The County Fair

Between Independence Day and the first day of school, the most important week of summer was the week of the County Fair. The fair was always held on the last Thursday through Sunday of July, although as the years passed it expanded to include Wednesday of the same week as well.

My family was heavily involved in the fair, since my mother was the leader of a 4-H Club. (For those unfamiliar with the 4-H program, the four Hs stand for head, heart, hands, and health. The program involves children, from eight to eighteen years old, in a great number of activities that help prepare them to be responsible adults and beneficial citizens of their communities, their countries, and the world.) Along with several buildings containing 4-H exhibits, the fair also featured commercial exhibits, food vendors, carnival games, souvenir stands, a midway with carnival rides, and a grandstand that hosted equestrian events, a rodeo, and—Sunday night, to close the fair—a demolition derby.

When I was young, the 4-H exhibits were checked in and judged Thursday morning, then left on display until Sunday night for the public to view. As I grew older, fair authorities decided to have the check-in and judging on Wednesday before the fair was open to the public. Food vendors noticed the opportunity and began opening on Wednesday for 4-H members and their families. Eventually, the official opening of the fair, including the midway rides, was moved to noon on Wednesday.

On Monday volunteers would come to the fairgrounds to set up tables for the 4-H exhibits and cover them with white paper. Tuesday was quiet, aside from the fact that many 4-H members throughout the county were frantically completing their projects. Wednesday the projects were brought to the fairgrounds. One building—the building where my mother spent most of her time—was labeled “Home Economics.” Exhibits in that building included baking and cooking, canning and preserving, sewing, knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, ceramics, flower arranging, table place setting, and other crafts. A second building was labeled “Science.” Exhibits in that building included photography, woodworking, insect collections, rock collections, gardening (various fruits and vegetables), and the like. More buildings had various livestock: cows, goats, sheep, hogs, chickens, rabbits, and more. Horses generally were not kept at the fair for exhibit but were shown in the grandstand during judging.

During check-in, adult volunteers including my mother would sit at tables to receive 4-H projects and record that they had arrived, tearing a receipt from the bottom of the tag for the exhibitor. Younger volunteers including me would then carry those projects back to the appropriate table. Each category, such as ceramics or woodworking, had various subcategories, so the volunteers had to be careful to check the number on each project tag and put the project on the proper table. When check-in was completed, judges would come to award each project a blue, red, or white ribbon. (There were also pink ribbons for projects that were disqualified for any reason.) After awarding those ribbons, the judges would consider the blue ribbon winners for championship ribbons, which were purple. Volunteers accompanied the judges to complete forms with comments made by the judges about each project. Those forms would then be given to the exhibitors, usually when they picked up their exhibit Sunday night.

Commercial exhibits included a large booth for the Republican Party and another for the Democratic Party. There were candymakers, home improvement businesses, assorted religious groups, jewelers, t-shirts, and much more. I recall a display one year that promised computerized personality profiles for a dollar through handwriting analysis, and a lawyer who gave legal advice for a dollar. My friend wasted three dollars getting two handwriting analysis and showing them to the lawyer, hoping to prove the computer a fraud. The lawyer indicated that the display with the computer clearly noted that it was “for entertainment purposes only.”

Among my favorite fair foods were barbecued beef sandwiches, cotton candy, salt-water taffy, and snow cones. The fudge sold in the commercial building was also a highlight of the fair. I was not fond of midway rides that went up into the air—not even calm rides like the Ferris Wheel.  I preferred rides that spun the rider—the Scrambler and the Tilt-a-Whirl in particular. Some years a miniature train carried passengers around the fairgrounds. The Merry-Go-Round was also a favorite every year. At first the midway with the rides and carnival games was close to the Home Economics building, but later—to expand it—the midway was moved downhill to the far end of the fairground. Other features of the midway included a traveling waxworks museum, promoted by a “mechanical man,” an actor in heavy makeup who performed with spasmodic gestures and an unblinking stare. Also, a barker offered for two dollars to “guess your age within three years, your weight within five pounds, or the month of your birth,” awarding a prize if his guess was wrong. He built a crowd by making one or two wrong guesses, then was amazingly successful once people were lined up to challenge his guessing.

My 4-H project career featured championship ribbons in photography and ceramics. I also earned blue ribbons in baking (brownies) and vegetable gardening. County fair champions were eligible to compete at the State Fair, which was held in August. One of my photographs won a championship at the State Fair one year.

