in the middle of the country in Illinois there’s a small town
called Sandwich. Every year, beginning the Wednesday following Labor
Day, the Sandwich Fair opens. The town is similar to Chatham and
the fair is as great a tradition as is the Chatham Fair.
The Sandwich Fair isn’t as old; established in 1888, this
year’s fair was only the 116th running of the event. The folks
who chose the original piece of land to be designated as the fairgrounds
those many years ago were true visionaries. They selected a beautiful
oak grove and adjoining open
land. The oaks with their cool shade and majestic stature are the
cornerstones of this particular fair. As the fair has grown, (there
were 80,000 attendees on Saturday this year), it struggles to retain
its agricultural core. Of course there are tractor pulls, with machines
that more closely resemble rail dragsters than tractors, but they
pack in the crowds and the crowds spend money and money keeps the
There are too, those little changed constants. There is a honey
stand with a glass-enclosed bee colony. “Find the queen and
win a free jar of honey,” the sign reads. I remember being
seven and staring at that thing for what seemed hours trying to
find the matriarch. Never did
get the jar of honey. A short distance away, I met Leo Carillo,
a great character actor of the 30’s and 40’s and best
known as Pancho on the “Cisco Kid” TV series. I thought
he looked old, wondered how he got on his horse, but he was Pancho,
he was real and right in front of me; a great moment in my young
life. Pancho is long departed, but the exact spot where I stood
in line to meet him remains and that in itself brought that lovely
man back to life in my mind.
There were 300 pound pumpkins, corn; feed corn, sweet corn and Indian
corn, bundles of wheat, oats, rye, clover and sweet smelling alfalfa,
quilts and jams and preserves, jars of pickled everything and glass
cases filled with pies, apple, cherry, peach, rhubarb too many to
list, all honest things, made with love and care and they so endear
me to this place.
Augie Otto built a small coal fired train, laid a quarter mile of
track through the oak grove and brought it to the fair in 1953.
It became an institution. In the 70’s he built a quarter size
steam locomotive. Forty-eight people at a time still enjoy a magical
ride through the oaks; the lines are continuous. Augie died in ’94
at 84, but his son Norman maintains the family’s tradition.
In many ways tradition is what the fair is all about. It remains
a constant in an ever-changing world. It is a place to return to,
a place to reconnect with your past. Whenever I return I run into
someone I haven’t seen for years, saw one cousin this time
I haven’t seen since I was 12. As we get older those old connections
friendship take on new life; they remind us of our mortality and
encourage us to smile at times thought forgotten. While families
and friends and lives split and stretch and branch off into journeys
of their own, the fair is the connective tissue that restores the
life and breath that once held them close. It is a delicious thing.
It is true that you can never go back home, it’s impossible
to restore the past, it is what it is; the past, but there is deep
benefit in reconnection to your past. It illustrates just who you
are, your true self and your journey traveled through this wondrous
and all too brief life.
This year at the fair there was a car show, organized by Doug Carter.
I played football and ran hurdles with Doug; it was good to see
him. I used to be a car guy, so I wandered row after row eyeing
’55 Chevy pickup trucks, ’40 Fords, ’34 Buicks,
Model T’s, ’68 Camaros and Hemi-Head factory hot rods.
I wound up hanging around behind my friend Rick McInturf’s
cobalt ’67 GTO. There we were looking like an Eagles album
cover, McInturf, Beecher, Kraut and Guyer, only Harderson was missing,
he lives in Nevada. A bunch of middle aged guys doing what we did
at 17, hangin’ around talking about cars and wondering how
we got this old this fast, but glad we’re all still here.
this connection brings is powerful and fulfilling but it is ineffable.
The toll, the near insurmountable difficulties visited upon each
of us treading life’s path is staggering. The great courage
of Lee’s wife Rhonda, Mike’s rebirth, each burden, gain
or loss renews our strength to continue. There is great and simple
joy in these meetings, the connection to life-long friends and family.
County fairs, no matter where you live, are fine places to safely
store and revisit these most precious of life’s gifts.
We’ll talk next time From The Road.