When the first Cumberland Fair got underway in October 1868, ox-pulling competitions were part of the draw. The sturdy beasts are still pulling in decent crowds — as well as tons of weight — 151 years later at this year’s fair.
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At ox-pulling competitions, teams of yoked animals pull weighted sledges for distance or against a time clock. It’s particular to New England and stretches back at least to the middle of the 19th century. It shows no signs of dying out.
“Believe it or not, we’ve got more and more people interested,” teamster and pulling judge Brett McConkey said during a break in the action Tuesday. “At the Topsham Fair, we had 29 kids <16 and under> pulling.”
McConkey, 57, was born into a Fryeburg family steeped in the sport. His father pulled oxen; so do his children.
“Met my wife doing it, too,” McConkey said.
Rather than farm labor or cash prizes, it’s a shared sense of community motivating most drivers.
“I was raised by cattle and fairs,” said driver Devon Sargent, 18, of Limington. “My mom gave birth to me in February, and I was at a fair in July.”
Sargent just graduated from high school this year and is working at her first full-time job. Still, she has no plans to quit. She said despite the hard work, fairs are like mini vacations where she gets to see friends from all over New England.
“It’s competition, but it’s friendly competition,” Sargent said. “If you run out of grain a day early, someone’s got it. You need someone to pull your cattle because you’re not well enough to do it, someone’s got you.”
Courser, a whole generation older than Sargent, agrees.
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“It’s more than a hobby. It’s a lifestyle — and a passion, I guess you’d say,” Courser said just before leading his team into the pulling arena. “It’s something I’m half decent at. I enjoy it. I enjoy the fair and the people — and I suck at golf.”
Ox and horse pulling continue through the end of the week at the Cumberland Fair. The final events of the year will take place at the Fryeburg Fair, beginning Sept. 29.