Okay, so it’s technically Fair Week, but the corndogs play a big role. Folks stand in line for hours at the Korn Dog stand at our annual Berrien County Youth Fair just to get a taste of the delicious fried meat product. The stand, a staple of the BCYF for over 30 years, is staffed by volunteers and proceeds are donated to local charities. In addition to the perfect ratio or corn coating to dog, the treat brings back memories of Fairs gone by and the late summer days of our youth. It is oral nostalgia on a stick, and it is delicious.
Much like the corndogs, the county fair is a time-honored tradition in the Midwest. Its presence indicates the end of summer and it serves as a reminder that the lazy days of August will soon give way to the hectic days of September. The fair is the “last hurrah” before the start of school, the final days of tanks and shorts before flannel and jeans season. And it provides us all with an excuse to supplement our meal plans with cotton candy and elephant ears. Thankfully the fair is only a week long, our waistlines couldn’t take much longer than that.
My favorite memories of the fair involve paper wristbands and my best friends. As a teenager, our parents would drop us off for the evening with a few bucks and instructions to meet them back by the front gate at 10:00. This was the pre-cell phone age, so we had to keep an eye on the clock and leave the ferris wheel with enough time left to walk past the horse barns and catch our ride back home. To us, fair week meant freedom—the freedom to choose our dinner, choose our rides, and choose our crowd. We could hold hands with our main squeeze on the midway or scream our lungs out with friends on the Zipper. Our bedrooms were filled with olde-tyme pictures taken with our buddies in the booth, brandishing prop pistols and empty whisky bottles. We bought t-shirts airbrushed with our names in neon ink and wore them for the next nine months. And your strength as a fairgoer was measured by the number of times you could survive the Gravitron without losing your lunch. Yes, the fair was a rite of passage for many teens and I’m sure more than a few first kisses took place behind the pig barn.
These days my Facebook newsfeed is covered with pictures of freckle-faced kids in plaid shirts, their arms wrapped around a goat named “Billy” or holding a chicken named “Sue.” With each picture I see a kid who has worked since the Spring to prepare for this week. A farm boy who woke up earlier than his city counterparts to water the pigs or feed the cows. A cowgirl who gave up time at the mall for time in the barn, mucking out stalls instead of texting with friends. Behind each proud grin is hours of preparation resulting in a hard-earned work ethic that will serve them well in their future endeavors. It’s reasonable to assume that a child who learns how to take care of his animals will turn into an adult who knows how to take care of his family. Between slinging hay and cleaning out cages, these farm kids are a tough bunch that deserve our recognition and praise. For many of them, fair week culminates in the auction where their hard work throughout the summer really pays off. Money earned from prized pigs or market rabbits pays for feed for next year’s animals along with first cars and college tuitions. It’s an endeavor we as business owners and community members should support with our pocketbooks, a small way to show our appreciation for the next generation of leaders.
This week, as I step onto the fairgrounds I will also be stepping back in time. With my three kids in tow, we’ll stroll through the commercial barns first (since that’s where we always started when I was a kid), checking out the screen printed t-shirts and giant jelly beans. We’ll meander past the John Deere combines and International Harvester planters and I’ll stop the stroller to make my kids pose for their annual picture inside the giant tractor wheel. Annoyed by the delay, they’ll beg to make a beeline for the rides.
Heading toward the noise of the fairway, I’ll glance at the candy apples displayed in the window of the traveling vendor and make a mental note to grab a bag of caramel corn on my way out. We’ll spend a good chunk of time running between the giant slide and the dragon roller coaster, with my husband keeping a vigilant eye on our excited offspring as they weave through the crowds and we try to keep up. Two years ago my daughter was just an inch shy of the height requirement for the kiddie rides, so I piled her massive hair into a top bun and she rode the spinning Bears all evening. This year, both of our older kids are big enough for most of the attractions and seem to be progressively more interested in the ones that require parental participation and a lot of spinning, much to my stomach’s dismay. Our baby will enjoy it much more this year, and will probably clamor to be let out of her rolling chariot to take a ride on the carousel.
After too many trips through the fun house, we’ll succeed in pulling them away with a bribe of an elephant ear and a frothy root bear. (We turn a blind eye to cavities during fair week.) As we sit on the octagonal picnic tables, we’ll discuss favorite rides and post-meal plans. Before hitting up the animal barns, we’ll stop by the Home Ec building to say hi to Grandpa and Grandma Carlin. Grandpa is a former Director of the Fair and Grandma has been running the Home Economics building for decades. After hugs and kisses for grandbabies, we’ll finish up our tour of the fair grounds with a trip to see the cows and the sheep, the rabbits and the pigs. Our kids love the barn with all of the baby animals and tend to spend an extended period of time marveling at the fuzzy little chicks peeping under the heat lamp.
We’re sure to run into friends and neighbors standing in front of their chickens or perched on stall railings. Some of our hometown Moms also double as Barn Managers this week – kudos to the parents like Tracy Mast, Heather Bachman, and Natasha Hesser who keep it all organized. And, if we’re lucky, on our way out we’ll pass by Fair Royalty as they make their rounds in boots and crowns. The Queen, the First Runner Up, and the Prince are all Buchanan kids this year. A big congratulations to Brittany Litka, Mikaela Schuhknecht, and Tyler Miller!
With full bellies and tired feet, we’ll leave the bright lights and barn smells behind us and trudge back to our parked car in the field. I’ll remember to buy some caramel corn and stash it under the stroller for a late night snack. And as we transfer sleepy babies into seat belts, we’ll let out a contented sigh, grateful for farm kids and county fairs and thankful that the tradition continues.