Pig Scrambles and Feathered Roach Clips: Growing up on the Fryeburg Fair


The Fryeburg Fair is one of the largest agricultural events in the state of Maine. I didn’t realize how special it was until I started going to to the Common Ground Fair—it’s hip, locavore cousin—a handful of years back. I love Common Ground, with its fried shittake mushrooms and anarchist book sales and rugged and pretty farm girls. I love that it is held in Unity, Maine—how perfect is that—and I adore its environmental consciousness. But if the Common Ground Fair is your vegan record store girl crush, then the Fryeburg Fair, with its Woodsman’s Day and sausages and fried Oreos and 4×4 pulls is the gun loving roller derby gal you are crushed to realize you are nowhere near cool enough to be on the radar of. Common Ground represents the Maine that out-of-staters hold in their imagination, the idealistic construct that a lot of metropolitan Mainers envision one day inserting themselves into, whereas Fryeburg is the Maine I actually grew up in—rich in attitude, gun racks, cattle and brightly dyed feathers affixed to roach clips.

Growing up, I went with my parents to the Fryeburg Fair every year. When I was 10, I asked to play one of those midway games where you perform one task, and, if successful, you are then handed a dart to throw at your prize of choice. I passed the first phase, and was afforded the luxury of aiming for a Guns N’ Roses poster. It was around this time that I was really into temporary tattoos of skulls and knives as a means of being like the members of the band. The year before, I begged my mother for a photograph where the guy at the fair takes your picture and then superimposes your face over the frontman of your favorite act. My young, chubby face was placed in the stead of Rose’s beautiful, angular one and his bandana-restrained mop sat atop my head. I was devastated when my sister accurately pointed out that I looked exactly like Boy George.

So I tossed the dart and missed the six shooters bound by thorns, bookended by beautiful, lush rose heads and it instead embedded itself into a protruding nipple belonging to one of three massive sets of silicone-augmented breasts barely supported by tissue-thin fabric, hovering above the caption “COLD SIX PACK.” Seeing how awkward I was when I looked at my accidental bounty, then at my parents, then at him, the carnie made an exception and sent me home with my intended target.

That I was effete and looked more like Boy George than any member of Guns N’ Roses never felt more pronounced than when I was at the Fryeburg Fair. Throughout my childhood and eventual teenage, it felt like the event innately belonged to the rugged farmers showing off their livestock and the fun-seeking denim jacket clad metal heads and rural tough guys with feathered haired girlfriends who seemed to travel in packs. While much of this insecure perspective existed solely in my head, it also maintained some basis in reality. Two years before the Cold Six Pack incident, my father signed me up for the pig scramble unbeknownst to me. I learned of my participation upon hearing my name announced alongside 9 others by way of a loudspeaker affixed to a barn door. For those who didn’t grow up going to agricultural fairs, a pig scramble is a competition in which 8 piglets are released in a large pen to 10 children. Each child is then to run after a pig, tackle it, and shove it into a burlap sack. 8 of the children who do so successfully will leave the fair with a new pig, leaving behind two total losers.

It goes without saying that I was one of the losers. 20 years after my participation in the scramble, I appeared on WCSH 6 to talk about the Fryeburg Fair as part of a project I was producing. I wore a red stripped gondolier shirt and on several occasions I mistakenly referred to the skillet toss—a competition in which fair attendees throw cast iron skillets—as a Skittle toss before having a nervous giggle fit. A couple of days ago, a conservative activist asked if it was safe to assume that I am the new-age wimp wussy she believes I present as. Absolutely I am. In the 8 year old who scurried half-heartedly after these screeching piglets—sauntered is more accurate a term—you might not specifically place that he would grow into a new age wimp wussy who couldn’t tell the difference between a Skittle and a skillet while wearing a gondolier shirt on the local network news, but it certainly would have made sense had someone told you it was in my future.

I remember working my way toward the piglet like I was positive that I would contract the plague if I were to touch it. I remember feeling incredibly anxious about the mud that was getting on my Pumps. I heard the crowd cheering and I was aware that people were watching, and I had to balance the feeling that I needed to look like I had my shit together with the knowledge that there was no way in hell that I was going to tackle that pig and stuff it into a bag without the aid of divine intervention. I felt like I imagine the Queen would feel at a soup kitchen, or at a GWAR concert—the situation was alien, terrifying and degrading, but if I were to just fake confidence for long enough, maybe I would make it out unscathed.

Every year I would see those guys who rode the thunderbolt with their hands up, hurtling backwards at top speeds, scream-singing along to the Black Album. I was always in awe of what I perceived as their masculinity and confidence while I perpetually felt exactly as I did while attempting to pretend as if I gave a shit about bagging that pig. As I got older, I would occasionally catch the gaze of a pale, black-haired girl in a Crow t-shirt or with a Cure patch sewn onto her bag and we would pass each other and half smile a handful of times throughout the night, but it would be in different, future contexts that either of us would learn to speak to strangers of interest with any confidence. The fair always felt bigger and tougher and more exotic than I could ever imagine being, but I loved it the way that Timothy Treadwell loved those bears in spite of that fact he had to know that he would one day be devoured by them. I loved it because of how small it made me, like I was stranded in the wilderness. I loved that feeling stranded somehow felt liberating.

Teenage jobs came, as did girls who liked the sort of guys who are terrible at bagging pigs. College came and went, as did my early twenties and nearly a decade passed in which I did not attend the Fryeburg Fair. There is one exception, as I think I went in 2001, when the event would have taken place less than a month after 9/11. I vaguely remember Bin Laden Wanted Dead or Alive t-shirts and posters available everywhere. Sometime during that sabbatical I discovered the Common Ground Fair with its organic falafel and good coffee and embargo on all of the food that defines the Fryeburg Fair. I loved Common Ground—I still do—for being conscious and aspirational and agrarian and utopian—everything I came to hold dear in my later teenage and in my 20s—but it still felt foreign and made me aware of the absence of the Fryeburg Fair in my heart. It was beautiful and respectable and monumental, but it made me miss home, like when Coraline realizes that the flawless avatars that replace her flawed parents are themselves problematic in that they are not actually her parents. I needed to go home.

When I returned at age 25 or 26—I have gone every year since—I was transported back to my youth, to the scramble, the cold six pack, the seemingly tough teenagers and the rugged farmers, all by way of mass consumption of sausages and french fries and apple crisp and cold autumn air, by seeing that there are some places where drug rugs have not gone out of style, nor has mid-career Metallica. I am transported back to the Maine I came up in, which is less about idealism than it is about somehow making where you are work, and feeling over your head and eating unhealthy but well and both questioning your masculinity and insane standards for measuring it, and finding entertainment in watching large trucks drag cement blocks. It is about being thrown into a pit with a burlap sack, frantic piglets, and a cheering audience, and figuring out where you fit into that equation. When that becomes too overwhelming, it is about eating a nitrate-rich sausage on a white bun slathered in yellow mustard and puking it all up after spinning insanely fast on a hastily constructed traveling amusement park ride before figuring out your next step.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.