Cumberland Fair: ‘They like the french fries and the animals’

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CUMBERLAND – Born and raised in Windham – once known more for its farmland than its commercial strip – Cumberland Fair director Mike Timmons knows a thing or two about farm life.

As a boy, Timmons milked Stanley Hall’s cows, rising at 4 a.m. to do so. After school, he’d do it again.

But at 69, Timmons, a former Windham High School principal now leading the town’s Cooperative Education program, hasn’t lost the work ethic Hall helped instill. But now, rather than milking cows once the school day is done, he heads to his “other” part-time job as president of the Cumberland Farmer’s Club, the organization which, for the last 140 years, has hosted the Cumberland Fair. He works all the time, especially in the weeks and months leading up the fair. And during the week of the fair, which starts Sunday, Sept. 25, he logs more than 100 hours overseeing the massive operation.

Timmons, who also lives on the fairgrounds with his wife, Sally, and hasn’t missed a Cumberland Fair since he was in college 50 years ago, talked last week with Current Publishing about fair food, fun rides and the changing nature of agriculture.

Q: What is it about the fair that still gets you excited? What brings you back year after year?

A: This is basically a people-oriented business and I’m a people person. But I’m just as enthused about the fair as I always was about school, but it’s pretty tiring to do both. Just running the fair itself is a year-round job.

Q: What’s a typical day like in the month leading up to the fair?

A: We have about 200 events, and I want to make certain that information is conveyed to the public. So I take charge of the public relations and the advertising. It’s trying to get the advertising so it starts when it’s supposed to, at least by the 19th of September, and that it covers kids to the adults.

Second, making sure the book and flyer is in print in a timely manner, accurate and ready to be distributed. And we distribute it all over Cumberland County.

And having meetings with all the superintendents to be certain everything is in place for the tractor pulls, and the horse pulling and the cattle shows and the 4-H.

Q: Would you say it’s hectic getting ready for the fair. Or, after 140 years, is it a well-oiled machine by now?

A: Well, I’m not sure it’s a well-oiled machine, but after all these years, you kind of have it in your mind and it’s quite logical how it all works.

I’ve also got excellent volunteers. We’ve got about 120 different people doing different things. There’s a key nucleus who are paid and they’re called superintendents. And they will have anywhere from one to 30 people in their crew.

Q: What is the purpose of the fair?

A: My philosophy is to provide a family atmosphere that will support and strengthen the agricultural community. My key goal, and it probably goes back to (my school affiliations), is I want the 4-H program to be really strong.

Q: Where do the proceeds go?

A: In the past two years, as hard as we’ve worked and as much as we’ve done, the element that’s kept us from making a lot of money, comes out of the sky … The sun, as long as it’s out, we’re golden. And last year we lost a couple days. Year before that we lost a couple of days. And they happened to be key days, so a lot of weekend money we didn’t get.

Basically, what we have to do here is we need to generate $700,000 to $1 million to make everything work. And for the most part, we have our land and everything paid for. We only have one mortgage of a 10-acre piece of land we bought a few years ago to expand our property line. We have about 105 acres here, and we put most of our money into the infrastructure, about 20 buildings, and they’re all in pretty nice shape, and the track.

Q: How many people attend the fair?

A: Now, with the economy the way it is, I would be happy if could have 50,000 paid attendants in a week. I’d love it if it was more than that.

Q: Is 50,000 fairgoers less than previous years?

A: It’s been shrinking.

Q: What was the peak?

A: The peak was when Stanley Hall was president, 1987. But it really depends on the weather and the entertainment. The key here that people still come to this fair for is they like the french fries and they like the animals. And they better be good, and they are. And of course, the kids come for the rides.

Q: How about the number of farmers participating?

A: That is probably down some. The number of animals is down some, but our barn facilities will be full. But the number of farms has dwindled.

Q: How has the county’s agricultural scene changed since you got involved with the fair six decades ago?

