NEAR-Fest: Feting friends and finding gems

Lionel J-36 bug

A hidden gem: a 1942 Lionel J-36 bug. Lionel started to produce these for the military during World War 2, when the bug’s designer, Vibroplex, couldn’t keep up with demand. I came across this near the end of the day at NEAR-Fest, after bemoaning the lack of interesting keys to add to my collection. It’s not as far-gone as it looks. It will need a new label, but it will clean up nicely. After 71 years and who knows how much abuse, it still has a smooth action.

Shorter days, trees cloaked in orange and russet and yellow and scarlet, a warm glow suffusing the sky at sunset as days shorten — it’s fall in New England. For the ham-radio crowd in the region and beyond, few events say fall like NEAR-Fest, the New England Amateur Radio Festival.

NEAR-Fest, held twice a year at the Deerfield Fairgrounds in Deerfield, NH,  has a spring edition as well. But it fits best with fall. Perhaps it’s because New Hampshire in May is monochromatic. Greener than winter, for sure. But the colors are all subtle or not-so-subtle variations on a single hue.

Fall brings out a richness and variety of color that matches the variety of the people and wares at the event. NEAR-Fest celebrated its 14th event the weekend of Oct. 12. But it has a richer, deeper history.

The event began in 1973 as Hosstraders, the outgrowth of a regional 80-meter swap net that began in the 1950s. The first gathering took place in Seabrook, NH. Attendance grew with time, so the event’s benevolent overlords moved the venue to the Deerfield Fairgrounds.

Unfortunately, during one Hosstraders weekend, some folks nearly burned down one of the fairground’s barns. The Fairground Fathers were not amused, so the event moved elsewhere. It finally resettled at the Hopkinton State Fairgrounds, where it was held until 2007. That was the year the three hams who oversaw the event chose to close the Hosstraders chapter.

Others would pick it up the following year as NEAR-Fest.

A ham-radio acquaintance, Andy Stewart, KB1OIQ,  visited the event on Friday and had snagged a slick Morse-code straight key. As a working stiff, Friday was a non-starter for me. So I headed up from Franklin, MA, at oh-dark hundred Saturday morning, the event’s final day.  I wanted to get there before the last day’s pickin’s were too slim to yield any last-minute treasures.

Once off the four-lane highways, the drive through rural New Hampshire routes you past farm houses, mini McMansions, and the ubiquitous stone walls, their boulders splattered with green and gray lichen as though someone had flung paint at them from a few feet away..

At the fairground, you wander lanes lined with tables that groan under the weight of everything from hard-to-ID components that look like relics from Marconi’s refuse pile to a pair of anatomically accurate, knitted fake breasts (breast warmers?) — no kidding. Just in time for Halloween, I guess.

Commercial vendors get the cushy digs inside long, covered exhibit halls.

And if you’re feeling guilty about the money you spend while YL or XYL is warming the hearth at home, you can always snag some ear rings or a necklace some enterprising women have made from a variety of electronic components.

I managed to pick up a few items — some BNC connectors for jumpers between Elecraft radios and other gear and my own little prize — a Lionel bug, quite dirty, but in excellent mechanical condition.  Yes, Andy, there was at least one more CW-sending gem of the manual variety waiting for one of us SKCC types to give it a nice home.

NEAR-Fest draws quite a cosmopolitan crowd. Wandering around the grounds on Saturday, I spotted license plates from all over the northeast, as well as from Quebec and Ontario.

As often happens, the big draw is as much or more social than acquisitive, even for us day-trippers

I pulled into a parking space beside a non-descript pick-up truck, only to see Ann Byers, K1QO, and Dave Le Duc, N1IX, clamber out. Both are stalwarts of the New England QRP Club.

Another long-time ham-radio bud, the perapatetic Carl Achin, WA1ZCQ, had arrived Friday morning and camped out overnight, stringing a mighty wire antenna between two stately New Hampshire pines and operating as W1H — H, as in Hosstraders.

And there, in all his Ambucamper splendor (shown in that link at Lobstercon in July), was Rex Harper, W1REX, displaying his radio kits in tuna tins, offering coffee, donuts, and later hot dogs to passers-by (as well as to some of us cheap NEQRP Club members), and regaling us with tales of his preparations to visit Scotland and take part in two popular hamfests there later in the month.

Aye, laddie, next ye’ll be shippin’ yarrr kits in kilts!

The day ended with a late-afternoon meal at the Tuckaway Tavern and Butchery in Raymond, NH — butchery, as in, walk by the meat counter to select the cut you’d like for your meal. Carl and three other NEQRP members were part of that the post-fest-feast crowd.

In my case, the meal consisted of the most remarkable burger I’ve ever had served between halves of a bulky or any other kind of roll.  They call it the Real Burger King.

No ground round here. Ground rib-eye and tenderloin instead. A bit pricey, but worth having for at least one meal out of the roughly 76,650 meals the average human will have over the course of his or her life (assuming three score years and ten and three meals a day, admittedly not a global standard).

Yes, fall and NEAR-Fest are a hard combination to beat! (Your mileage may vary.)

One Response to “NEAR-Fest: Feting friends and finding gems”

  1. Charles N1CAI Says:

    Peter another great post for the blog as usual. Was sorry to miss NearFest with you Carl and the rest I really can’t say enough about how you and the gang at NE QRP have welcomed me into the fold. Oh congrats again on the award at Chowdercon looking forward to winter meeting and FYBO as well N1CAI

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