Monday, August 25, 2014
CUMMINGTON — As a procession of oxen made its way to the Lumberjack Arena at the Fairgrounds Saturday afternoon for the 20th annual Ox Teamster’s Challenge, a crowd of New Englanders grew eager to visit their historical roots.
“It’s a nostalgic thing,” said Mark Carr of Tiverton, Rhode Island. “It’s of the yesteryears, you know?”
Carr competed with Black and Label, 10-month-old Holstein brothers. Training oxen, he said, has been a tradition in his family for half a century.
The competition, in which teamsters, or trainers, guide teams of two oxen through an obstacle course using primarily voice commands and light taps, was among many events Saturday, the third day of the 146th annual Cummington Fair. The event closed Sunday.
The oxen challenge was started 20 years ago by the late Merwin Clark, a Chesterfield resident who died in March 2013 at age 91. It is now run by his former wife, Nan Clark, 85, of Chesterfield.
More than a dozen teams maneuvered around an obstacle course that included poles, cones and buckets of water — with the buckets being the only thing that generated points for being knocked over.
Partway through, trainers had to chain their oxen to a large sleigh for them to pull over the finish line. Participants competed for both speed and agility and were awarded cash prizes and gift cards.
As Carr guided Black and Label through the course, the crowd gasped in anticipation as the animals made their way by one of the buckets, and sighed heartily as they just missed knocking it over. Teamsters won $20 for every bucket that got knocked over.
Katya Bowen, of Pittsfield, said she has been watching oxen at local fairs since she was a little girl. She grew up near Boston, she said, and used to go to a similar fair each year in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
“It was like the highlight of the year,” she recalled. “These people being able to guide these huge animals to do what you want them to do is pretty impressive.”
And for Clark, the excitement still runs high after 20 years.
“Oh, I just love this,” she said, throwing her hands in the air. “I love oxen. I think they’re wonderful.”
She recalled that Merwin wanted people to know that oxen can be trained with kindness, using mainly voice commands and soft touches from the driving stick.
“He really understood animals,” she said. “He was kind.”
The Clarks had divorced after being married for 20 years, but continued working together to organize the oxen challenge because they “both loved it,” she said. After his death, a plaque with his name on it was put up in the main building at the fairgrounds. Each year, the names of the challenge winners are added.
Though Carr’s oxen did not make it through the obstacle course within the time limit, for their young age, he said, their work was “exceptional.”
“I was very pleased with them,” he said.
Clark, who does all of the announcing for the challenge, noted to the crowd that when oxen were used for logging, they were regarded for how much they could pull, not their speed.
She later noted in an interview that oxen do not get agitated as easily as horses. If they get stuck in mud, she said, they won’t kick it up, but simply wait for their master’s next command.
“It was oxen who opened up the west,” she said.
Meanwhile, with the rain gone, overall fair attendance was up, noted Tom Carter, one of the organizers.
“I think we’re in line for a really good year,” he said. “Most people don’t want to miss the Cummington Fair.”
Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at email@example.com.