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North Haverhill fair stays true to its roots, the times

Hand mowers vie for edge in competition

Khela Kupiec/The Littleton Courier Don Elder stands with his American-style scythe Thursday at the North Haverhill Fair. (click for larger version)
August 03, 2011
NORTH HAVERHILL The sound of whetstones sharpening metal carried over the back field of the North Haverhill Fair grounds before the long, gleaming blades of the scythes came into view. Participants in the third annual Hand Mowing Contest were getting ready Thursday to use their tools to tackle a patch of field grass that had been kept long for this purpose.

It was one of a slew of activities on tap for the 67th annual fair, which has grown from a two-day event to a five-day event and still stays true to its agricultural roots, said Gary Scruton, a member of the board of directors.

The hand mowers' goal was to neatly cut a 15 or 25-foot-long swath of grass in the fastest time while leaving only an inch or less of stubble behind. From the sidelines, it looked to be a fairly simple task, but in reality, there's an art to it.

The key, said contestants and sisters Anne Morse and Elise Morse-Gagne, is in the movements of the mower and the condition of the grass. It's a shuffle forward, said Anne Morse, not a normal step and the blade must be kept low to the ground at all times don't lift it up (like a pendulum) at the end of a side-to-side swipe. There was a general consensus that part of hand mowing's attraction and a sign of a good mower is the rhythm some people find. A few of the most experienced mowers looked like they were dancing: Their upper torso swayed left to right, right to left, and they shuffled forward shifting their weight back and forth between their feet to a tune that only they could hear.

Dew still clung to the grass around 10 a.m. as a few of the contestants tested its condition during a trial run. The grass held up fairly well to the scythes, but that changed as the overcast skies cleared and the sun burned away the moisture.

Dry, wispy blades of grass are not good: They don't stand up to the blade of the scythe and instead get pushed over, creating a ragged swath of cut grass that the contestants could get penalized for. Tall, tough rye grass is perfect, said Morse-Gagne, and her sister agreed.

Most of the blades were similar Austrian-made steel blades that are sharpened by hammering them out and then touching up with a whetstone so Don Elder's scythe stood out.

His was an "old-style" American scythe with an ash snath (the long, often-wooden shaft to which the blade attaches) and an iron blade, which is sharpened on a wet grindstone and touched up with a whetstone, he said. It's one of 25 to 30 assembled scythes that he owns, but a favorite because of how light it is.

Elder, 73, grew up on a farm in Lyme, and has been hand mowing off and on all his life. He said a rainy day job when they couldn't hay was to mow the sides of the road using scythes, but now he "still plays at it." It's a retirement hobby, said Elder, and the rhythm of mowing and the noise of the blade cutting grass makes it fun. One onlooker described the noise his American blade made as "whispering."

Last year, Elder said he took first place in his division, men ages 69 to 80, and second place during the open competition for all contestants. This year, according the the official results, he took second place in his division and third place in the open.

First place for men ages 60 to 79, was taken by Doeke Dam, 75, who orriginally is from the Netherlands. He had grown up hand mowing as well, though he said he took a break from it for 30 years.

The oldest contestant there was Lucien Paquette at age "94.9," according to the results sheet.

Elsewhere around the fairgrounds, there was plenty to do and see Wednesday through Sunday, from the bull-riding, calf-roping and barrel-racing of the popular T-Bar-T Rodeo to the second year of North Haverhill Idol. Country music act Criag Campbell was on tap Friday night as was Gloriana on Saturday.

The fair draws 25,000 to 30,000 a year, said Scruton, and the board of directors works hard to keep the fair true to its agricultural roots yet also interesting and fresh for visitors.

Part of the reason for the board's success is its mix of old blood and new blood, experience and new perspectives This year's fair is dedicated to David Keith, who had been president of the fair for 20 years, on the board of directors before that, and while growing up, he was a 4-H exhibitor at the fair, said Scruton.

"Constantly looking for ways to enhance the fair visitor's experience, he implemented new ideas every year to ensure that the fair was always a vibrant and exciting place to visit. By always keeping a keen eye on the fair's financial affairs, he has led the fair into an era of financial stability that will allow this organization to thrive for years to come," says the dedication on the fair's website.

One of the board's ideas this year was the Adventure Tent, said Scruton. It's a big tent with free activities for children, which allows parents and grandparents to take a quiet break from the midway festivities. Another innovation was an art and photography show that was open to everyone.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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