Friday, August 16, 2013

State Fair Revisited

I visited the State Fair this week, and it isn’t what it used to be. Like everything else, it’s changed, though not entirely for the worse. I get tired of old people complaining. So consider this not as a complaint, but as an observation of change regarding a summertime classic: the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

There is no longer a Double Ferris Wheel in Happy Hollow. That grieves me. In fact, Happy Hollow is practically empty of rides, the space now home primarily to fancy fifth wheel campers and giant horse trailers. The carnival is now up near the Coliseum. But despite its move up, that carnival is decidedly low to the ground, very clean and by all appearances, awfully…safe. You might go so far as to call it wholesome. I know cleanliness and safety are good things, but there was something about walking down the hill into Happy Hallow as a kid that brought with it a sense of danger. And I’ve always liked danger.

For one thing, the people I remember running the rides in the past seemed dangerous. Before tattoos found their way beneath the skin of the middle class, we saw them on the “carney” people at the fair. A picture of a grinning devil with the “Born to Raise Hell” was popular on the biceps of the carney men. Their hair was long, often greasy, and they smoked cigarettes hard, Pall Malls and Camels, holding them between their lips as they operated the levers that controlled the engines that powered the rides. You could hear the gas engines groaning and smell the exhaust mixed with the smell of real canvas tents, cotton candy, and sweat. It was always hot at the State Fair, and hotter still amongst the rides and games in Happy Hollow.

The State Fair had things you could never see or experience at the County Fair. The County Fair had a real but tired old bear you could wrestle, but the Illinois State Fair had the “Cage of Death”. Two riders strolled through a trap door slowly, trying to catch the eye of a pretty girl, before they pulled on their helmets, kick started their cycles, and revved their engines. They rode their motorcycles inside a round steel cage crisscrossing within inches of each other, climbing the walls till they were parallel to the floor. It truly was unbelievable. Within the tent I heard nothing but their engines roaring as the tires of the motorcycles flashed past me but a few feet from the platform on which I stood with the rest of the crowd. I felt danger in the air.

The County Fair had the Tilt a Whirl which I rode over and over till I was out of money. If there wasn’t a line sometimes I would ride twice in a row. I was hooked on centrifugal force. In the Tilt a Whirl you and a companion, or you alone, were locked into a welded steel capsule with mesh for windows and thrown straight up then back, and eventually all the way around in a tight circle that pulled your jaw to your chest. You could barely raise your arms. Halfway through the ride the car stopped on top and reversed direction. The fairgrounds spun around before you as the gas engine raced. On the descent it seemed as if you would slam into the ground but then the car pulled up and flew past the carney who worked the levers, smoked cigarettes, and appeared bored. It was the best ride in McLean County.

But nothing was as good as the Double Ferris Wheel in Springfield. My Dad first took us when I was a kid. He introduced us all to that big ride. My older sister recalls shaking in fear as Dad held her on her first ride. I rode years later, held in by a single bar, the ride starting as a normal Ferris Wheel. Every car stopped, unloading, bringing on new passengers, traveling smoothly in a predictable circle, the car in which you rode pivoting and rocking slightly. You could rock the car yourself when stopped, but the carney man would yell at you. All was normal until the wheel you were riding, on the bottom, changed places with the wheel above you. That’s what brought the thrill, the screams, made the hair stand up on your arms. The big elegant swoop up, the sensation of turning, while climbing, stories high it seemed. The twin sensation of rotating while elevating was like nothing else. And then you were on top of the fairgrounds, looking out over all the barns and exhibition halls, higher than everything else, and turning. It was beautiful at night: the colored lights on the Ferris Wheel, the lights across the Fairgrounds and beyond.

When you were a farm kid living in Illinois in the 60’s you didn’t get high very often. Maybe on top of a silo, or a windmill, or painting the cupola on the barn. Illinois can be pretty flat. If you don’t look close you can find the geography boring. Getting high on the Double Ferris Wheel changed all that. The air seemed clean and clear up there, an escape from the heat, as you made a few turns on top. Then you realized you were going down, descending, plunging while turning back to the bottom, with that feeling in the pit of your stomach. I always thought that if something were to go wrong on the Double Ferris Wheel it would happen at that moment of the descent, the wheel coming off the parallel arms beside us, turning free in the air, crashing into the dirt and rolling away through Happy Hollow, killing all of us on board and the throng of fairgoers fleeing in our path. It never happened. My experience as a kid made me want to do it again. I was all set to do it Monday, Senior Citizen’s Day when kids over 60 got in free. A woman on the trolley on the way back to the parking lot at day’s end, after I expressed my disappointment that the Double Ferris Wheel was no longer part of the fair, said

“It’s been gone for years.” The State Fair has lost a great ride.

