The Nation's Pulse

Fair Enough

The county fair remains a very conservative affair.

By 8.19.10

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Nothing says SUMMER IN AMERICA like a county fair. This month I was privileged to attend two such fairs, and when I say privileged, I, of course, mean obligated.

Our county fairs have a long and proud tradition. The predecessor of the county fair was the market fair, which was the organic grocery store of its day, though lacking the smug self-righteousness. County fairs were begun in the early 1800s as a way to promote the latest agricultural machinery and techniques, as well as a way for rural families to gawk at potatoes that looked like famous politicians and politicians that looked like famous potatoes.

Elkanah Watson (1758-1842) is credited with originating the American county fair in 1810 in Berkshire County, Mass. If that had been all he did that would have been enough for most people, but Elk was a Revolutionary War hero, too, smuggling important messages to Benjamin Franklin in Paris ("What exactly are you doing over there?—Geo. Washington") and, in his free time, coming up with the idea for the Erie Canal.

The character of the county fair hasn't changed all that much in the nearly 60 years since E.B. White described it in his book Charlotte's Web:

When they pulled into the Fair Grounds, they could hear music and see the Ferris wheel turning in the sky. They could smell the dust of the race track where the sprinkling cart had moistened it; and they could smell hamburgers frying and see balloons aloft. They could hear sheep blatting in their pens.

As dusk approached, we wandered over to the livestock pens where the sheep blatted and the hogs squelched and we talked to some pig farmers. They were warm, hospitable folks who, oddly enough, were staying in one of the pens next to their prize hogs. They invited us to accompany them to the swine judging, and we stayed on for the cattle and sheep judging too. Then we hurried over to the grandstand for the teenage-girls-in-swimsuits judging.

Like most fair-goers, my favorite part of the experience is the combine demolition derby. If you've never been to a combine demolition derby allow me to explain the rules. There are none. At least none that I can make out. Basically it's like giant bumper cars without bumpers. Instead the drivers ram each other with their combine header. And here's where things get really surreal. Don't ask me why, but the combines are decorated to look like spotted Holstein cows and giant football helmets (an homage to the local high school team, I assume). I can see how this would be exciting for a guy. It is every young red-blooded American male's dream to destroy thousands of dollars of agricultural machinery, while his buddies and his best girl proudly look on. Normally we have laws against this. The great thing about the county fair is we leave the trappings of civilization at the entrance gate. In this way, the fair resembles a great lawless region, say the Khyber Pass or the street out front of my girlfriend's urban St. Louis house.

AFTER THE demolition derby, the rest of the fair seems rather anti-climatic. All that's left are the tractor pull and the truck pull, both of which could be considerably improved by having participants ram their vehicles into each other.

This is no doubt what Elk Watson had in mind when he established the county fair as a celebration of human progress, science, education, the agrarian ideal and the amazing culinary properties of lard. No other profession or occupation is so celebrated. You certainly don't see large outdoor events where accountants go head to head over who can track the most incoming expenses in 30 seconds on an Excel document. Nor should you.

The dearth of accountants notwithstanding, the county fair remains a very conservative affair. You seldom see liberals or feminists on the grounds, because the fair is really about competition, which liberals hate. Liberals would shut down the combine demolition derby and replace it with earth-friendly games in which children are praised for turning off the most lights and air conditioning units in the exhibition hall. This would result in the tragic spectacle of heat-exhausted elderly women falling into giant gourd exhibits and getting entangled in blue-ribbon quilts.

Feminists would try to shut down the beauty pageant and replace it with a workshop titled "Liberating the Recipe: A revisiting of underrepresented soups in feminist magazines of the 1970s." This would likely cause an interesting confrontation between the angry prickly-legged sisterhood and stocky female pig farmers/stage mothers, one that might best be settled in a Tournament of Destruction: Priuses versus Combines.

Now that would be a fair to remember.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.