Ray Duckler: The president, back for a second term, looks to the past
Is David O’Neal the right man to jump-start the Deerfield Fair?
Born and raised in Deerfield? Check.
Began attending the fair before he could walk? Check.
Represents his family’s fifth generation of employees at the fair? Check.
Ignores the letter “R,” instead calling one of the feature attractions the “hoss pull?”
Check, check and double check.
O’Neal is the fair’s president, returning to the post he held from 1998 to 2004. Then he left, saying he needed to focus on his real job, owning an auto repair shop in town. He also went through a divorce.
In short, life got in the way.
“I needed a break,” O’Neal said yesterday, sitting in the quiet administration building, the calm before the storm. “It used to be more fun, but it’s more stressful this year. I have to get back into the swing of things again, with different policies.”
The fair’s 137th edition will be held Sept. 26-29. It’s billed as New England’s oldest family fair, and it offers 300 acres filled with everything you’d expect from a fair.
But this year, with O’Neal returning, the theme will revert back to its origin, to the staple that made the fair a hit in the first place.
Before video games and the recession and Keeping up with the Kardashians began to bite into attendance like a kid on a corn dog, there was agriculture, agriculture and more agriculture.
Rides were fun, but farm animals and farming were the name of the game. And agriculture, O’Neal believes, will draw the crowds back.
“The hoss show is at its maximum entry list,” O’Neal said. “We’ll have a full barn of pigs, and cattle are up in numbers. We’ll have a petting zoo, with goats and ducks and rabbits.”
And there’s more: For the first time since the fair’s 100th anniversary celebration 37 years ago, a big, motorized vehicle will be raffled off.
This time it’s a John Deere riding mower, worth “a couple of thousand bucks,” according to O’Neal. The prize was secured by a woman named Sarah Lindquist, who runs her own advertising agency, based in Manchester, and who can not go unmentioned in this column.
That’s because Lindquist is the yin to O’Neal’s yang. She’s the well-groomed fashion statement to O’Neal’s auto repair uniform and dirty hands, the endless stream of promotional ideas to O’Neal’s quiet demeanor.
She drives a two-door Mercedes sports car, a convertible, of course, and brings boundless energy to an institution whose batteries need recharging.
She and O’Neal worked together during his first term as president. She’s using her connections, built through the 12 years she’s owned her ad agency and the 15 years she served as general manager at Rock 101.
She brings out a large white board with an alphabet soup of media outlets that she’s secured for publicity this year, stretched farther away than usual, like NESN and WHDH, both out of Boston, and the ABC affiliate from Portland, Maine.
“It’s about the animals and the kids this year, and that’s clearly reflected in the advertising,” Lindquist said. “It’s been missing the past eight years. We’re competing against soccer and after-school activities, and we have to be top notch. They were always pushing rides, and you can get rides anywhere. Now you can win a tractor and get up close with more animals. That’s huge.”
The way Team Deerfield describes it, the fair will go back to a simpler time, like 50 years ago, when O’Neal ate french fries and palled around with the neighborhood boys.
Or 40 years ago, when his late grandmother baked pies at the fair and canned jellies, before his late aunt took over. Now his mother runs the flower exhibit, his brother and one daughter help her, and another daughter is one of the fair’s directors.
And O’Neal is at the top again, attending board and association meetings, returning phone calls, giving his staff directions, all while jamming in his usual 50-hour work week fixing cars.
He’s in control, but the weather is another matter. O’Neal recently lost five computer hookups and the phone system from lightning. He says he stopped watching the forecast two weeks ago because “I have no control over the weather. One year I prayed and it didn’t work.”
So instead of worrying about future rain storms, O’Neal shows me around the grounds, calm on this day, with a breeze blowing and crickets chirping and a few men doing odd jobs.
Over there, far in the distance, are the bleachers that will seat people for the tractor-pull and demolition derby.
And over there, inside the white picket fence, is where the dogs will herd sheep. And over there, in the arena near the log cabin, is where the hoss show will be held.
“It’s quiet now, but in two weeks it will be a zoo,” O’Neal said. “At least that’s what we’re hoping for.”