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.
I write the first draft of this story with a special pencil — white with green lettering and a green 4-leaf clover. Each leaf is imprinted with a white H. Below the clover is this motto: “To Make The Best Better.” Further lettering states: “I pledge my Head to clearer thinking – my Heart to greater loyalty – my Hands to larger service, and my Health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
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.
Jim’s sculpture is preserving a nearly bygone era of family farming. When he looks at an old, worn, pitted piece of metal he thinks of its history: the ox yoke ring, a plow blade, hay rake, buggy spring. He feels emotion for them and it shows in his work. He uses lots of shovels. He says, “Years ago, if the handle broke on a shovel, the farmer made a new handle. Nowadays, most folks toss the shovel and buy all new. A cheap one for 7 or 8 dollars. Once every farmer had to be able to fix whatever broke down, especially during the Depression. They would use whatever was handy like bale hay wire. My favorite place to get metal is from a farmer who lived through the Depression. They didn’t throw anything away. It’s a treasure trove of stuff. Even if it’s broken. I love to hear the history of the piece and the animals.
Once upon a time, I asked my country cousin, Murray Clapp, “Why do you make maple syrup?” He shrugged and said positively, “How would you know it’s spring if you didn’t make maple syrup?” Growing up in Western Massachusetts I always new it was spring when my parents took my sisters and me to the Hilltowns to breathe the maple scented air, watch the sugaring process and taste the unique, sweet syrup.
Years ago all sap was gathered from the buckets on the trees and poured into wooden tanks on sleds pulled by oxen or horses. Nowadays many farms use tractors; however, there are still quite a few places where animals are preferred. To honor that tradition the Meachams have invited members of the Western Mass. 4-H Ox Teamsters Association to be on hand for the day. Those who could come are here with their steers and carts giving rides around the farm. As we sink into the hay cushion in our cart we get the feeling of warmth even though we see not only our breath in the breeze but also the breath of each yoked animal.
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.
As the teams perform there is quite naturally a lot of tension and the polite crowd is quiet. In between there is plenty of good humor, laughter and very good sportsmanship. With so many contestants the Challenge takes all afternoon as each team is allowed 10 minutes to load the miserable log onto a wood-shod sled and take it through the ornery obstacles.
When a pair of calves is carefully chosen to become an Ox Team they should be housed together, fed and watered together, yolked together, and exercised together from the get-go. There are as many training methods as there are teamsters. Like children, love and patience produce the best results. A willing team is a joy to work with for many years.
Oxen are all from the Bovine species which includes Cattle, Buffalo and Kudus. On hand for the 19th Ox Teamster’s Challenge last August were eight different Bovine breeds of cattle: Brown Swiss, Belgium Blue, Chianina, Devon, Holstein, Milking Shorthorn, Normande, and Randall. This turned out to be our best show so far, with enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable surprises.
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!
Surely it was a banner Challenge. The eager SRO crowd was treated to some bovine beauties guided carefully with voice commands. All the teamsters used the traditional twisted Hickory stick made by a respected teamster of yore, Art Hine, and given to the Challenge by Art’s son Nathan. Ten teamsters took home their share of the rosette ribbons and generous premiums provided by the fair officials. It was a long afternoon filled with patience, surprises and good humor.
Although the history of this interesting building dates back to 1823, I have chosen to write about what I have gleaned from conversations with three living generations of the Bisbee/Brisbois families, now closely involved with the museum. Hearing from each of them brings this museum into focus as an important part of the agricultural/industrial history of Chesterfield, Massachusetts. Their stories connect, their memories offer clarity and humor, their hopes inspire. The Time Line, so carefully researched by Kathie Brisbois, establishes an unbroken thread spanning nearly 200 years.