You have decided that our society is obsessed with money (greedy Wall Streeters and books-cooking CEOs), sex (MTV), violence (rap music) and faux celebrity (Brad, Jen and Angelina are telling all in this week’s supermarket tabloids). You wonder what happened to what we used to call “wholesome” entertainment for our families and “good, clean fun” for the kids. It’s still there; you just have to look for it.
Take that American phenomenon, the county fair. This is the season for them. There aren’t as many of them across the land as there used to be, but one or more of them exists in every state where agriculture is important.
This week, for the umpteenth time over two decades or so, we went to the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale (pop.,1,500) on the California coast, about 275 miles north of San Francisco. The county fair is reassuring because so much of it is the same from year to year. The dahlias are still larger than salad plates. Some of the art in the Art Pavilion is quite good; some not so good. The sheep, goats, rabbits, cows and cattle, patiently await their turns at judging (and the inevitable auction). Their young 4H and Future Farmer owners fuss over them.
In the Arts & Crafts Building there are the usual prize-winning canned vegetables, pickles, home-made beer, county-vinted wine, quilts, dolls and stitchery of many kinds. My wife’s cousin won first prize for her embroidered pillow, featuring Ten-gallon hats rendered in various colors. On a table in the center of the hall is a carved steelhead trout, poised in mid-leap for a non-existent fisherman’s fly.
Even the commercial exhibits building is worth perusing. There are booths selling hot tubs, beef jerky, insurance, gutter covers, tractors — among others. The Republicans and Democrats are there, discreetly separated by fifty feet. Next door, the Midway has, as always, the Ferris Wheel, Merry-go-Round, pony rides and others in varying magnitudes of scream-inducement.
Entertainment is more-or-less continuous, running to singers (the Kitchen-Aires, barbershop quartets), dance (Laotian Dancers, Humboldt Folk Dancers) and instrumentalists (Fieldbrook Fiddlers, Eureka Brass, the Red Hat Tooters). Also entertaining, though not necessarily intended to be so, was the milking competition between county supervisors, various mayors, the District Attorney and other political types. One county supervisor won hands down, milking 3.7 ounces in one minute (the Fair’s theme this year is “Udder Madness,” celebrating the area’s dairy industry). Several full-size black-and-white fiberglass Holsteins dot the fairgrounds, while their cud-chewing counterparts carry on in the fields that surround the town.
A family of four can have a full day of fair-going for about $50. Compare that to a big-city football or baseball outing. That includes food, too, though you may not be enthusiastic about the kids stuffing down vitamin-free cotton candy and dogs-on-a-stick.
There is horse racing (mule-racing, too) every day and, truth to tell, there would be no county fair here and few elsewhere without it. Nowadays, betting is linked to regular tracks elsewhere in the state, expanding the opportunities for those who enjoy it (and adding to the fair’s revenue, something the fair’s board of directors enjoys).
Every year there is at least one new “headline” feature. Two years ago it was a giant steer. This year it is the Canon Lady. She is shot out of same at 2 and 4 p.m. every day. We just missed her so cannot report where she lands.
This happy picture was marred this year when thieves broke into the Arts & Crafts Building the first night, stealing several thousand dollars’ worth of antique dolls, a writing desk and a collection of CDs. Crime of any kind is rare at the county fair. The Exhibits’ supervisor said, “It’s pretty bad when people start robbing the county fair.”
Other than that blemish one could say that county fairs offer more than “good, clean fun.” Local merchants pull together to sponsor events and promote the fair (e.g., Ferndale stores exhibit posters congratulating individual exhibitors); the young livestock exhibitors culminate a year of intensively managing the growth and well-being of their charges, only to see them auctioned off, thus learning the basic lessons of the endless cycle of life; visitors have a day of low-cost fun, entertainment and perhaps education; the entertainers — many of them amateurs — do what they like doing best.
Although a lot of work goes into mounting a county fair, the outcome seems simple, even corny, but it beats — any day — pelvic gyrations on MTV, death-extolling rap lyrics and the empty diet of movie “star” frivolities as seen in supermarket tabloids.
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