For many years Lewiston had a fine trotting horse race track, and it was here that the annual livestock fair was held. During our first years of showing sheep at this fair, there was a beautiful old grandstand that was still being used. It was a very old, massive structure, narrow and towering in height.
Flags flew gaily from the ridgepole and red, white, and blue banners were gathered in the centers and draped across the front of the grandstand. It seemed to have been transported from a Currier and Ives print. I felt that ladies walking past it should have parasols and be wearing hoop skirts and bonnets, along with gentlemen in long-tailed coats and tall beaver hats. Because of structural decay beyond repair, the grandstand was eventually torn down. The bewitching atmosphere it held of stepping into the past disappeared with it.
Exhibiting livestock at Lewiston Fair was very different from the other fairs we attended because it was so close to the city. Railroad tracks bordered the back of the sheep pens, which were separated only by a tall board fence. The first year we exhibited our sheep there, we weren’t aware of the railroad right behind the fence, and when the midnight freight trains came roaring and thundering through we awoke inside the shuddering camper-trailer convinced the end was upon us. The sheep wore their ears in forward position for a long time, but did not panic.
Even though the city and the railroad track bordered two sides of the livestock area, we could still look in another direction to stretching pine forests and flowing fields of corn. It is one of my secret delights that from many of Maine’s larger cities one can look beyond to mountains, gliding rivers, or the sea—reassurance that nature’s healing presence is always close by.
The racetrack area had not been designed to become a fairground, and the sheep pens were snuggled between the racing horse stables and the railroad tracks in the rear. Our camper was backed up to a horse stable. A blacksmith shop was just beyond the galley window, and watching the farrier shoe horses while I prepared meals was fascinating and often exciting as not all horses were willing to submit to this necessity.
Trotters and pacers pulling their sulkies were always in motion past the trailer windows, either going out for exercise or returning from racing, all sudsy with lather from their efforts. After harness removal they were covered in colorful wool blankets and walked quietly to cool down. They were catered to in every way. Mingling with the pleasantly pungent horsey odors from the rear of the stables was the lingering aroma of horse liniment.
The only electrical outlets available for our camper were inside the stable in a horse stall. With the horse owner’s permission, our cord was plugged into the nearest outlet. We often fell victim to a playful horse who thought it a fine joke to yank the plug out with his teeth just when the coffee was perking or the toaster half ready to deliver.
One year at Lewiston Fair, the proximity of the railroad tracks added to the excitement of sheep judging. Someone had brought a small flock of very heavily woolen sheep that were not accustomed to crowds of people or fairgrounds. During the show they frequently bowled their owners over into the sawdust of the show ring in their attempts to escape.
One determined ewe slithered from the grasp of her handler and headed for the one opening in the board fence that was her size. This move brought her right onto the railroad tracks. Choosing the direction that promised open country, she flung her head up and trotted along the tracks picking her way nicely among the cross ties. As a group, we took up a cautious pursuit realizing from experience that getting ahead of her quietly was the only way to turn her back. The territory on either side of the tracks was steep and did not lend itself to this maneuver.
A long-legged lad with more stamina than strategy decided the only course open was to outrun the ewe. Those of us who have tried this before and gone down in exhausted defeat, stood and watched the drama of futility. When the sheep and boy had been reduced to mere movement in the distance between the shiny, narrowing tracks, we followed along to see the progress. The two had disappeared around a curve, and not knowing the train schedule, we hurried our pace in the event that modern locomotives may not be equipped with sheep and boy catchers.
We found the pair nearly a mile from the fair grounds.
The ewe apparently impressed by the boy’s speed, opted for cover instead of darting straight ahead, and she ran down over a precipitous bank into what she must have thought was a large green pasture. In fact, it was a great stagnant pool in a swamp, and was completely surfaced with a four inch cover of algae and slime. Sheep and boy were engaged in a mighty struggle in the center of this jungle scene, and though the boy was submerged to his armpits in this loathsome slough, he could wade faster than the sheep could swim. Her heavy wool was soaked, causing her body weight to increase several fold. Two of the ewe’s owners waded in to help the pair get out of the swamp.
Both sheep and lad were unhurt, but were nearly prostrate with exhaustion and had to be helped up the steep slope back to the railroad tracks. They both looked like “creatures of the swamp,” something created by the imagination of a science fiction writer. They were dripping, smeared, and festooned with thick strands and globs of bright green slime. It had penetrated, stained, and hung itself on every exposed surface. Fringes of it swung from the boy’s elbows and the sheep’s ears.
During the interminable distance back to the fairgrounds, we all had to take turns by pairs carrying the ewe. She was too tired and her fleece too waterlogged for her to walk. Inevitably each of us became liberally coated in the copious amounts of emerald sludge that came from the ewe’s saturated wool. We stumbled along with her, laughing at each other’s grotesque appearance.
As it goes, the show went on; however, without the “swamp ewe.” She was penned until she could soon be given a comforting bath.
I have always wished I could have been outside the show ring instead of in it helping with the sheep showing. I would have been eager to hear the versions spectators devised as to what could have happened to all the horrible looking green people.
(May B. Davidson lives in Round Pond. She is a longtime columnist for The Lincoln County News and the author of “Whatever It Takes: Seven Decades of True Love, Hard Work, and No Regrets.”)