No waffling here: Fair family hits 60

Posted Sept. 06, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

BLUE HILL, Maine — There are few spots on the midway at the Blue Hill Fair that shout “tradition” the way the Billings Booth does.

The sign on the booth explains the tradition: “Serving the Blue Hill Fair since 1949.”

The family — 38 members this year — is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the booth the way its parents and grandparents have spent Labor Day weekends in the past — working the booth at the fair.

The booth was started by the late Margaret and Jim Billings — “Narnie and Bamp” to the current crop of Billings descendants, who organized the booth this year — and their son Jimmy, his wife, Connie, and his sister Louise Billings Collins.

“He knew the spot was coming open,” Lisa Billings Gargan, now of Eddington, said of her grandfather Jim Billings. “He thought it would be a good way [to] earn money to pay taxes.”

In those first years, family members sold homemade doughnuts made by Narnie, and they had waffle ice cream sandwiches with harlequin ice cream (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry). And they had a cooler with soda in it outside the booth.

It was 1965 when they added the fancy French waffle that, served with ice cream, has become the drawing card for the booth. That was the year of the World’s Fair in New York.

“Malcolm Herrick went to the fair and brought back information about the waffles; he wanted Dad to try selling waffles,” Gargan said. “Dad ordered the waffle machine, Mom perfected the recipe we use now, and they pushed my grandparents into it.”

From those beginnings, the booth has developed into a family tradition. There’s a picket fence around the back of the booth, which Gargan said was added to keep the little ones corralled while their parents ran the booth.

As they grow up, they move into the business by “peddling” food and drinks in the grandstand, at the concerts or the horse pulls, anywhere there is a crowd. The Billings family has been one of the few to successfully work that end of the fair, and that’s how the youngsters get their feet wet.

“I was in third grade when they let me go into the grandstand,” Gargan said. “They watched me do the change first. That’s how the kids start out. We have to make sure they can do the change first.”

The booth has been used for odd fundraisers in town over the years. But it really is a business just for the fair and serves as sort of a family reunion each year.

“It’s a chance for the Billings side of the family to get together and see each other,” Gargan said. “Our family is all over the state, all over the country. But typically, we come back at this time of year.”

Gargan took over the leadership role for the booth this year, but she indicated that it really has been a joint family affair this year since sister Annette Candage stepped down.

“There used to be one big torch that was passed,” she said. “Now it’s really a lot of little torches.”

The little torches belong to Gargan, sister Diane Brann, and Jeb Billings and his wife, Chris. Then there are the sons, daughters, cousins, children, grandchildren, in-laws and ex-in-laws who are there to help run the booth.

“I haven’t been a Billings for 30 years, but I’m still Aunt Mardi,” said Mardi Beyers-Gay. “I look forward to this every year. I can’t wait until fair.”

The Billings descendants have worked the fair even when pregnant, and Gargan said they celebrate several birthdays during the fair.

“I was here before I was here,” said Jeb Billings, Beyers-Gay’s son.

For Jeb Billings, the booth is just one more part of the cycle at the fair. He points out that he played in the George Stevens High School jazz band in front of the grandstand when he was in high school. His daughter will play in it next year, and in a couple of years his son will follow.

“I’ve looked at the old photos of the fair [on display under the grandstand] and there aren’t many I can find that don’t have this booth in it,” Billings said.

Gargan, who at 51 is the oldest Billings sister, says that although the fair has grown over the decades, the atmosphere has remained the same.

“It’s still a down-home fair,” she said. “I’ve been surprised by the number of people who come down from the Bangor area. They like the Bangor fair, but they like the homey atmosphere down here and the livestock. They complain about the dirt fairgrounds, but that’s part of the homey tradition. It’s a country fair.”

She said she hopes the younger generation will continue the tradition and keep the booth going.

“We try to encourage them,” Gargan said. “They do have something to work for to keep up the momentum. We tell them they need to keep it going so that one day, they’ll be running the booth.

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