of oxen. In these 20 years upwards of 150 different teamsters have participated in this ever-changing obstacle course with their well-trained teams of various bovine breeds. They were judged and timed and their efforts were always applauded. The SRO audiences were treated to interesting, often comical, stories about each teamster and his/her team. Several bovine beauties were celebrities in documentaries. In all these years there have been only six different winners as some have won as many as six times! Still contestants continue to appear because the Cummington Fair officials and other local sponsors are very generous with rosette ribbons, trophies, prizes and money.
A special feature in 2014 was a traditional twisted Hickory whip and lash made by a well-liked teamster of yore, Art Hine. Art’s son, Nathan, another talented and caring teamster, donated the whip. Any teamster willing to use that stick for the course that day received an extra $10. This needs explaining. First of all, the Challenge oxen must be guided with mostly voice commands and very little or no whip. Still, a stick of some kind is like a steering wheel. One teamster accidentally dropped his stick and finished the course waving his cap. The crowd cheered with whoops and hollers for that! Not many current teamsters own a traditional, hand-crafted whip, so it was an added challenge in 2014. Thanks to Nathan Hine we now own that beautiful piece of ox history made by his father, Art Hine.
Another piece of ox history compiled by founder Mernie Clark has been donated to the Cummington Fair Museum – a collection of ox shoes, all sizes including ice caulks. The 20th Challenge moved right along with 12 competitors (some with 2 teams). Special prizes were given in four categories:
- Best Adult Female Teamster – Gail Roberts with a pair of Randalls, “Nick” and “Nack”;
- Best Youth Female Teamster – Nicole Demastrie (age 13) with her Normande team “Moon” and “Neon”;
- Best Adult Male Teamster – Tom Jenkins with “Rock” and “Star” a Holstein/Shorthorn cross;
- Best Youth Male Teamster – Kenny Patten (age 12) with Holsteins “Mike” and “Noodle”.
We welcomed one new teamster, Will Spath, with a carefully cleaned young pair of Shorthorn and Charlais, “Larry” and “Curly”. We do hope to see all three again in 2015. Only one team managed a perfect score – our winners “True” and “Grit”, patiently and skillfully guided by Beverly Moulton. Not her first win, you may remember, but two other teamsters came quite close – D.J. Clary and Jason Dunham. Our 21st Challenge should be very exciting for both the teams and the eager crowd. Maybe there will be more new surprises!