A kid at the fair
By Ken Root
I just finished a stint of county fairs in Illinois and Indiana that were hot, dusty, noisy, smelly and expensive. In other words, they were delightful. It is a tradition of rural America, from our earliest settlements, to gather each year at fairs. The concept, like so much of our heritage, is not original to this country but brought in from our European ancestry. In outlying communities, we have made fairs fit our lives and utilized the events to socialize, compete and learn about the larger world. Fairs are woven into the fabric of our culture.
We all have a starting point at which we remember the fair. Mine was at ten years old, as a very young 4-H member, exhibiting a home grown calf. That was my parent's only interest in the fair but I quickly learned that there were rides and games that I'd never seen. All I needed was a pocket full of quarters. That was the limiting factor on my Midway fun as the few dollars given to me were to be used for food. I made the choice to divert money to crank mechanical cranes and win prizes rather than buy hot dogs.
We stayed overnight at the fair in those years and slept in the straw next to our animals. This seemed perfectly normal to do. My mother was apprehensive until a young man, four years older than me, told her he'd make sure I was OK. His name was Johnny Tytenicz (pronounced Titanic) and the name fit as he was a star lineman who later played at OU. I stayed close to him and never had any problem with the nocturnal fair boys, although Johnny was not exactly a Sunday school teacher. One night we found that the soft drink vendor had left the valves open to the Pepsi tank. Johnny drained out at least a half-gallon that I drank! I'd never had soda pop free choice before and I remember the delight followed by the stomach pain of overindulging.
Livestock competition was our day job and the FFA instructor took care of all of us. We showed steers, pigs and sheep from county through state fairs and managed to get our Midway time in after we bedded the animals and the adults went home.
When I became a vocational agriculture instructor, I thought I knew all the tricks. Of course, I was wrong because each generation is smarter than the last. About all I could do was make them work hard enough during the day that they would sleep at night. We attended one livestock fair that was pretty bland but had a great go cart track nearby. My offer was that when we had everything done to my satisfaction, we would race go carts. I recall being knocked out of a cart by one of "my boys" and burning my, down filled, nylon coat sliding on the track.
In some parts of the country, there would be a travelling Midway that had a "hoochie-coochie" show that was extremely popular with the men. In counties that were staunchly religious, this was a sinful exhibition that was publicly condemned and privately attended. One farmer told his teenage son not to go because he would see things he shouldn't see. The boy couldn't buy a ticket, so he and friends raised the tent wall to peek in and sure enough, he saw something he shouldn't see; his father in the front row!
Fairs do have socially redeeming qualities as they expand ideas and popularize products. Most modern inventions, like television, were first shown off as prototypes at fairs. I recall a fiber optics demonstration in the 1960s and many home appliances were first introduced at county or state gatherings. There is always one location: The "Farm, Home, Boat, Motor, Travel Trailer and Shaklee Product Building" where you are overwhelmed with the number of things you can buy that you don't need. Still, it is quite satisfying to be accosted by the sights, sounds and salesman's chant: "It's not a slicer, not a dicer." Those who sign up for drawings are rewarded with year 'round junk mail that keeps the mailman busy and is great for starting a fire in the stove.
Are we still "country" enough to need to attend a county fair? My answer is "yes". The draw is the break in our routine. It is a moment that we may live outside our normal reality. For teenagers, it is an emotional and hormonal rush that seems pretty stupid when you watch it from afar but not while you are captured by its essence.
So, last week, as a teenager times four, I bought twenty dollars' worth of tickets to ride a rickety Ferris Wheel and a tumbling cylinder that took the Carney's only an hour to disassemble and put on a truck. I dropped quarters into a game of chance where the prize was worth less than the money I paid. I walked through educational exhibits and saw the handywork of competition from agricultural dioramas to sewing and canning. I sat in the livestock arena and was amazed by the quality of the animals and the skill of the young showmen. I sweated through the humid mid-summer evening and remembered my childhood like it was yesterday.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.