As a kid you look forward to it during summer vacation.
As a farm kid, you look forward to it all year long. You prepare for it all year long.
This year’s Platte County Fair is praised by judges as to the quality of the people and of the animals that were raised right here in our own area. There were cows as big as I’d ever seen, pigs with personalities, horses that melted your heart with a look and a nuzzle and some of the most dedicated kids I’d ever had the privilege of being with.
And my hat is off to the many parents, volunteers and fair workers who worked tirelessly to make our county fair one to be proud of even in the midst of all the construction. It was said that this year’s fair board endured more than the usual amount of adversity. When I first arrived in Wyoming about five months ago, I had heard many great things about the town, the people, the activities, the leadership and the heart of Platte County.
When I asked about the fair as I passed the fairgrounds on my first trip out of town, the response was not positive. There was talk about the fairgrounds being under construction, fair popularity waning and generally a kind of disappointing sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I am very much a fair enthusiast.
I can remember as a kid my maternal grandparents always taking us to the Wisconsin State Fair. Not only that fair, but any fair that was within driving distance, we would go. My grandparents who taught me how to do chores, milk cows, clean barns and appreciate the animals were all about agriculture.
My great-grandparents, Gabriel and Mathilda Mataya immigrated to Iowa from Croatia in the late 1800s to work in the Dallas County coal mines near Des Moines. They worked and saved and bought a farm where they raised pigs and dairy cattle in addition to planting corn. In addition to the depression which began with the stock market crash of 1929, there was a farm crisis that did them in as they found that crops couldn’t grow in dust.
My great-grandparents lost everything and moved to northern Wisconsin. Farming resumed with a work ethic and a love for the lifestyle that was passed down through the generations. My grandparents made a point to take us to as many fairs as we could to make sure we would never lose touch with our agricultural roots and we could always see what hard work could yield. The working vacation was also a reward for all the work we had done throughout the year.
As I close my eyes and think back to when I was a kid, it all comes back to me. The smells of my mom canning dill pickles and getting them ready for the fair. The smell of grandma’s rhubarb and apple pies being baked for the show. Watching grandpa groom the steers and cussing out the cowlick and the back leg that didn’t want to stand quite right.
And of course, the whole family sitting down to watch the movie “State Fair” with Dana Andrews and Dick Haymes which my grandfather always complained wasn’t realistic and cursed Hollywood. Although he would crack a smile when Charles Winninger would sing to his prize Hampshire boar in the hog pavilion.
Grandma, grandpa, mom and dad have long since passed, but going to this year’s fair mixed a tasty memory concoction of the old tender memories with the fresh new ones. Almost like a warmup on a good cup of coffee.
I had to see for myself how our fair faired. It far exceeded my expectations and made me wonder as to why more people don’t get behind it? I can’t for the life of me figure why someone wouldn’t support and represent knowing that our town is the hub of the entire county for all things fair.
Maybe it’s because we don’t have a shiny horse arena or a loud midway with rides and games? Maybe it’s the roped off areas and the construction this year? Whatever the reasons, perhaps it is a wake-up call for someone to get on board and become more involved. Whether that be with wielding a paint brush, taking a ticket or sitting in on a few fair board meetings.
It’s easy to just stay home and shake your head and say, “tsk, tsk, not worth the risk” or you can actually get up and make a difference. I challenge anyone to take one day at the fair and volunteer some time. Talk to some of the kids who are showing. Strike up a conversation with someone sitting alone in the barn delegated to sit with the animals. Sit in the bleachers at the show arena and listen to some of great conversations our next generation is offering up.
How far away from “childlike” have we grown with our stress and our worries and our keeping up appearances and our striving with the Jones’. I found as I stepped into that fairground that I moved back a little closer to getting in touch with my inner child.
I found myself closing my eyes in the warm summer sun and feeling as if I were 8-years-old again. I heard the neighing of a horse and a hoof stomp to the ground and could hear my grandfather’s voice echoing his displeasure with my grandmother who was taking too long getting him the liniment.
I let the sensation of cotton candy melt on my tongue and experienced a brain freeze from shaved ice with more than the standard three flavors that I had as a kid. It was a relief to put my adult brain on ice for at least a while.
And I closed my eyes again and smelled the delights that reminded me of the barn. The fresh hay, the unique scent of a horse, the stall chips for the sheep. That smell that wafts in every once in a while, periodically throughout the year that keeps you suspended between those precious memories of past years’ time with your family to the anticipation of the new family that would arrive in time for this year’s fair.
I moved close to the head of a gentle mare and as she nuzzled me with that long velvet nose, it reminded me of my faithful steed “Buttermilk” who I’d ridden at the pony rides, and my eyes searched the crowd for the eyes of my grandmother who was always watching with a smile as I went around and around.
Fairs are more than buildings and fresh paint and crowds of people or a lack thereof. Our fair to me this year was a lifesaver. She made me take time to stop and remember life itself and all those who I loved that are no longer with me.
A fair in that soft summer dress that made me stop in my tracks two weeks ago in my anticipation. And my grandson said, “whatcha thinkin’ about grandpa?” With a smile I said, “I have someone to introduce you to.” And as I put his tiny hand in mine, I remembered and missed my grandfather immensely, but knew that it was my time to step into the tradition of goin’ to the fair.
And finally, it was the people here at my very first Platte County Fair who opened their arms, took me in as one of their own and welcomed me back home to my childhood. Today the fair is half over for this year and I am taken back to the melancholy of every single fair that I had to said goodbye to.
But there is a joy that she’ll return and remind me just where I put that smile that I had misplaced during the seriousness of life.