A man in worn bib overalls and a tattered straw hat stands next to you at the Common Ground Fair, watching the border collies herd sheep. He thinks he can pass for a Maine organic farmer, but Professor Burns, who once taught math at Annapolis, is fooling no one: He is wearing shoes.
Fairs have always been a source of adventure, profit and enlightenment. You will remember reading a story that began, “A man and his three sons were once driving their donkey along a country road to sell him at the fair.”
Even the cat, the rooster and the donkey were originally going to a fair, until Grimm had to change the story a bit to avoid copyright infringement. If it were not for fairs, several successful Flemish artists would have had to go into shoe repair.
Our very own Common Ground Fair, or CGF, is Maine’s premier example of countless similar fairs that have come and gone over the past 1,500 years. Originating at strategic crossroads along heavily traveled trade routes, fairs solved the early problem of product distribution.
Concentrating supply and demand at certain places at certain times, they were an opportunity to exchange ideas, teach new skills and barter goods. Fairs were originally held in burial yards to hopefully mitigate the inevitable violence generated when trying to trade three goat skins for a bag of salt.
Today, when too much of everything we eat or wear or use is trekked in by caravan, the CGF is an opportunity for Maine farmers and artists to strut their stuff. Some will tell you that they can make more money selling their pottery or apples or blueberries at this three-day fair than they can in any six-month period in the year.
This is good. Maine farmers and artisans deserve to make a living.
You will read that fairs in New York and Connecticut came into being around 200 years ago when a few progressive farmers got together to exchange ideas on how to best fatten up pigs and cattle. But how many Maine fairs do you think owe their existence to the fact that a few sports wanted an excuse to bet on their fast trotters?
If you ask around, most folks will tell you that the Common Ground Fair has a down-home feel. It is in a great rural setting. It is not scripted like a concert or a sporting event, but is designed and created on the spot by you and every other person who participates.
Fair director Jim Ahern says, “The fair has to do with the commonality of values. Here in rural Maine, farming is close to the way everyone lives. We’re here to celebrate farming. It’s a harvest festival. We’re celebrating the bounty.”
Is it crowded? Anyone who has spent 40 winters on Monhegan might say, “Yes.” The 60 million folks who attended the Kumbh Mela fair in India in 2001 would probably say, “No.”
Don’t miss the Harry S. Truman Manure Pitch, one of the more popular sporting events at the CGF. The rules at the event — probably inaugurated by organic guru Mort Mather — are self-explanatory. You will see seasoned spectators standing well back.
May I leave you with two opposing thoughts from two very different people?
“I go for the sense of community. This tribe values healthy food, products, practices and lifestyles, and by supporting them we support ourselves. Is there hypocrisy and things about my tribe to make sport of? Sure.
“We tend to be preachy and self-righteous, but our fair is a celebration of all that is sacred, ancient and holy. It is a multi-generational gathering where kids can learn about nature, self-reliance, traditional crafts and skills, and good food.
“I always walk away inspired and refreshed. It validates my choices and values. It is a glimpse into what the world could be like if we all shared these values.” — Jeff from Portland, on the Common Ground Fair
And then this:
“I’m 72 and attended the fair faithfully for 25 years. My children are now adults, and I have no need to introduce my grandchildren to one more example of the intolerable fast pace of this modern world.
“For my part, same demos, same displays, same causes. It’s nice to meet old friends, or what’s left of them, but the original allure of the fair of my youth is gone. It is now too large and confusing. Too many simultaneous events. Too many steps to walk. Long lines for overpriced food. A seemingly random layout where nothing is easy to find. You approach it on a road that is overcrowded for miles.
“If I were to go now it would be for just one event — the nostalgic atmosphere of my youth, and then I’m ready to go home to my own gardens, chickens and bees.” — Wulfion Dagobert, Rouen honey merchant, on the Saint-Denis Fair of 629 A.D.
The humble Farmer, who will be speaking at this year’s Common Ground Fair all three days (Sept. 20-22), can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website: