September 2023| Practical Self Reliance
Fair Day and Bringing the Past to Life
The end of summer is bittersweet, but with it comes the day we’ve been waiting for all year long…FAIR DAY!
While there are fairs with rides and food trucks all summer long, the true agricultural fairs don’t happen until harvest season. In Vermont, that means September, which is before the first frost of early October ends the summer growing season.
Originally, country fairs were where people got together to share seeds, sell animals, and learn about new innovations. The best pumpkins were judged, and then later in the fair, they were chopped into, and the seeds sold to eager farmers hoping to get those prize-winning genes.
Fairs were where you went to learn, see, and experience new. It’s a place where new types of wagons and hand tools were introduced, and later, the first tractors and combines were debuted at country fairs.
The newest technology, from the light bulb to the automobile, and new foods never before seen this side of the world. It was a place to show off the absolute forefront of animal and vegetable breeding and get the best price for your prized stock at the same time.
Progressive places to find something to completely blow your mind, and keep the community talking for years to come.
There was a time when fairs were all about newness. These days, they’re just the opposite.
Now, country fairs are more of a museum with an amusement park attached. Which, oddly enough, is spectacular!
Though it’s not a place you go to find the newest and best equipment or seeds, it is still a darn good time.
I absolutely love seeing the old farm equipment, learning how they moved water down from the mountains before modern indoor plumbing…and even learning how armies fed, quartered, and equipped their soldiers centuries ago.
At a country fair, there’s just enough history to make mama happy, and just enough corn dogs to keep the littles coming back for more.
And if the history gets too dry, you can always spin yourself awake on the rides.
We always start our fair days with the animal barns, learning about new breeds, and stopping to pet the cows. If you look closely, you’ll see that just about every animal is for sale…at least in our farm-heavy state.
You don’t haul your stock to the fair for nothing, after all.
In some ways, it’s like walking the gauntlet of homestead temptation…you start thinking, maybe we should try raising quail…or maybe a few more chickens. Or, remember that time you raised Angora rabbits…they were just so darn snuggly…
And then your daughter, who knows more than an 8-year-old should, looks you in the eye and says, “Sure mama, bring home whatever you want…but you’re mucking out the coop.”
That ends the discussion right there, fluffy or not.
At least there’s one animal that provides no temptation, and just getting close enough to the emu pen to take a picture for y’all was enough. That sign though, says it all.
At the end of the animal barns, there’s always a petting zoo, which you’d think wouldn’t hold much appeal for farm kids. But there you have littles that spend all year feeding chickens at home, patiently waiting in line to hand feed little chicks and pet baby goats.
There’s some newness for you…new chicks to pet, new goats to feed.
And at the end of the barn, I dare you to walk by the never-ending baby duck slide without a smile on your face.
They just keep going around and around, climbing to the top and sliding back down again, tail feathers wiggling and quacking with abandon.
And while you may have a sandbox at home, at school, and at the park, that’s nothing compared to a corn box at the country fair. It’s like a ball pit of corn, filled with sandbox toys.
My littles truck it around from one side to the next, and then if they happen to get the corn box to themselves for a minute, they jump in the middle and make corn angels before more kids join in.
Next up, it’s lunchtime, and we’ll grab our year’s worth of sodium and saturated fat in a tray before sitting down to watch the ox pull competition.
The competition is fierce, and those oxen really give it their all. When it gets to the end, and the oxen finally reach their limit, I always get a little misty-eyed. Corny, I know, but when an animal has been bred over millennia to pull…they always have a look of disappointment when they reach their limit.
They want to pull, and like a racehorse, they want to win, even if all they’re winning against is a stubborn pallet of cinder blocks that just keeps getting heavier. In this case, there’s a whole grandstand full of fans cheering them on, but I can only imagine a team giving it their all 100 years ago, hauling logs out of the woods or plowing fields.
To you or me, it’s just drudgery, but to them, it’s their life’s work.
Working animals are bred with a sense of purpose, and a herding dog will hear children in the yard or pigeons in the park, if not given sheep. These oxen are no different, and you can see the pride in them as they pull.
Bellies full and kids rested, we head up to the historical exhibits, all that which would have been the “new hotness” back in the day. Literally, people would have gathered around to see these new tractor models, marveling at their efficiency when they were developed.
Imagine you’ve only ever worked on a brick of an old-school Macintosh desktop…and then you stand there at the fair eating your fried dough, watching someone unveil an iPhone or a tablet. It’s literally like you’ve been transported to Star Trek…you’re living in the FUTURE!
(But with tractors.)
Now, it’s just historical curiosity.
Kids can line up to take turns grinding corn, farm kids, or city kids; it makes no difference. They all want to compete to see who can run that wheel the fastest.
We have a hand crank grain grinder at home, and my kids actually wrestle over who gets to turn it first. The other one counts to 100, impatiently waiting their turn. You better believe they were right in that line, waiting their turn on the wheel.
I have a friend with four teenage boys, and they fight over who gets to run the hand-crank meat grinder putting up venison during hunting season. It doesn’t matter that there’s a couple hundred pounds to work…they’re still eager to go (and show off, even if it’s just between brothers).
Sometimes farm work is drudgery, and modern technology has given us a lot of gifts. Still, it did take away a lot of friendly competition, determination, and just plain meaningful exercise.
These days, the kids line up to grind corn like it’s a novelty, but I bet you they did the same thing 100 years ago. Nudging each other with trash talk, bragging that they’d fill the bucket first.
Some things change, but some things never do.
Usually, we finish our tour through the historical portions of the fair right around the time the rides are opening for the afternoon, and I’ll park myself in the shade and let the littles get their fill of high-speed spinning.
The first Ferris wheel hit the World’s Fair in 1893…but the first commercial flight across the Atlantic wasn’t until 1939. For the better part of 45 years, and much longer for most of the population, the furthest from the ground they’d ever see was a Ferris wheel at the county fair.
I can only imagine what they would have thought of this thing in 1893…
On the way out, we make our way through the last of the agricultural exhibits, and I always stop and see the biggest pumpkin, watermelon, and zucchini the state produced this year.
Last year, that zucchini was bigger than my son, grown by a local 3rd grader. I can only imagine the smile on that kid’s face as that behemoth was wrangled out of the garden and carted to the fair.
This year, the highlight was a new state record sunflower, at just shy of 19 feet tall.…not bad for a 100-day frost-free growing season!
Our very last stop before leaving is always to visit the ancient butternut trees on the fairgrounds. These same fairgrounds have been used for generations, and long ago, these beauties were planted. Our native Butternut trees were quite the treasure back in their day, but now they’re going extinct due to butternut canker.
Somehow, these ancient trees seem immune to the canker that’s devastated most of the wild butternut in the woods across the Northeast. They produce a good crop, and we’ll gather up what our pockets can carry…not for eating, but for planting.
The first thing we do when we get home is to place these little treasures in the soil.
After a decade of bringing these resistant genes back to our homestead and woodland, some of our young butternut seedlings are now 10+ feet tall, just a handful of years from baring their first nuts…which we’ll plant again and start the cycle a new.
Old fairgrounds are a treasure trove of lost things, not just farm machinery and fried dough, and with a little care and attention, they can literally bring the past back to life.
There is so much to see at fair day that one email can’t hold it all, but here are some of the highlights from my camera roll:
What are you harvesting, preserving, building, or exploring on your homestead this week? I’d love to hear about it!
Leave me a note in the comments…
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Until Next Time,
Ashley at Practical Self Reliance
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