Upper Valley teens help keep Tunbridge Fair steer show alive

Joey Ferris, 17, left, listens as working steer judge Alyson Bronnenberg, right, explains what she wants to see from handlers and their teams in the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Ferris, with his steer Clyde, left, and King, right, was required to command the team through a series of coordinated movements including right and left turns and backing. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Joey Ferris, 17, left, listens as working steer judge Alyson Bronnenberg, right, explains what she wants to see from handlers and their teams in the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Ferris, with his steer Clyde, left, and King, right, was required to command the team through a series of coordinated movements including right and left turns and backing. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. VALLEY NEWS PHOTOGRAPHS — James M. Patterson

Landon Campbell, 17, of Randolph, yokes his Dutch Belted steer Spooner, front to Charlie, back, as his dad, Mick Campbell, right, helps prepare the team for the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Campbell joined 4-H at age 8 and has been showing for ten years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Landon Campbell, 17, of Randolph, yokes his Dutch Belted steer Spooner, front to Charlie, back, as his dad, Mick Campbell, right, helps prepare the team for the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Campbell joined 4-H at age 8 and has been showing for ten years. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Layne Mullen, of Tunbridge, works his team of chianina steer Hank, left, and Hooter, right, through their routine in the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. In addition to showing his animals, Mullen competes in the 2400 pound weight class of the ox pulls. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Layne Mullen, of Tunbridge, works his team of chianina steer Hank, left, and Hooter, right, through their routine in the show ring at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. In addition to showing his animals, Mullen competes in the 2400 pound weight class of the ox pulls. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

Landon Campbell, 17, changes back into his regular work boots after showing his team of Dutch Belt steer, Charlie and Spooner, at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. The team is named for Charlie Spooner, who once farmed on the road in Randolph where Campbell lives. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Landon Campbell, 17, changes back into his regular work boots after showing his team of Dutch Belt steer, Charlie and Spooner, at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. The team is named for Charlie Spooner, who once farmed on the road in Randolph where Campbell lives. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Landon Campbell, of Randolph, left, Joey Ferris, of Braintree, right, and Layne Mullen, of Tunbridge, not pictured, stand in the show ring after being called back by Amy Ferris, assistant superintendent of working steers and oxen, and Joey's mom, standing at back left, to be recognized for their final year of 4-H showing at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Ferris read a separate poem written for each boy by Vermont Farmer and writer Stuart Osha. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Landon Campbell, of Randolph, left, Joey Ferris, of Braintree, right, and Layne Mullen, of Tunbridge, not pictured, stand in the show ring after being called back by Amy Ferris, assistant superintendent of working steers and oxen, and Joey's mom, standing at back left, to be recognized for their final year of 4-H showing at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Ferris read a separate poem written for each boy by Vermont Farmer and writer Stuart Osha. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Joey Ferris, 17, of Braintree, leads his team, King, right, and Clyde, left, back to the barn, carrying his blue ribbon for winning the working steer class in his last youth show at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Joey Ferris, 17, of Braintree, leads his team, King, right, and Clyde, left, back to the barn, carrying his blue ribbon for winning the working steer class in his last youth show at Tunbridge Fair in Tunbridge, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 09-15-2023 8:05 PM

TUNBRIDGE — The sands of time and the wreckage of a flooded White River are no match for the working steer show at the Tunbridge Fair.

Amy Ferris, a longtime 4-H volunteer, started prepping for the event — a storied tradition of agrarian life in Vermont — two weeks ago, dragging back into place rubber mats that the swollen First Branch pinched from the oxen barns in the July floods. She swept out silt from stalls where the high-water level from the flood of 1978 was commemorated in now-fading green paint.

4-H, a national network of youth organizations with a dozen clubs in the Upper Valley, came to Vermont in 1949 to instruct young people in advancing farming techniques. The dairy cow and working steer shows put on by the organization have been a consistent presence at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds since the organization’s arrival and now help keep that past alive.

Ferris honored three graduating seniors at the showing arena on Thursday afternoon. Landon Campbell, Layne Mullen and Ferris’ son, Joey, were presented with personalized poems from Vermont writer and farmer Stuart Osha. The poems lament the dying traditions of agricultural life and celebrate those that still practice them.

In the days of old, steers were used to clear rocks from hillside fields to use to build stone walls and foundations. Now, most of the action is in the arena.

The trio of boys were honored, Ferris said, “mostly to help them recognize how important it is to us that they’re giving back to the fair and the younger kids,” she said. “And we know that they’re doing something that other teens might not totally understand.”

Having her own child in the ring makes the proceedings more emotional, said Ferris, who is a teacher at Brookfield, Vt., Elementary. “But with all of them, it’s been about watching their growth as teamsters and as people,” she said.

The contestants are judged by the control of their animals as they guide them through motions with a long, commanding stick, called a goad, and a series of orders: “step up,” “back,” “woah,” “gee” to steer them to the right, “haw” to nudge them left.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hartford parts with state champion girls hockey coach
Kenyon: By charging for after school program, CCBA loses sight of its mission
Upper Valley Memorial Day ceremonies 2024
Police: Vermont man arrested for stealing gas in Newport to refuel stolen vehicle
Upper Valley Memorial Day ceremonies 2024
Dozens of layoffs at former Vermont Teddy Bear distribution center due to start Thursday

Campbell, of Randolph, has been showing oxen since he was 8 years old.

He said he looks for compatible size and color when choosing the pair of animals he’ll train with. On Thursday, he presented a duo of Dutch Belted steers named Charlie and Spooner. The bovines were harnessed together with a wooden yoke and named after a deceased Randolph farmer Charlie Spooner.

Campbell is hoping to go to heavy equipment operators school in Brentwood, N.H., after graduating from the Randolph Career and Tech Center in the spring.

The events at the Tunbridge Fair on Thursday and the remainder of the weekend are the only time he gets into the showing arena. Campbell once presented his steers at the iconic Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass., reverently called “the Big E” by those in the know, but it was too “commercial,” he said.

“This one in Tunbridge, we’re actually in old, real barns,” Campbell said.

Mullen, of Tunbridge, is a senior at Thetford Academy. Riding the fair circuit, he’s crisscrossed the Northeast “all summer long” with his steers, Mullen said. Next he’ll be heading to the Fryeburg Fair in Maine next month.

He’s worked for Eustis Cable Enterprises in Brookfield for two years and is planning to continue after he graduates from Thetford Academy. But he’ll find time to keep showing, Mullens said from the stalls after Thursday’s presentation, where he had nailed a framed photo, dated from the 1950s, of his grandfather, Thomas Mullen Sr., holding the reins of his own set of steers.

Mullens’ specialty in 4-H is pulling, a competition in which yoked animals drag weighed-down sledges against a timer. The Tunbridge Fair is the only time he likes to present his steers for matching and showmanship.

“It’s my hometown,” he said.

Mullens and Joey Ferris, of Braintree, walked away from Thursday’s event with blue ribbons.

Ferris’ family recently sold their dairy farm. “We weren’t losing any money, but we weren’t making any money, either,” he said. Still, the Ferrises didn’t sell all of their land, and he plans to keep farming there when he graduates from the White River Valley School in the spring.

For Ferris, the showing tradition is hardly a dying one.

“Well, we’re doing it now,” he said. “And we’ll keep doing it.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.