Country Fairs, Our Summertime Ritual
The pigs have been soaped. The cucumbers have become pickles. And the strawberry rhubarb pie has been baked and tasted again.
It’s country fair season, when rural culture is translated to the masses. The soundtrack: Country. The fare: Pork chop sandwiches, snow-cones, cotton candy and funnel cakes.
Like political candidates that have finessed their image to win over an electorate, locals have groomed their skills – and their prized livestock – in the hopes of finding a 4-H blue ribbon attached to their entry: A floral arrangement, bantam chicken, table setting, canned good, or most unusual looking vegetable.
Throughout the summer months, this icon of rural Americana unfolds in small towns and counties throughout Northwest Illinois. A parade may serve as the prelude. Lawn chairs set up at daybreak indicate the route. Cars are dressed, floats dragged, and the Little Miss Fair Queen passes – smiling, waving.
“It’s kind of like going to a farmer’s market that lasts for a week and showcases the talents of the people that live in the area, or the surrounding area,” says Sherry Flack, whose father and mother were advisers at the country fair. “I think it’s a good example of how this country was founded. It was founded based on agriculture.”
Flack’s grandparents were farmers and she married a farmer. Every year, she attends the local country fair for the food (especially the homemade cream puffs), and for the livestock shows. Much like dog shows, Flack explains, families prepare their animals for months leading up to the competition. Teenagers sleep overnight on cots at the fairgrounds to be near their prized heifer cow, baby chicks, and draft horses. During the day, they march their animals into an arena before the judges, spraying the pigs with water bottles to keep them cool.
Novices can attempt the rural way of life by jumping into a ring for the chicken scramble, or signing up for the tractor pull. They’re advised to stay put on the sidelines when experienced bull riders compete against each other and a one-ton beast. Everyone – the city dwellers and the country folk – find entertainment on the carnival midway, in rides that twirl and drop and bump and swing.
To Flack, the country fair highlights the best of the agricultural community because all the generations are working together. And it helps remind people where their food comes from by putting them in touch with the source. For Flack’s mother, who loved the country fair, entering her hobbies in competition for floral arrangements and antique collecting were among the last things she did before she passed away. “The fair kept her going,” Flack says. “That was her life. That was her passion.” The family legacy of farming has passed to Flack’s 30-year-old son, as has the family’s affection for the country fair; today, he serves as a superintendent and oversees the shows.