Remembering bygone fairs

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by Tena Starr

When I was a kid (a long time ago now) the Barton fair was a big deal.  Me, my cousin Larry, and probably some other cousins, went one day every year with our grandparents on my mother’s side.  Grampa was a tall, rangy man with a limp, a lifelong horse logger who moved his family from logging camp to logging camp, a man who was exorbitantly fond of children, especially his grandchildren. 

In his work he dealt with the big horses, the kind that could break your foot with a misstep of a ham-sized hoof with a couple of tons of weight behind it.  (His limp came from a logging accident.)  But he thought about all horses, knew them, whereas I just loved them.  He used to tell me that “paloosies,” appaloosas, were the best riding horses.  Somehow this man, who had likely never left northern Vermont, learned they were favored by some Indian tribes, and he figured that a people so dependent on horses would be right-thinking on the subject.

So one of the things we did at the fair was watch harness racing.  Gram went off to play bingo, and we headed for the grandstand.  Grampa doled out dimes to his grandchildren, and we made bets.  And he gave us tips on what to look for.  He was fond of grays, and he said a little lather on the neck was likely a good sign.  This was all a long time ago, so my recollection is foggy, but I think the idea was that the horse with some lather was probably a trier with a personal interest in winning, so it was worked up a bit, rather than a plodder.  Among other things, he looked for heart, a fighter with a will to win.

The grandstand was packed in those days.  I remember being elbow to elbow with people cheering on their favorite horses and drivers.  It was crowded, raucous, and thrilling to an eight-year-old. 

My parents were dairy farmers.  My father’s Holsteins were registered, and carefully bred for both milk production and conformation.  The year Dad decided to show some of them at the fair I was over the moon.  I hauled miserable heifers around for weeks, trying to teach them to lead and stand squarely. 

Having grown up with cows, I have a low opinion of their intelligence.  It’s not their fault.  They haven’t been bred over the generations for brains.  But, nonetheless, training a horse (since we neither eat nor milk them, they’ve largely been allowed to keep their brains) to lead is a whole different experience from training a cow, which is generally big, balky, and in no way gifted or naturally cooperative. 

There was nothing an eight-year-old me could think of that would be more thrilling than staying at the fairgrounds, sleeping in the barn at night with the occasional lows of the cows, the good smells of sawdust and hay, and the lights and shrieks of the Midway in the background.

Our brief foray into showing was cut short because a former employee set our barn on fire while we were gone, and we had to depart in a hurry.  The barn burned to the ground, and that was the end of our showing days.

But this year at the fair, watching the dozens of youngsters washing and trimming their cattle, brought back that lovely time — the joy, satisfaction, and the tension, of raising and showing an animal — so much work, but a rewarding kind of work, even if you didn’t win.  Some kids probably consoled a beloved heifer — who could care less if walking around in a circle didn’t earn her an inedible piece of blue or red cloth — that she’d done her best, and was still loved.  (Of course, they might also have berated her for, of all days, deciding she’d never learned a thing about being led, or standing in a way to exhibit her excellent conformation.)

Dozens of youngsters lined up with their cattle, getting ready to show, tense looks on their faces, the heifers and cows all dolled up, immaculately clean, some even with what looked like shoe polish to black their hooves.  Tall, long-legged Holsteins, doe-eyed Jerseys, all loved by some youngster who’d invested a lot of time in making sure they looked, and behaved, their best for at least a while. 

For the past few years, the Orleans County Fair Board has emphasized that part of the fair, its agricultural roots, and it’s a good thing they do.  But sadly, there seems to be less spectator interest beyond the few who remain in farming, or who are there to support their dedicated children’s efforts. 

The grandstand, too, was sparsely populated during Friday’s harness racing — not like in days when we had to get there early to jostle for a good seat and kids our age bounced with excitement as the horses came on behind the gate and we made our puny bets, willing our pick not to break stride, willing it to come up from behind. 

We didn’t have smartphones, or Netflix, video games, or the Internet.  A horse race in a crowded grandstand with an indulgent grandfather was high entertainment. 

It’s heartening to see young people carry on old traditions, but those hardworking farm kids aren’t the majority anymore.  To increase attendance, county fairs probably have to not just reconstruct yesterday but also reach into tomorrow. 

In memory of Grampa, I bet (theoretically) on the gray at the one race I watched this year, before work called me away.  He came in second. 

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