What is it about childhood memories?
Those rose-colored, temperature-controlled, glamour-coated days of carefree simplicity?
OK … so that’s a bit of a stretch, but I recently revisited one of the places that has held a prominent place in the mental photo album of my youth: the Buena Vista County Fair (BVCF). To imagine what summers on the farm were like, picture Little House on the Prairie, but with indoor plumbing and cars. As a kid, I had chores: gardening, canning, cooking, cleaning, mowing, and walking beans (a dirty and hot job of walking through the bean fields, pulling weeds in the ever-so-pleasant company of my brothers). There was also plenty of time for riding bikes, swimming, and hanging out with friends. For one week each summer, the county fairgrounds became my home-away-from-home.
When many people think about fairs, I think they picture state fairs: Rogers and Hammerstein stanzas play in the background as images of sparkling carousels, giant corn dogs, ribbons of blue, red, and white flutter in the breeze, and children riding on the shoulders of their parents as they take in the shows.
Now take this extravaganza and divide it by 99 and you find the county fair. Why 99? There are 99 counties in Iowa and each has its own fair. The purpose of the county fair is to focus on the “education of the youth of Iowa, and showcasing Iowa’s agricultural, industrial and domestic heritage” (Association of Iowa Fairs). The “education of the youth of Iowa” is largely centered around the 4-H and FFA clubs. The former is what provided me with so much involvement, opportunity, and fun at the fair.
If you are unfamiliar with 4-H, it is a national youth organization with local, county, state, and national activity levels fostering self-improvement and community service. Kids are introduced and encouraged to explore areas like food & nutrition, sewing, home improvement, animals & livestock, citizenship, photography, public speaking, agriculture, and so much more.
By the time I was 9, thanks to my mom and my grandmothers, I had a pretty solid foundation in cooking, baking and gardening. 4-H was the perfect opportunity for me to build on and expand my food-loving spirit. All throughout the year, our club would meet monthly and divide the responsibilities of hosting, presenting, planning, and sharing ideas. But when school let out in May, it was time to start planning and creating for the fair.
The fair was our chance to display and have judged the things we learned about and made throughout the year. The fairgrounds had (have) a special building for 4-H and each club in the county had (have) a space to decorate and display. Each project had to be entered under a specific category and was judged at the very beginning of the week. Baked goods and nutritional information, arts and crafts, sewing and quilting, refinishing and refurbishing, posters and instructional displays filled the building, waiting to be adorned with a purple, pink, blue, red, or white ribbon.
Once the decorating and judging was over, there was more time for socializing. For the next few days, my cousin and I would wander the fairgrounds, spend time in the cattle barns where her dairy cows were housed for the week, eat fair food (specifically the homemade pie at the Peterson Family Food Stand), and watch whatever events were scheduled for that day. If my cousin was involved in something like the cattle show/judging, I would watch. If I was involved in giving some kind of presentation (usually involving food … go figure), she would watch. The fair was where we got to know a lot of kids from other towns, so we watched what they were doing. There was always a small midway with rides and games that was a true novelty … a couple of rounds on the Tilt-a-Whirl and a bunch of quarters lost to the bulldozer game usually sent us exploring again.
The evenings were reserved for special 4-H events and grandstand entertainment. In the early evening, there would be events centered around 4-H like the Fair Queen Contest, Pie Baking Contest, Share the Fun, and a teen dance. Our fairgrounds were the home of the BV County Stock Car Races during much of the year so the entertainment often involved a night of races, an evening tractor pull (don’t knock it till you’ve watched it), and concerts.
As I wandered around the fair this year, I noticed the 4-H building seemed smaller, there weren’t as many kids or adults milling around, the number of projects and entries had declined, and, sadly, the Peterson Food Stand was no longer operating. I thought, “Where IS everybody?’
I was disappointed.
There were still fun things to do … a rock-climbing wall, kids activities, presentations, animals ranging from large horses to a huge variety of hens and roosters, rides and games, etc.
There were still fun things to see … beautiful arts and crafts, kids showing their cattle, 4-H projects, and cute baby contests.
In a world where a 2-hour movie costs $10, a concert runs $75-$100 per ticket, a trip to the aquatic center is $8-$10, this day at the fair was a true bargain. Admission was one dollar. The pork burger I bought from the Pork Producers was two dollars. That evening, the Pork Producers and Corn Growers were sponsoring a free dinner: pork burgers (no, I didn’t mind eating two pork burgers in one day), fresh-from-the-field sweet corn, and ice cream. They were collecting donations to support veterans and as I waited in line for free food, it was pretty easy to contribute after spending a total of $3 for a day of entertainment and memories.
Maybe the fair hasn’t changed nearly as much as my perspective has. I’ve moved to an urban area where instead of supporting county fairs, I’ve been going to the State Fair. Is it possible that those memories have been running through my brain under the influence of rose-colored glasses? I don’t remember it being miserably hot and humid during the fair. I remember it being … well, ideal. I remember it being a busy place, full of people I knew. Or maybe it was not quite as busy as I remember but was full of the friendly, supportive people of my youth.
The fair was a place of freedom, competition, cooperation, networking, community, and education. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was getting all of these life lessons when I paid the admission at the gate. I was just paying for a day of fun. For 9 years, I pledged …
my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.
I repeated this 4-H pledge over and over again. I think it took a trip back in time for me to realize I am still a student of 4-H. Next year, I pledge to spend a few days visiting the county fairs in my area. After all, “Shop Local” applies to entertainment too.
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