County Fair

Summer’s over, at least that’s what they say here in the northeast. Labor Day is the unofficial “End of Summer.” Autumn actually begins at 11:06 p.m. on September 22. The Full Moon on September 2 was not the Harvest Moon, but rather the Fruit or Barley Moon. The Harvest Moon won’t arrive until October 2, so there’s a little summer remaining. Hailing from the farm country of the great midwestern prairie, the end of summer causes me to think of harvest and harvest time always fills my head with thoughts of county fairs.

The county fair out on the prairie is quite similar to the Columbia County Fair. There’s a harness track and a demolition derby, sometimes the Joie Chitwood auto thrill show. The biggest event out there these days is the tractor pull.

I remember saving up my change all summer in a Mason jar, so I’d have money to spend at the Fair. There was a lot of cotton candy and popcorn, corn dogs and salt-water taffy and Fay’s pork chops (a local favorite) to be consumed and I planned to do my share. I loved the livestock and horticultural displays, perfect bundles of rye, oats, barley and 300-pound pumpkins, but the rides and games of the carnival were always a powerful lure.

I loved the carny guys. They all had tattoos and were from the southern states; my ear listened with relish to their accents and carny jargon. There was one old fella who went by the name of “Red”. He was an ornery shrunk down little guy pushin’ eighty who was probably mean as snot in his day.

My friends and I would hang around Red’s Crazy Ball stand. He had this old microphone wrapped, nearly covered with black electrical tape. He’d press it close to his mouth and using his tight distorted voice he’d encourage passersby to step right up and take a chance, “Aaaaaaaaaa dime,” he’d call out. “Craaaazy Ball, Aaaaaaaaaa dime, Aaaaaaaaaa dime,” and people would begin slappin’ dimes down on Red’s counter. Every so often we’d holler, “Hey, Red, how much is it?” And every time with exacting precision Red would squeeze out an, “Aaaaaaaaaa dime,” just for us and we loved it.

We all made up stories about Red’s past, how he’d been to prison for bank robbery or counterfeiting or murder, murdering some smart-alecky kid at some carnival somewhere for taunting him a little too much the way we all too often did. When we got on Red’s nerves he’d tighten down his voice, “Hey, scram, beat it.” The look in his faded blue-grey eyes told us to git, and off we ran. One year, Red’s Crazy Ball stand failed to show at the fair. It was then we realized how much we missed our tough old friend.

As I got older there were girls to meet and chase and sneak a kiss from on the Ferris wheel. Things haven’t changed much really.

County Fairs are for farm people, those who work long hours undaunted by the elements. It’s the place they bring their quiet pride and the products of their labor; the men their crops and livestock, the women their handmade quilts, baked goods and jam.

I wandered around the Columbia County Fair, eyeing those fine Holsteins and Jerseys and a small section of powerful Angus steers. I watched Ryan Brousseau, his cousins and friends wrangle a six and a half month old sheep he called number 18. Next door there were ladies busy spinning wool.

I stopped at the OK Foods booth for a roast beef sandwich. Kenny Van Allen’s even built on a back porch this year for fryin’ French Fries. Kenny told me he’s had one weekend off all summer. Good to see he’s busy.

I strolled through the Exhibition Hall, delighting in the Fair Play Art Contest, passed the political and sportsman’s booths over to inspect the cages of hens and roosters and rabbits and ducks. The antique farm machinery exhibit always catches my ear; sounds emanating from another time. Blacksmith Bob Engel was just finishing up a lantern stand for a Civil War reenactor when I wandered in for a chat. John Clum’s nimble fingers weave a fine basket; an amazed crowd looks on.

I always felt a tinge of sadness every year when the Fair closed; cool evenings, summer vacation over, it was back to school and soon winter would blanket the land. It was that county fair celebration at the close of summer I carried with me into the shortened days and cold winter months ahead.

As I write this, it’s closing day of the Columbia County Fair. It’ll all be history when you read it, the fairgrounds will once again be quiet, a peaceful landscape that comes to life but once a year to the great delight of so many. The sights, sounds and smells of the county fair surround me, but it is the memory of it all we will carry with us, both you and I. August 29th, 2002 will be here before we know it.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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