But the butter cow is still in the old brick Dairy Building. That’s where the McClure family of old started its day at the fair every year, and met at day’s end when it was time to go home and milk the cows. My Dad had a special feeling for the Dairy Building. Dad didn’t belong to much, the Presbyterian Church later in life, and the Masons. I never did understand the Masons. Dad was a fifty year member, wore a Masonic ring when he dressed up, had a fancy sword with fake jewels (couldn’t have been real, or was that Grandpa’s sword?), got his 32nd degree, whatever that means, and wanted me to be in something called Demolay, the organization for teenage Masonic wannabes. I had nothing to do with it and don’t know to this day what it’s about. The Masons most likely have suffered a significant decline in membership. It must be hell to market a secret organization. I don’t see the Masonic Lodge on Facebook.

However, Dad did identify strongly with being a dairy farmer. Prairie Farms Dairy, the company Dad shipped milk to after shutting down the little independent dairy that supplied raw milk and cream to Danvers until just after World War II, had a booth in the Dairy building and Dad showed up there every summer, usually the day they judged Jersey cows in the Coliseum. It was a big day because Dad bought everyone milk shakes and cheese sandwiches, which was a treat for us because we hardly ever ate away from home. Dad talked to the dairy guys in the Prairie Farms booth while we looked at the butter cow. Farmers, when you get right down to it, lead pretty solitary existences and need someone to talk to now and again. And farm kids are rarely in the presence of sculpture. So the Dairy building experience was a good combination for both generations.

I have to say this year’s butter cow was more elaborate than the ones I remember. In the old days they were very realistic, right down to the big veins in the udder. It was a big year if the butter cow sculpture exhibit included a calf. This year’s cow didn’t have that level of detail or a calf but it did have a bird on its nose, butterflies and saplings in the background, and was just… artier. Artier? Yeah. Farm kids use words like that.

In Iowa an animal rights activist group actually vandalized, desecrated some would say, the butter cow at their State Fair. I’m guessing security was poor. But who knew the butter cow needed tight security? And here I thought Illinois was the only state with a butter cow. But there it was in the Des Moines Register, a picture the Iowa butter cow all drenched in red paint. I posted a picture of the Illinois butter cow on Facebook and my cousin from Iowa sent me the news article with photo.

The group responsible was protesting the treatment of animals, and the conditions under which they live, to satisfy our human practice of eating meat and dairy products, neither of which we absolutely need in order to live. I get that but I think it’s odd they chose a dairy cow.

If you could find a swine sculpture of some kind, seeing that pigs are these days commonly raised in giant confinement barns, shot with hormones, and killed daily on a massive scale, that would be a more fitting symbol of animal cruelty. Or a three dimensional depiction of a cage jammed full of chickens which never touch the ground, peck each other to death in numbers that at some level are considered acceptable, and are handled in the roughest manner imaginable. Or today’s veal calves. Don’t get me started.
Unless I’m wrong, it is still in the dairy farmer’s best interest, however big the dairy operation becomes, that his or her cows be healthy and live long lives. On our farm we named our Jersey cows, not fancy names for registration papers but real familiar names we used among ourselves to talk about them.

“Martha didn’t give much milk today,” Mom might say.

“I’m not sure she’s feeling good. She didn’t eat all her feed,” Dad might have replied. “Let’s keep our eye on her.” Like that.

Dad named a particularly long-legged heifer who became a beloved cow Wilma after Wilma Rudolph, the famous Olympic sprinter in the 1960 Olympics. Next to her was Comet, and Margie, and at the end of the line on the East row of stanchions was Bigsy, who gave a ton of milk but had something of a weight problem. I could go on and on. While we shipped many of our milk cows to the sale barn at the end of their productive lives, some died on the farm of plain old age. Whether we shipped them or watched them die we felt real loss when they were gone. We were close to our cows. They were part of our everyday life and our livelihood. We raised them as calves, saw to their health, made them comfortable, celebrated the birth of their calves, and valued them very much, both as a herd and individually. I know dairy farming has changed, that the twenty four stanchion barn and the 190 acre farm we supported them with are now too small to be commercially viable, but I can’t believe that dairy farms and dairy cows have become a symbol of what’s wrong with agriculture and animal husbandry. Maybe like Mt. Everest, they just painted that Iowa butter cow red because she was there.

I wished I’d have been there to see the dairy cow judging, but it was the wrong day. Missing that, I did the next best thing by visiting the goat barn and watching the dairy goat show. We never raised goats but I always liked them. I have a goat story that I’ll share at another time. Colleen went to the arts and crafts building and I sat on the bleachers while they paraded dairy goats around the show ring.

