Opinion: Fun at the fair


Published: 08-16-2023 6:00 AM

Parker Potter is a former archaeologist and historian, and a retired lawyer. He is currently a semi-professional dog walker who lives and works in Contoocook.

The Hopkinton State Fair opens to the general public the Friday before Labor Day. For the past several years, my primary fair experience has been parking cars for the high school girls’ basketball team and attending Thursday’s Townie Night. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Apart from watching our daughter win a big purple gorilla at a basketball shooting game on the midway, my favorite fair memories come from my experiences as an insider rather than as a fairgoer.

When Nancy Jo and I moved to New Hampshire, one of her three summer jobs was milking cows at Sand Bank Farm in Contoocook. When the fair rolled around, Sand Bank’s owner, John, told Nancy Jo that he would be exhibiting cows at the fair, so we went and checked it out.

When we saw John on Sunday, he told us that on Monday, the Sand Bank Ayrshires would be marching in the livestock parade. We were on the fence about going to the fair on Monday, until a light bulb went on over my head.

Translating from New Hampshire farmer into plain English, “there’s going to be a livestock parade tomorrow” actually meant “please come back tomorrow and help with the livestock parade.” We did, and less than a year after we arrived in New Hampshire, Nancy Jo and I were marching around the fairgrounds leading cows on halters. We helped John exhibit his cows every year until Sand Bank closed in 1995.

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Several years after our first visit to the fair, Nancy Jo and I had some skin in the game. Cow skin, that is. After Nancy Jo finished her summer at Sand Bank, I went there once a week to help with the Saturday afternoon milking. One thing led to another until Nancy Jo and I accompanied John to a cattle auction and came home with Margo, a purebred Ayrshire with a fancy pedigree.

Eventually, John started including Margo in the Sand Bank show string, so I got to lead her around the show ring wearing a white outfit and a paper hat. Margo never finished too high in the bovine beauty contest, but once she was the highest-producing Ayrshire cow at the fair.

That same year, Sand Bank won a big ribbon for dairy herdsmanship in part because of a promotional campaign I put on called “Ask About Our Ayrshires.”

Notwithstanding the glory of a certificate and a ribbon, my favorite fair dairy memories are quiet ones. We arrived at the fairgrounds long before the gates opened for visitors. We fed and watered the cows, cleaned up their bedding, and took the older ones through the milking parlor. Only after we had cared for the animals was it time for us to go to the Webster Church booth for a plate of bacon and eggs with the other farm families. I treasured those breakfasts.

I also treasured the moments at the end of the fair. Sand Bank was only a couple of miles down the road, so we were always assigned the last departure time. I fondly remember taking down our exhibit and then sitting in the sawdust with the cows as the sun went down, the demolition derby cars revved up, and the other livestock exhibitors drove away. My fair always ended with a box of penuche fudge from a vendor who was packing up the last of their unsold stock.

Fifteen years after my last hurrah as a dairy exhibitor, I made a triumphant return to the fairgrounds as a Chinese food vendor. Friends of ours, who then owned the Red Star restaurant, asked Nancy Jo, our daughter, and me to help them run a food stand at the fair, so we did. Our lo mein, fried rice, and egg rolls stood out from the rest of the fair food and proved to be pretty popular.

We didn’t cook at the fair; the cook at the Red Star drove up to the gate with fresh food and hauled it across the fairgrounds in a little red wagon. Then there was the sage advice we got from a veteran food vendor, who convinced us to push our trays of food closer to the front of the booth and take off the plastic wrap. In his words: “This is fair food; it’s supposed to have a little dust on it.” Finally, the carnies loved our food and in exchange for discounts on food, they gave us streamers of ride tickets which kept our daughter and her young Red Star friend occupied for hours.

Sadly, both Sand Bank Farm and the Red Star have receded into history, but when the fair opens and I pass by on my morning walk, the aroma of fried dough and grilled sausage will remind me of my happy days as a dairy exhibitor and Chinese food vendor.