A fair to remember: Cummington Fairgrounds home to vibrant seasons of a family’s life

  • A family photo of Ruth Leahey’s father, W. Robert Thayer Sr., and ribbons from the 1932 Cummington Fair. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A selection of fine-looking tomatoes and butternut squash is seen in a Cummington Fair exhibit from 2012. RUTH LEAHEY

  • The writer, left, is seen with her brother, Walter Thayer, on matching tractors at the Cummington Fair. FAMILY PHOTO

  • The writer’s cousin, Cliff Clark Jr., is seen on a Joh Deere tractor at the fair. FAMILY PHOTO

  • Ruth Leahey plays on a porch at the exhibit hall on the Cummington Fairgrounds. The benches were donated in memory of family members. FAMILY PHOTO

  • The writer’s grandparents, Ray and Myra Clark. FAMILY PHOTO

  • The writer with her award-winning quilt from 1978 that possibly saved her life in a car crash. It was accorded the “Quilt of the Fair Award” at the Cummington Fair that year. FAMILY PHOTO

  • Ruth Leahey at the exhibit hall at the Cummington Fairgrounds. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ruth Leahey at the exhibit hall at the Cummington Fair grounds looks out over the empty grounds. "Its so quiet," she said. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Recently I made a trip to the Goshen and Worthington cemeteries, took the back road to Worthington and went by the Cummington Fairgrounds. The silence was eerie and not golden at the gates.

My friend and I paused at the fair gates for a while. I began the story of how our family had a more than 100-year connection. All I had to do was close my eyes and I could feel the “fair vibes” and the sounds of a fair in motion. I began my story this way:

My maternal grandparents, the late Ray and Myra Clark, met at the fair over 100 years ago. She dropped her hankie and he picked it up. They courted, married and, even with nine children in tow, attended the fair annually. Grandpa drove a team of horses and the family would ride on the hay wagon to and from the fair. He would compete in the horse draws and she would tend to the kids. A wall full of assorted ribbons in their living room would attest to his ability to coach the horses. After he passed, she would still go to the fair, watch the horse pulls, look at the exhibits, and watch the country western show, Doc and Chickie Williams from West Virginia.

Meanwhile, there was a young man in Williamsburg (my dad, W. Robert Thayer Sr.) who loved his cows. He used to board the train at the Williamsburg Train Station with his cattle and travel to Eastern States, the Big E. He would live on his prize money, buy feed for the cattle, and save money enough to get back to Williamsburg. He also showed his cattle at Cummington Fair. I have his 1932 and 1933 ribbons from that fair. In that shadow box is my one and only first-prize ribbon I got in sheep showing — in 1954, when I was 9 years old. As a teenager, my brother showed our Jersey cows at the same fair and did very well.

The “fair blood” ran deep in our family and as the years passed. My mom, the former Jessie Clark, and Dad continued to exhibit vegetables and home-sewn articles and work on Grange exhibits. These Grange exhibits took a lot of time to plan and pull together. Since there were many area fairs, the exhibits needed to be portable as well as educational.

Competition between Granges was usually friendly, but winning first prize or second could be as close as one-tenth of a point. The Grange I belonged to, where I was co-chairman of the traveling fair committee, did seven fairs in six weeks — the likes of Littleville, Middlefield, Westfield, Cummington, Three County, Franklin, Blandford, Great Barrington. The money won ($750 that year) would go toward community projects.

Mother was a Hill Institute braided rug instructor and entered her rugs in the “instructors’ division” at Big E, as well as other fairs. My brother’s hobby of Farm All tractor restoration paid off as he won Grand Champion for his Farm All tractor 300 at Big E. For many years I have represented Whately Grange while playing music in the New England Grange Building — and I have played music at Cummington and Franklin fairs for almost 20 years.

Mother and Dad were high competitors, especially in vegetable displays and farm displays, and always had a keen value of “if you raise or make it yourself, you exhibit it as something you have done.” They read the fair premium books faithfully; wrote their entry forms correctly; prepared their entries painstakingly.

