When I was a little girl, the Fair was an event to be savored. It seemed as if there were a hundred buildings to traverse, a million exhibits to peruse and a thousand rides to enjoy – and hardly enough time to do any of it and still wangle a stick of cotton candy out of my parents. We would walk past the barns filled with cows and cowboy boots and I would watch my mother close her eyes and breathe deeply – a thousand miles away in her mind.
My grandfather ranched cattle in the Central Valley of California, long before San Jose became Silicon Valley and was introduced to Starbucks and Fiji water. My mother had grown up in 4H and showed Black Angus steers throughout her childhood. She had a special place in her heart for the smells and sounds and feeling that was fair season; and would often tell us of stories of sleeping in the buildings at night, brushing her steer until he shone, and after-hours merry-making when the public went home and the fairgrounds transformed into a magical world of moonlight, intrigue and late-night giggles.
But things changed, as they always do – the Ferris Wheel spun faster, the admission price raced higher and developers flooded into the Central Valley and saw fields of gold where others saw pasture and orchards. My grandfather lost his ranch in the struggle twixt old and new, and my mother married, moved away and started her own family.
Though a Black Angus steer never made an appearance in my childhood, we had gardens and chickens and other small animals to keep us busy and outside. I was always aware however of an indefinable change in my mother when the fairgrounds began to hum with life and the smell of hay and hamburgers was in the air.
Yet for me, a child of the country but not of the farm, the fair held just as many wonderful experiences. I sucked on cotton candy and looked furtively under bleachers for Templeton the rat and never knew what I was missing. Such is life – we are, each of us, products of our own time and experience.
Many years later, I am still just as excited to walk around the fairgrounds as I was as a little girl, but this year for the first time I am seeing it from behind the scenes – perhaps a bit more as my mother did all those years ago. Now I wear the hat of a Master Gardener – and fair set-up week is a hectic process that involves a good deal of co-ordination and a great deal of pit-beef sandwiches and fresh lemonade.
As Master Gardeners, we are there to answer questions about your gardens, listen to stories of your victories and empathize with your failures. We will present on a myriad of topics, look at your pock-marked peppers and tell you how to compost using a bucket of worms and yesterday’s dinner. If you stop by our booth, we’ll hand you a packet of seeds and a gummy-worm and yet more literature on the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. If you stop by again, we may even give you the ubiquitous ruler.
And we will be joined by farmers, gardeners, bee-keepers and seamstresses; bakers, preservers, artists and artisans – all sharing talents polished in homes and farms county-wide. And how they have been polished! A wander through the buildings is heart-warming and gives me a deep appreciation of the work going on year-round from so many gardens, kitchens and farms.
In the barns, children, teens and parents are preparing their beautiful livestock for a walk around the ring. Chickens are being fluffed and rabbits are being brushed. There is excitement, panic and no doubt intrigue, and as always…the sweet, strong smell of hay and wood shavings pervading through all.
Perhaps we have developed much of our best farmland into subdivisions, perhaps there are too many children who don’t know where an egg comes from; but right now, right here, there is ample proof that we have not completely lost our agricultural heritage – it is alive and well and at the very heart of our county fair.
It’s still my mother’s fair. It’s still my fair. Different states, different times, different experiences; but one thing always remains the same – the fair brings a county’s people together like no other event, and the experience will be special for them all. Come visit your fair this week, find your own experience, and keep this wonderful tradition alive for many generations to come.