Free Press columnist Eva Murray
Free Press columnist Eva Murray
Had this been an ordinary year, I’d have been perched in a tiny office above the fairground’s exhibition hall just before each day kicked into gear. I would have written out my short script, reminded myself to slow down, cleared my throat, keyed the mike for a second before speaking, and tried to effect the cheeriest demeanor I could manage. I would then have sternly lectured everybody loading and unloading and scurrying about on the fairground that they’d danged well better move their cars right this minute. The gates would open soon. I’d sign off with a determinedly, almost exaggeratedly chipper, “thank you.” That was my job each morning.

Meanwhile, my husband ran with a roving band of electricians. That scruffy crew was generally around “looking for trouble.” They’d find it and they’d fix it.

For years — for decades — we have been part of the behind-the-scenes volunteer help at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s Common Ground Country Fair. For those who do the work which most fairgoers do not think about, this annual gathering of mechanics and roustabouts, tech geeks and EMTs is a reunion of old friends.

This year, like all the other Maine fairs and most sizeable gatherings, the real-world Common Ground Fair was not to be. The “Virtual Common Ground Country Fair” is online, with plenty of interesting things to watch (check out https://fair.mofga.org) but a digital substitute doesn’t need an announcer or an electrician, or people in orange safety vests, or people in bright-colored “staff” shirts carrying radios, ready with a screwdriver or a stethoscope or maybe just directions to the composting talk or the fried scallop guy.

The things I missed most could not be included in a virtual fair because they are the funny bits around the edges, the abstractions, and the friends we sometimes see only once a year (Hi, Lana! Hi, Steve!). In a typical year, the trip itself was a family event, with our kids coming from their homes and jobs in other places. We’d often notice the first fall foliage on our way from the coast to the fairground, as swamp maples turned red in a few low-lying areas along Route 137. The fairground in Unity would be our home for nearly a week in late September. Before the fair, life was summer, a time of scrambling busily all the time for a lot of other people. After the fair was autumn, a time to mess with firewood and spend more hours alone.

In a “normal” year I enjoy walking around the grounds on the Thursday before the fair starts, watching the vendors hurry to finish their setting up, as people climb around with cordless drills assembling booths in which they sell their arts and harvests, unloading huge bags of huge onions, and driving in with horse trailers bringing gorgeous draft horses, mules and oxen, llamas and alpacas.

One of the regular utilities volunteers made the suggestion (electronically, of course) that in order to truly conjure the experience of the fair, and to remind everyone on the crew of the “warm, fuzzy feelings” the gang would always sense when they’d tackle such duties as promote group bonding, a virtual septic pump truck in all its glory should need to be threaded through a virtual crowd of 19,000 assorted virtual people not one of whom is interested in getting out of the way of said truck. Ah, the things most fairgoers don’t worry about.

Until recent years no coffee was sold on the fairground because only Maine-grown food products were accepted. But not all of us working grunts were convinced, early of a chilly morning, so on the tailgate of many a pickup truck was seen a Coleman stove, and on each stove a percolator. Into coffee made the old-fashioned way went store-bought milk or farm milk from somebody’s own spread, cow milk or goat milk, maple syrup or honey or hot chocolate mix, even M&Ms. The brew was drunk from a mess kit tin cup or a gas station give-away or a hand-thrown treasure bought from some potter peddling their art in the craft tent. (These days you can get Rock City coffee at the fair.)

We missed camping under the pines and waking to the sounds of livestock. We missed the tailgate-party–style breakfasts and wandering the fairground to greet the animals in the early hours, before the gates opened, warming chilly fingers around a cup of percolator-on-Coleman-stove coffee with memories of it being contraband. Hopefully next year we’ll again see first frost in inland Waldo County, where cold mornings come so much earlier than they do out to sea. Dawn at our fairground campsite is usually where we’d first want our mittens. Next September, hope to see you at the Common Ground Fair!