For me, I have exhibited many homemade clothing items, home crafts, paintings and baked goods. The largest quilt I made (for my oldest daughter) did me proud at Cummington Fair and at The Three County Fair. I remember the day it saved me from being more severely injured in a car crash.

I was helping my husband take the trash to the landfill when we were involved in a two-vehicle crash. The quilt was on my lap in a large plastic bag. A friend was taking it to the fair the next day.

The impact of our truck hitting another vehicle that had stopped directly in front of us threw me against the dashboard of our truck. Assuming I had a concussion, I was sent to the hospital where I had been an employee only two hours previously. Upon examination, the physician found I was only injured from the waist up. The only clear explanation was that the quilt buffered the impact. The quilt won the “Quilt of the Fair Award”— several rosettes and a silver dish. This was in 1978 and my daughter has the quilt still.

My girls were different as day and night — one was a reader and the other loved to cook and be in the kitchen and was interested in the fairs. One year the younger daughter watched intently as her Grandma made strawberry jam, and asked that she could make some at our house.

She was 14, and prepared the berries, washed the jars, followed the package instructions, and processed her first batch of strawberry jam — nine jars. At the time of Williamsburg Grange Fair she asked if she could enter her jam, so I guided her through preparing her entry. She had to compete with adults — with people like her grandmother. The rest is history — my daughter won first prize and my mother got second. After learning who was awarded the blue ribbon, Mom scoffed: “She had a good teacher.”

Exhibit hall supervisors and judges were needed at several fairs and my parents were asked to help and were judges for years. As judges of vegetables, they couldn’t enter in those categories they judged — conflict of interest. When Dad passed away in 1990, Mom asked me to join her as a judge. I have been a judge since then.

In addition to judging in the exhibit hall, I judge the antique cars and trucks and have donated money annually to the fair for trophies in this division at Cummington Fair. “Did you know the judge is a woman and she asked me to lift the hood of my car to look at the engine!” I heard one antique car exhibitor grumble to another.

The two men watched as I proceeded down the line of cars and trucks, inspecting them as I passed by. I had been schooled not only as a judge, but was versed in automobile restoration. Some cars that were almost 100 years old were parked next to cars that had just been classified as antiques. I could feel the “vibes” between the cars, guessing if they could talk they would tell stories how they (the older ones) carried their previous owners to the fair.

The year after he passed, I donated money to purchase a bench for the exhibit hall — and every time I enter the hall, I feel he is there with me. When my mother passed (just 10 months before him), I suggested that since both parents loved to go to fairs, that our family donate money for another bench in both parents’ memory and we did, starting a trend of donated in memory benches for the fair.

My friend listened as I related how generation No. 5 since my grandparents’ venture had a different idea of the fair — rides, rides and more rides, and a quest to see how much fair food could be inhaled in a day’s venture. My only grandson teased to go on the whip, an no, he didn’t get sick; I did. He must have had a cast iron stomach because he ate candy apples, cotton candy, a hot dog, French fries and onion rings, and downed a milkshake like it was Sunday dinner. Meanwhile, his sister rode, like she was on a real horse, the merry-go-round.

As I came to the end of my memories, I concluded there are some very special times at Cummington Fair.

There are so many people you see only at fair time and I will miss them and catching up on the year’s news. I feel sorry for those who have labored in the fields, producing prize-winning vegetables and fruits; manufactured crafts; and raised animals to exhibit but won’t have the excitement of entering at the fair this year.

For the first time in my memory, there won’t be a Cummington Fair. I am 75 years old. The fairgrounds will be silent — no roar of the motor spinning the merry-go-round, no enticing smell of the annual suppers and other food; no wedding/anniversary competition, no line of antique cars, no horse and oxen pulls, no animals blatting and no music in the late summer evenings. There is so much that will be missed.

Oh, I understand the call not to have the fair this year — keeping fairgoers 6 feet apart and wearing masks while trying to eat fair food would be mind-boggling for anyone. The decision was made in conjunction with the fair’s board of directors and the president of the fair — a relative of mine, and thank you. It was the right thing to do.

See you next year at the 2021 fair!