This weekend is the Vernon County fair, held at the old fair grounds on what was obviously, once upon a time, the edge of town but has now been swallowed up by our little strip mall (and admittedly corn fields too, this being Viroqua!). The buildings are old, mainly wooden, and look like time has stood still for them. It is still 1950 at the Vernon County Fair.
I love the fair. We used to live on our own little farm further north in Wisconsin and then it was the Polk County fair that was “our fair”. Every year my sons entered their art work and one year my younger son entered several chickens he had raised from chicks. That was a memorable year as when we arrived, clearly novices at this kind of thing, Gabriel, then 10 years old, was kindly but firmly taken under the wing of a veteran chicken showman (ha ha!)
and instructed in how to prepare the birds for the judges. This involved holding the birds’ feet under the pump and gently rinsing them. Gabriel and his brother had had many close and sometimes unexpected encounters with our farm animals over the years, but that was his first time at bathing his chicken’s feet. I can still see his face as he held each not- terribly-compliant hen, carefully washing her feet , a mixture of shock, joy and horror playing over his features!
We were worried that when we left Polk County that we’d find that Vernon County was more sophisticated and perhaps upmarket, that the Mom and Pop feel we loved so much would be missing. But no – it was exactly the same. The same fresh-from-the fields boys in their plaid shirts wrestling with bawling heifers; the same clean scrubbed young girls leading doe-eyed Jersey calves or carefully braiding and unbraiding the manes and tails of their ponies; the same fat old men in their over-alls and feedstore caps (not worn backwards!) leaning on the Farm-Alls, talking….talking….talking like that was all there is to do in the world….the same Lutheran ladies at the same Beth-el or Immanuel church lunch stands serving up their homemade cherry pie, pumpkin pie, shoefly pie, apple pie…..
And you know what? Those pies really are homemade. They’re not Stouffer’s pies slipped in the oven to heat – they are real honest to goodness homemade pies, made by Lutheran ladies. The same pies made by their mothers and their mothers’ mothers I am sure.
All this is a wonder to me. I grew up in New York City and – I’m ashamed to say – would have been quite dismissive of all this once upon a time, looking down my snooty New Yorker nose at this quaint bumpkin-esque gathering. But the years have humbled me and all I can say is that I love the County Fair and hope it never ends. It is a small piece of what is truly good and wonderful about this place and to know that fairs just like it, totally uncommercial fairs like this, are taking place all over the country, with real boys and girls showing their animals and making jam and taking photographs and watching the men in their families gleefully demolish each others junk cars in the demolition derby…..wow. It is wondrous.
Yes – even the demolition derby. I shout that out proudly and don’t care how many carbon foot prints I’m penalized. The County Fair is about Real Life and Real People in Real Wisconsin do things like smash their cars all over each other. They also care for their animals, steward their land to the best of their knowledge and value their families. The County Fair even takes precedence over school around here. In the days when Professional Educators (those who seem unlikely to recognize a real child should one ever come into their view) are clamoring for longer school days and shorter holidays, I love the fact that every family involved in the Fair takes time off from school so the whole family can pile into the camper, hitch the trailer behind it, load up the goats and hay bales, and go camp at the County Fair for the 5 or so days. No other event I know of, save hunting, sees the schools empty and family traditions come to the fore like attending the fair does. I love it.
And yes, there are things I don’t like. I wish the genetically modified soy and other crops were not allowed to compete – or better yet, have so fallen from favor that no one chooses to grow them instead of because some government body has banned them. I wish that less pop (pop! A New Yorker, raised on “soda” saying pop!!) that looks as though it would glow in the dark was consumed. I wish that none of the cows had their tails docked and that no hormones were used to fatten any of the hogs. But…..things are changing. Over the years there have been some small changes in animal welfare rules. And the Organic food stall is right in with the rest of the stalls – it isn’t banned to some obscure corner of the fair – and if they could only make pie as good as the Lutheran ladies, I’m sure they’d be over run. As it is, they do as brisk a business as anyone else.
Some of the children’s exhibitions are also clearly challenging the conventional practices which over-ruled the old farming knowledge of generations past. More and more, farmers are seeing that organic practises are not for the few and the wealthy – they are for anyone who cares about the future health of our children and this earth.
So change comes – and it comes best when it comes from people themselves, not through legislation enacted from on high.
In the meantime, I shall revel in the Fair, saluting it as a wonderful and genuine glimpse at what is best about America.
Posted on September 16, 2009 in Children and Society