Check-out of projects was a whirlwind of activity Sunday night. The fair was packed with people, but the 4-H members were interested in collecting their projects and their ribbons. Once again, adult volunteers sat at the front of the building to monitor paperwork, while younger volunteers retrieved the projects from within the building. By the time that was done, the fair was all but over. Volunteers returned, though, the following Tuesday to pick up trash from the fairgrounds. Cups and food wrappers and discarded pamphlets and handouts were strewn throughout the grounds, but a large team of volunteers could usually dispose of most of the trash in a few hours. Then the grounds and buildings were available for other events until the end of July arrived once again. J.

The basement

As I’ve written before, I grew up in a ranch house with a full basement. A lot happened down in the basement, including some spectacular floods.

The washing machine and clothes drier were down there, along with a chest freezer and a second refrigerator. My parents stored frozen vegetables and fruits from the garden in the freezer, and also had shelves of canned fruits, jellies, applesauce, and the like. One of my mother’s hobbies was ceramics, which she taught to 4-H children and also to ladies from the church. Year-round, the ladies would gather once a week in the basement to prepare items for their annual Christmas sale. Most of them were cast in molds; my mother had a large collection of molds, glazes, and a kiln for firing the ceramics.

Two of my father’s hobbies were woodworking and photography. He had a fairly complete work area in one corner of the basement with a table saw and other tools. In another corner he assembled a darkroom in which he printed photographs he had taken. When he built the darkroom, he also made a second room which he intended to be a recreation room. It had a tile floor and wood panel walls. A ping pong table was in the room, but gradually it accumulated various items for storage, so not much recreation happened there.

Twelve wooden stairs led down from the back entry to the basement. There were four steps and then a landing (which held the cat’s litter box), and then a turn to the right and eight more steps down to the basement floor. Next to those steps was the furnace that heated the house in the winter. When I was young, I kept some of my toys in the cubbyhole underneath the steps and landing.

My parents never threw away a cardboard box, because one never knows when one will need a box of a certain size. I remember a huge mountain of boxes in the basement when I was younger. Of course when the basement was flooded, the cardboard was ruined and had to be discarded. Most of the molds survived and were usable again after they had thoroughly dried. The freezer floated and tipped over, spilling its contents, which (needless to say) also had to be discarded.

Aside from the recreation room and darkroom, the floor of the basement was concrete. It had a number of cracks through which water would seep on rainy days. A sump pump kept the basement relatively dry except during major floods, but most summers the basement had a musty smell.

Our first major flood was caused by a heavy rainfall in the summer. The second major flood, a few years later, happened because of an early spring rain while there was still snow on the ground. We had no heat in the house because of that flood; the pilot light of the furnace was below the level of the floodwater. More floods followed. When the creek was high and water was seeping through the cracks in the floor, my parents and I would try to get items of value out of the basement. I, of course, was most worried about my toys; my parents had other concerns. My father eventually bought a second sump pump to deal with floods. The main sump pump was electric and diverted water into the creek. The second sump pump was gasoline powered; when my father ran that pump, he had to run the hose out the basement window. Of course when floodwaters reached the window, trying to pump water out of the basement was pointless.

My parents were legally required to purchase flood insurance. After a major flood, the insurance company would give them money to replace the furnace, washer, drier, and freezer. They did not cover craft materials or toys. Along with replacement money, though, the insurance also provided funds for cleaning the basement, based on the square footage of the floor and walls that had come in contact with floodwater. As my parents became older and major floods became more frequent, the basement was increasingly unsafe. I know that pockets of mold and mildew existed where they could not be reached to be removed. My father was anxious to move, but my mother was very attached to the house and the village.

After my mother died (a little more than a year ago), my father relocated as quickly as he could. A government agency was purchasing houses in the floodplain. Months of legal negotiations were involved in the transaction, but eventually my father was able to move, and the house was leveled.

I clearly remember many afternoons spent in the basement. I remember using a hand drill to drill holes in a block of wood, which kept me busy while my father worked on more complicated projects. I remember the gatherings of 4-H children and church ladies to work on ceramics, and I remember a few projects I produced at the same table. (One of them won prizes at the county fair and was exhibited at the state fair.) I remember playing with toys on the floor of the recreation room, and I remember frantically gathering toys to take upstairs because it was raining outside. I remember lessons from my father on developing film and printing pictures, many years before telephones were used to take pictures. I remember a sense of security while my mother loaded the kiln and my father sculpted cabinet doors for the kitchen and I played with my toys. All that remains today are the memories. J.