A: Oh wow. It’s totally unbelievable how much it’s changed. If you drove through Windham and saw the number of people who had a few cows or had something to do with agricultural 50 years ago and then you do it today, it’s just astounding how much it’s dwindled. And that’s all over the state of Maine.

Q: How does that affect the Cumberland Fair?

A: The showing of the animals is crucial, but we have a better quality animal. And the facilities and the animals and the showing and the competitiveness have increased a great deal. And different breeds have flourished.

Q: Due to advancements in animal husbandry?

A: No doubt about it. But the big farmers have been able to stay bigger and the small farmers have just dropped by the wayside. I mean, the cost of grain is just unbelievable.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the fair?

A: Actually, it’s pretty hard to single out anything. But one of the things I enjoy is on Wednesday I enjoy going up and watching the kids sell their pigs and their sheep and their beef cattle. They represent us so well. I like the things that involve the kids.

Q: Tell us something most people don’t know about the behind-the-scenes operation of the fair?

A: Well, there’s one big thing, and that’s the state intrusion, all the rules you have to follow to carry out that harness racing program. You have to have 25 staff members with patrol judges and a start gate that’s safe and a paddock that’s safe. And you have to conduct that so people aren’t going to be hurt.

There’s rules in the pulling. There’s rules in the food service. There’s rules in our camping area on gray water, the licensing to bring that carnival in here. They inspect every ride, which is good, but that’s a behind-the-scenes thing that takes a lot of time and you better not decide that you’re going to ignore that. You’re better off to do it.

Q: With technology seeming to pre-occupy people’s lives today, do you think the fair will survive into the future?

A: That’s sad, and I’m in a place where I see it, in school. I definitely do, but I see kids now with a tremendous amount of knowledge. Think about it. I used to sit with my dad listening to Joe Louis on the radio. Then something else came along and here we are now with cell phones and we’re thinking that that technology is going to have a definite negative effect. And probably it will, but the positives will probably outweigh the negatives in the end. But I’ll tell you what, they know more and see more and are involved in more that we ever were, so I don’t know if that’s a positive or negative.

Q: Any goals for future fairs?

A: My goal is going to be staying focused on communication issues. Making sure the community understands what it is we’re trying to do and will come and support it. If I were to announce tomorrow that we want the Grateful Dead as our next concert out on the infield, I can guarantee you it would be my last year as president. I wouldn’t need to be kicked out. The town’s folks would lynch me because the town of Cumberland does not want a group that cannot behave, violating the law and blocking up the roads. But I tell you what, I can have a pumpkin contest with Camp Sunshine to try to set a world record and have 20,000 people here and have the whole family come and carve pumpkins, and when they leave they’ll say, that was a wonderful event. So I want to keep doing things like what I just said.

Q: Do you ever feel you’re in competition with the Fryeburg Fair?

A: I feel it’s one of the things that probably hinders our fair a bit. Good example: Our camping area only holds 150-200 campers. Fryeburg’s holds 3,500. Now, if two or three people go there in each camper, they have there on-site 7,000-10,000 people already there, every day. If I had 10,000 people here every day for seven days, that would be 70,000 people. We would be golden. They have that just in the camper area. And with the economy the way it is, those people there camping are not going to Cumberland and camp, and then go to Fryeburg. They’re going to go to Fryeburg. It hurts us a little bit because some of the vendors and participants, because of the economy the way it is, will skip our fair to go there. So we have to do things to keep them here.

So I would say it may hurt a little, but I’m very friendly with the director of the Fryeburg Fair and the Windsor Fair and know them all and we all work together to try to help each other out.

Mike Timmons has served as president of the Cumberland Farmer’s
Club for most of the last five years. The former Windham High
School principal – named Maine Principal of the Year in 1990 – is
gearing up for the 140th edition of the weeklong Cumberland Fair,
set to begin Sept. 25. (Staff photo by John Balentine)

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