Nostalgia for the County Fair

I spent Saturday with my youngest two girls, their paternal biological grandmother, and my husband at the Blue Earth County Fair.

The girls’ bio-grandma, whom we call GG, grew up in the community of Garden City, Minn., where the BE County Fair has been held for more than a hundred years. As we walked the grounds, GG told us about the fair of her childhood, which was always packed with people and amazing food. She had a neighbor who spent the entire three days of the fair making the “world’s best” onion rings, and the general noise and crowds forced her father to put a wire fence around his property, just to keep the fair patrons from parking on his lawn.

This year’s fair seems diminished in comparison, but it was no less fun for our little group. The fair board no longer contracts for carnival rides, but there were bounce houses, renaissance-style fighting tournaments, a fun maze, and a small “train” ride of linked cars behind a mini-tractor. Food, animals, and exhibits also were plentiful, though GG often told stories of days when the buildings were packed to overflowing, something that wasn’t the case this year.

Our first stop at the animal barns made the little girls giggle at the crowing of roosters in breeding pens, coo over freshly shorn sheep, wave at the massive “piggies,” and look on with big eyes at the bulls and cows. They got to pet rabbits and play in a field corn pit with shovels and strainers.

After playing on the bouncy rides for a bit, we made our way through the center of the fair to the food booths to snag a couple of bags of mini-donuts to share, since the smell of the freshly fried treats called us. We ate them while watching the the little train go around the fair. While the girls didn’t want to go on the train at first, they later chose to try it, and enjoyed their rides.

We also tried Okojobi soda, which was handcrafted and tasty, before entering the exhibit halls. We wandered through the vendors, then through the 4-H exhibits. While in the 4-H building, the girls tried to drive the tractor simulators–which were bigger than they were–and I got some cute pictures.

When it was time for lunch, we chose to support the 4-H and headed for their hall, where we settled down with beef commercials (roast beef in gravy, on white bread, with from-scratch mashed potatoes) and refills of our Okojobi pops. The 4-H stand also offered a wide variety of meal options, and home-made pie, but we were pretty full after our “commercial treat”.

Afterwards, we wandered over to watch the horses in the arena, then looked through the competition booths, voted in the peoples’ choice competition for best of show in several categories (sewing, gardening, “trash-to-treasure” crafting, woodworking), and played in a special kids’ area. We continued on to visit with the Blue Earth County Historical Society workers in their big building, taking old-timely pictures and viewing a live demonstration of a lace-maker.

We wrapped up with a trip through the one-room schoolhouse, which was decommissioned in 1965 and moved to the fairgrounds in 1968, and a local family’s log cabin that had been moved to the grounds and restored. We were worn out, but we had to stop at the girls’ great-grandma’s house before we headed home.

When we talk about the rural experience, I think that we sometimes forget these foundational places of gathering, talking, exhibiting, and visiting. To see the fair diminished hurts a little. As we went from exhibit to exhibit, we heard how things “used to be.” I don’t think we ought to dwell on what used to be, but appreciate what we have. Young people in 4-H still thrive, educate, exhibit. And friends and neighbors still gather around pie, fried food, and too much sugar.

The weather was perfect, and so was the day.

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