Think about blue ribbons and butter cows, cotton candy and funnel cakes, lemon shake-ups and livestock shows, prize-winning pigs and perfect apple pies.
These vivid mental pictures awaken our senses and bring back fond memories. No matter where you reside in rural America, summertime means fair time. My brother and sisters and I lived for the fairs -- the payoff for a long, hot summer of baling hay and cleaning pigpens. The state fair was our final fling before school began.
These are some of my dad's ribbons from showing at the fairs.
Five kids in the family meant a lot of show animals, so getting the pigs to the fair was an experience in itself. At times, the situation could get a bit tense. Finding all the right registration papers to go with each pig was my job and it was a relief when that task was over.
After arriving and finding adequate pens, we took it easy for a while. We located everyone's show box and picked a place for our endless card games. Innumerable hours were spent just watching the people from downtown Detroit and their varied reactions to the hog barn.
We decided from which rafter to string the fake spider for the greatest effect. My heart took a nostalgic leap when my daughter did the same thing at the Iowa State Fair when she was a little girl. She was with the daughter of a friend of mine, and now those little girls are grown up with children of their own. My friend and I hope our grandchildren can meet at the Iowa State Fair this year and play out the scene for yet another generation.
The midway was a blend of scary and exciting for a fairly naïve farm girl, but armed with my sisters and friends, we usually made a swing through the midway to try out the newest, wildest, fastest rides. That's probably why I can barely get on a seesaw or swing now without getting a severe wave of motion sickness.
The Work Begins
All frivolity ended the afternoon before show day. With our arsenal of soap, brushes, hoses and old clothes, we scrubbed pigs into the early morning hours. Exhausted, with pink and wrinkled hands and feet, we'd stumble to the dorm on the fairgrounds for a few hours of sleep.
On show day, chores were done early so we could freshen the pens and powder the pigs. Some of you will remember the days when white pigs were generously sprinkled with talcum powder and black pigs were given a generous coating of oil so they’d glisten in the sun. The white pigs left a trailing cloud of powder as they streaked from their pens to the show ring!
Competition was fierce (especially among family members) as we worked intently to drive our animals near the judge to ensure his appraisal. There was no better feeling than having the judge look your way, point a finger and say "Put your pig in pen one."
No doubt that's where my highly competitive nature was honed.
Culmination of Hard Work
Sometimes our efforts would be rewarded with blue ribbons and banners, but it was the joy of competing that we loved, and the time with family. I remember when I was a young teenage, I won a class with one of my Chester White gilts. After the drive, my grandpa (who served on the Chester White national board of directors the year I was born, and who came to the fair every year to watch his family) pressed a $1 bill in my hand. I felt so proud.
After working hard all summer, the fairs were the culminating reward. We proved we could be trusted and carry out given responsibilities. It was a chance to grow, and grow up.
We weren't angels, though. My parents were slightly shocked to see their 13-year-old daughter featured on the eleven o'clock news for winning the hog-calling contest! Fortunately, it was all in good fun, and I really wanted that $25 prize, which was a lot of money back then.
The fairs had another purpose. They made us proud of what our family did for a living and served as a showcase for agriculture. We happily answered questions from the people who lived in Detroit and had never been to a farm. We made important “up close and personal” connections with urban dwellers long before social media. I'll bet there are few farm folks who can walk through the exhibits at a fair without feeling a similar sense of pride.
It's gratifying to see individuals display the fruits of their labor and glow at the resulting purple ribbon. That feeling of accomplishment, passed from one generation to the next, instills confidence in the future of the family farm.
Don't miss the opportunity to bring back -- or create -- memories of your own this summer. See the best American agriculture has to offer at your own local and state fairs.