Ox Teamster’s Challenge returns Saturday to Cummington Fair 

  • A team of oxen compete in a recent Ox Teamster’s Challenge at the Cummington Fair. CONTRIBUTED

  • A team of oxen compete in a recent Ox Teamster’s Challenge at the Cummington Fair. CONTRIBUTED

  • A team of oxen compete in a recent Ox Teamster’s Challenge at the Cummington Fair. CONTRIBUTED

  • A team of oxen compete in a recent Ox Teamster’s Challenge at the Cummington Fair. CONTRIBUTED

Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2021 11:59:51 AM

CUMMINGTON — The return of the Cummington Fair this week also heralds the return of the Ox Teamster’s Challenge, an event designed to highlight the intelligence and agility of oxen, and the feats these animals can accomplish when treated with love.

“If they have been raised with love they’ll do anything for you,” said Nan Clark, 92, who helped to found the Ox Teamster’s Challenge alongside her husband, Mernie Clark.

“We married in 1978,” she said. “That’s when I began to understand and love oxen.”

Nan said that Mernie, who passed away in 2013, came up with the idea of the Ox Teamster’s Challenge because he wanted to show that oxen weren’t just powerful animals.

“He wanted to showcase their beauty and their intelligence,” she said.

The event, which is scheduled for Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at the fairgrounds, is a timed obstacle course that’s navigated by an ox teamster with a team of oxen and a log that the team pulls. Each team starts out with 100 points and gets deductions for mistakes, with time finishing the course serving as a tiebreaker. The person judging the event also designs the course.

Another element of the challenge is that people of all ages compete against one another, with the only thing distinguishing teams being that smaller ox teams get to drag a smaller log.

There are also two water buckets on stumps as part of the course, and if a team can knock over a bucket with their log they get a cash prize.

The event was run first at the Cummington Fair, but Nan Clark said that when her husband proposed it, fair organizers were initially skeptical. As a result, when it started in 1995, Mernie Clark provided the prize money and ribbons out of his own pocket. The event proved to be popular, however, and today it draws large crowds and has multiple business sponsors.

For the first 25 years of the competition Nan, a radio major at Emerson College, has been the announcer for the event, and she will be announcing the Ox Teamster’s Challenge this Saturday at the fair as well.

“I love a microphone,” she said.

Nan said the event has had as few as five teams and as many as 20 participate, although she said that it works best with eight to 10 teams.

“Many teams have been in it for a number of years,” she said.

The rules of the competition are designed to promote gentle handling of oxen. Plastic whips are banned, hitting oxen in the face is banned and participants must use gentle commands with their team.

“We run it exactly the way Mernie wanted it to run,” Clark said.

After the 25th anniversary of the event in 2019, Clark stepped down from her role as superintendent of the event and had her assistant Janet Pixley take over. Now, Clark serves as Pixley’s assistant.

“It feels so strange for Nan to be my assistant,” Pixley said.

Pixley said that the event is something that the spectators at the fair enjoy, and that she wanted to continue it for Nan.

“I’m still learning from her too,” Pixley said.

Pixley said that she started her involvement with the challenge by helping out Clark, and she would like for Clark to stay involved as long as she is willing.

Clark noted how her husband would make yokes and bows and twisted hickory whips for oxen, and described how he once rehabilitated an ox that had been badly abused.

“They’re very, very kind and gentle and willing animals if they have been raised with love and kindness,” she said.

She also recalled how her husband cleared land on their Chesterfield property with their oxen.

“They did it all for Mernie,” she said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.

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