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Cow Udders, 'Ball And Chain' And The Tractor Pull: The Orleans County Fair

A woman holds aside a cow tail, revealing big pink udders.
Erica Heilman
Peggy Kelley stands with a dairy cow at the Orleans County Fair, where reporter Erica Heilman recently spent some time learning about horse and tractor pulls, the demolition derby, and the ideal cow udder.

People from all over Vermont's Northeast Kingdom have been coming to the Orleans County Fair, in Barton, for more than 150 years. There's an arm-wrestling competition. There's something called the pig scramble — I don't know what that is, but I'm sorry I missed it. There are a few rides, but mostly, the fair is about animals, tractors and the demolition derby.

Heifer Judging

A judge described a "nice-ribbed heifer" over at the dairy cattle show.

Judge: "Even though she’s carrying some extra weight, I do like a lot of things about her. She's a heifer who’s got a good hard top. She’s angular up through the shoulders. She’s just got a little extra weight over her pins today."

Me: "What’s your name?"

Peggy: "Peggy Kelley."

Me: "What are you getting judged in?"

Peggy: "Dairyness. How dairy the cow is."

Peggy was on poop duty for some of the more senior milkers, scooping away the poop as soon as it came to keep the girls clean for showing. These were some big cows, with some of the most formidable udders I’ve ever seen. Peggy explained what the judges were looking for.

Peggy: "You don’t want a lot of fat on them. You want to be able to see their ribs. You want depth of rib. How her udder looks, if it’s nice and full and round. Teat placement. So if the teats are nice and square or pointed in and shorter. You don’t want too long of teats because they’ll step on them. And that could be bad for the cow’s milk production. The mammary veins, you wanna be able to see them real good. This one got grand champion yesterday so you would compare any other animal to her. She really is beautiful."

We were looking at a very large cow. With a beautiful, full udder the size of a suitcase, a largish suitcase.

Me: "She's dripping."

Peggy: "She's leaking a little. She's ready to be milked."

Ball And Chain

I walked over to the horse ring, where there was a competition going on. This particular event involved riding at warp speed around a small ring, grabbing tennis balls off a high hook hanging down over the track. This event did not include riding helmets.

Rider: "It was an event called the 'Ball and Chain.'"

Me: "And how do you feel?"

Rider:  "Out of breath. Excited, happy. He did really good."

This is Emilee Legault-Knowles of Fairfax. There were about 90 horses at this event, and not a single pair of jodhpurs. This was more of a tank-top-and-jeans kind of horse scene.

Me: "A relationship with a horse is sort of unlike anything else."

Emilee: "Oh yeah. It’s an animal you can trust your life with, and someone that looks forward to seeing you every morning, despite what you look like, despite how you smell, despite how fat you are. It’s great."

Chickens look out from a cage.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
While there are a few rides, the Orleans County Fair is mostly about animals (see chickens), tractors and the demolition derby.

Demolition Derby

The loudspeaker called out the owner of a black Dodge RAM 1500 for parking the truck in front of the oxen barn and blocking everyone else from getting out. Meanwhile, a man listed off the day's events.

Man: "They had tractor pulls, they had the mini-lawn tractors. I think tomorrow is the demolition."

This is Ed Hoisington from Marshfield. I asked him about the demolition derby.

Me: "Why is that so satisfying?"

Ed: "I don’t know. I always like destroying cars."

Me: "Have you ever done a demo derby?"

Ed: "Not a derby in itself. I mean we’ve had friends get together and destroy our cars out in the middle of the woods, you know."

Horse Pull

I walked over to the horse pull barn. Enormous draft horses with elaborate, studded harnesses stood around the ring and one at a time they were led out to pull blocks of concrete. It all took awhile. I heard from a guy in the stands that this could be going on for another six hours, as they incrementally added more weight. But the stands were packed.

This is Manville Powers of Brownington and Larry Lumsden of Greensboro.

Manville: "This is the 'Free-For-All.' Free-For-All horses. The big horses. Any size. The big ones. They can weigh whatever. They can be 3,000, 4,000 pounds. Yuh."

Larry: 'Yuh."

Manville: "Yuh."

Larry: "The horses can weigh a ton a piece. Or bigger."

Manville: "This is bigger."

Larry: "They'll pull six ton or more, they will, easily. I've seen them pull up to 16,000, and that's eight ton that is. It's just a competin' whose got the best horses. It isn't the money, 'cause there's no money in it."

Tractor Pull

A red tractor pours exhaust as it pulls a sled.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
The tractor pull at Orleans County Fair.

I left Larry and Manville and walked over to the tractor pull, toward the enormous black plumes of smoke. There was a guy leaning against a fence watching. Richard Nelson of Derby. I asked him what was going on.

Richard: "This is the 'too-hot-to-farm' tractor class here. Some people call it 'tractor-pulling,' but we call it 'tractor-racing,' ‘cause if they weren’t hooked to a sled, they’d be going 70 miles an hour down the track. So just watch this. When he goes, and that thing lights up, he’s gonna rev it up, it's gonna rev up, rev up and you’re gonna hear the turbo kick in. And that’s what they call 'lighting up.' He’s gonna hold that clutch for as long as he can hold it. And he’s gonna be pushing on that clutch, it’s a centrifugal clutch, and it’s gonna be pushing his leg back. You watch."

Me: "So the object, it's about speed, or is it about weight?" 

Richard: "It's distance. That sled is set the same for every tractor, but the weight of the tractor and the speed they get going, the farther they can go. Watch 'em."

We watched. The sound of the tractor's engine grated through the air.

Richard: "Yeah he had to back down a bit, he lost control, and that happens. It's my favorite thing at the fair, watching the tractor racing. Now I'm going to go down and watch the horse pulls."

Me: "Why is this such a good fair?"

Richard: "It's our fair."

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