By Jeff Woodburn
Each week, I venture up to the GrayMist Farm for raw (unpasteurized) milk. It’s always quiet, and with their robotic milking system, it’s like the cows run the place. They come and go as they wish from the automated milking parlor. Sometime, I have the occasion to see Nancy and Gordon Gray. I feel guilty engaging them in my favorite topics because I know that they always have a lot to do.
Well, on Sunday, the cows must have been beside themselves with all the cars stuffed with people meandering past their barns and through the fields to a distant, recently hayed pasture. For the day, it had been converted into what the organizers called a fiddle fest. That name is too stylish for me. I like old-names that conjure up fond, distant memories, even if they’re technically incorrect. On this day, I was gladly going back in time to the Stark Annual Fiddlers’ Contest or at least a very good rendition of it.
From 1973 until seven years ago, the tiny town of Stark (population 500) hosted one of the most popular events of the year attracting thousands of people. It was always on the last Sunday in June, at Whitcomb’s field on the banks of the Ammonoosuc River with a view to Percy Peaks and benefiting the Stark Improvement Fund (as if the town needed to be improved).
The event was casual, easy-going and organic. I use the latter word because things just happened – kind of evolved into a tradition. If you felt like bringing along some beer, your dog or a picnic lunch, it was fine. You could also go for a swim or gather with some other musicians in a far-away spot and make your own music. Absent were the obsessive rules that often accompany specialists, so-called experts or overzealous planning committees. These folks always seem to rely on big solutions to little or non-existent problems. Over three decades, literally tens of thousands of people gathered at Whitcomb field and the event organizers don’t recall a single problem. People behaved themselves.
There was something authentic, genuine and terrible local about it. I think it had a lot to do with the small, cozy isolation of the town. I once represented the area in the state legislature and in that capacity, I went to many community events in the region, but Stark always stood out as a friendly place where people were happy to see you and just plain grateful to have your attention. Stark’s long-time anchor citizen was Madeline Croteau, who ran the town’s only store and of course the fiddlers’ contests.
Upon arriving at GrayMist, I searched out Madeline and her husband Don Croteau. I find the happy couple enjoying the background fiddle music, hospitality, and the beautiful farm setting. I tell them of an old photo that I found of the three of us from a 1980s fiddlers’ contest. Madeline adds, “I bet we’ve changed.” We have indeed, but for a time last Sunday things were just like they use to be and ought to be. In my book that’s the best compliment any event can have. Hopefully it doesn’t improve.