When the first Cumberland Fair got underway in October 1868, ox-pulling competitions were part of the draw. The sturdy beasts are still pulling in decent crowds — as well as tons of weight — 151 years later at this year’s fair.
At ox-pulling competitions, teams of yoked animals pull weighted sledges for distance or against a time clock. It’s particular to New England and stretches back at least to the middle of the 19th century. It shows no signs of dying out.
“Believe it or not, we’ve got more and more people interested,” teamster and pulling judge Brett McConkey said during a break in the action Tuesday. “At the Topsham Fair, we had 29 kids [16 and under] pulling.”
McConkey, 57, was born into a Fryeburg family steeped in the sport. His father pulled oxen; so do his children.
“Met my wife doing it, too,” McConkey said.
Traditionally speaking, in New England, a steer (neutered bull) must be at least 4 years old and trained for work to be called an ox.
In the early days, organized pulling began as friendly contests between farmers at harvest time. Bragging rights were all that was at stake.
“It probably started with a couple of farmers at a Grange Hall meeting saying, ‘Mine can pull more than yours,’” McConkey said.
Ox drivers — then, as now — use voice commands and a stick to steer their animals. They shout “gee” for right, “haw” for left, along with each ox’s name. They also whack the oxen with a long wooden wand known as a goad stick.
As a competition judge, part of McConkey’s job is to make sure the drivers adhere to state laws, not hitting them too hard or about the eyes.
Oxen were used for a variety of heavy labor in Maine’s olden days. They pulled plows, hauled granite out of quarries and twitched logs in the woods.
McConkey believes oxen were utilized much longer in New England because of their ability to haul in deep snow, where horses cannot go. In logging operations, oxen would pull the logs until they broke a trail for the horses, who were faster.
Oxen are also hardier, less finicky and easier to care for than the average horse.
“So when it came down to keeping horses or oxen, in New England, we kept the oxen,” McConkey said.
Horses may cut a more romantic figure, rekons second-generation teamster Mike Courser, 52, but oxen probably did more hard work in the early days of the United States.
“A lot of people think it was horses that pulled the wagons out west. It wasn’t. It was oxen,” Courser said, with his 3,300-pound ox team of Smoke and Chief standing behind him. “When immigrants came over to this country, they weren’t in high society. They bought what they could afford. That was cattle.”
Oxen are still cheaper than horses to purchase and maintain. It’s probably a reason interest in ox pulling is still strong, said McConkey.
“You’re paying $60,000 for a pair of horses, versus $2,000 for a pair of steers,” McConkey said.
These days, most of the oxen at the Cumberland Fair don’t actually do any farm work. They save their efforts for the dozens of competitions held every year throughout New England.
There’s prize money involved at most of the meetups but not much. Top awards are around $100. That’s not nearly enough to even break even given the cost of feeding, training and housing the animals.
“I maybe make a little gas money to get home,” said Courser, who recently started helping his 20-year-old nephew get into pulling.
Rather than farm labor or cash prizes, it’s a shared sense of community motivating most drivers.
“I was raised by cattle and fairs,” said driver Devon Sargent, 18, of Limington. “My mom gave birth to me in February, and I was at a fair in July.”
Sargent just graduated from high school this year and is working at her first full-time job. Still, she has no plans to quit. She said despite the hard work, fairs are like mini vacations where she gets to see friends from all over New England.
“It’s competition, but it’s friendly competition,” Sargent said. “If you run out of grain a day early, someone’s got it. You need someone to pull your cattle because you’re not well enough to do it, someone’s got you.”
Courser, a whole generation older than Sargent, agrees.
“It’s more than a hobby. It’s a lifestyle — and a passion, I guess you’d say,” Courser said just before leading his team into the pulling arena. “It’s something I’m half decent at. I enjoy it. I enjoy the fair and the people — and I suck at golf.”
Ox and horse pulling continue through the end of the week at the Cumberland Fair. The final events of the year will take place at the Fryeburg Fair, beginning Sept. 29.