I was there Monday, the day they judged Toggenburg, Nubian, and Nigerian goats. Tuesday was Alpine and LaMancha judging. (The LaMancha breed of goats are those little goats without external ears.) Wednesday they finish up with Saanen, Recorded Grade, and Sable goats. You can keep that in mind for next year. The goat people like to stick to the same schedule from year to year. Here’s an interesting thing about goat judging: adult male goats, the bucks, are not allowed at the fair. Unlike ram sheep, bull cows, boar hogs, roosters and stud horses they consider male goats to be too disruptive to bring to the fair. I learned that from the goat folks in the bleachers. I’m thinking that is where the concept “horny as a goat” comes from. Buck or Billy goats are just too rambunctious to be around all those does or female goats at the fair. Plus they smell bad. Stink so bad they can make a doe’s milk taste off, some say. So the bucks stay home while everybody else goes to the fair. The life of a Billy Goat: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

The dairy goat judge was a confident and fast talking woman, Yvonne Blosser, who seemed to know absolutely everything about goats. At the end of each class showing she took the microphone and explained to us in considerable detail why the blue ribbon winner was first and why each goat down the row, right down to the goat that got last, was accordingly placed. She referred to standards set down by the American Dairy Goat Association. But boil it all down, and she talked about udders and teats. Dairy goats have a purpose, and evidently the attributes that count for dairy goats primarily have to do with milk. It makes sense, I guess. So for more than an hour, I listened as Yvonne talked about the udder platforms, high and tight udder structure, and well defined teat separation. Let’s face it, you couldn’t talk about humans that way. Sometimes Yvonne would say one goat was better than another because of belly capacity, sturdy legs and hoofs, or good skin, but by and large it was the mammary equipment that mattered. I looked closely at the goats, but didn’t see them like Yvonne did. But then I’m no judge of goats.

To me the goats were simply cute. The kids jumped effortlessly, four hoofs off the ground, popping up in an instant. They let themselves be led around the show ring by little silver chains under their necks, turned this way and that, held in profile. Their owners scratched their backs so the goats arched their spines downward making their bellies look bigger. Yvonne actually called one of the Nigerian goats “stunning.” Upon hearing that adjective applied to her goat, the owner broke into a giant smile. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of a goat as stunning, but there you go. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the goat holder. And yes, in an acknowledgement to animal welfare activists out there, we do objectify and exploit farm animals. It’s the nature of the beast, so to speak.

The most surprisingly improved part of the State Fair was Conservation World, which is put on by Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources. In that nicely wooded part of the fairgrounds kids could shoot a BB gun, pull back a bow and fling an arrow at a target, hold a red eared slider turtle, and learn a lot about Illinois fish including the incredibly ugly Asian Carp invading our waterways. This was the place that seemed to draw the most families. There was woodcarving, a lasso demonstration, lots to do and many things in which kids could actively participate. As they did so, they learned a lot about science and nature. We saw very few kids on cell phones in Conservation World. They were too busy doing cool stuff. And nearly everything was free, which I think is important. It may be my imagination, but I think present day Illinoisans are walking around the fairgrounds with less money in their pockets than I remember from years past. Sure there are still rich farmers with fancy trucks and their own golf carts, but those of us just coming to look seemed a bit poorer than before. There ought to be good free stuff at the fair so everyone can enjoy that unique celebration of the good things Illinois has to offer, despite its bond rating.

If you want to get a different look at Illinois I recommend getting to know the people at the State Fair. Everyone was nice and it wasn’t crowded. But then it was Monday. Many Illinoisans (couldn’t it be Illinesians?) work on Mondays. But lots were walking around the fair too. And in a disturbing trend, many were rolling. There is apparently a whole segment of big people who have just plain given up on walking and bought little carts in which to ride around. I thought those mostly stayed in grocery stores. But they were out in force Monday at the State Fair. We even saw some two seaters occupied by two very wide people, couples sitting side by side, the electric motors on their little carts whirring madly, I imagined, to propel them. I don’t want to offend anyone, and I won’t pretend to know what afflicts these people that glided smoothly along the footpaths of the State Fair, but some of them looked as if they simply suffer from too many donuts. But hey, they got to enjoy the fair too.

Colleen and I did everything we set out to do and more: saw the butter cow, watched the pacers trot the track at the grandstand, bought salt water taffy, found the beer tent, saw the draft horses, the mules, the sheep, the hogs, the Jersey cows. You can’t beat the food at the fair. Between us we had corn on the cob, barbeque from the 4-H kids, rib eye sandwiches, and gyros, not to mention the milkshake at the Dairy building. It was a wonderful day.

If you go, don’t miss the butter cow at the Dairy Building and be glad you’re not in Iowa. And if you know where I can catch a ride on a Double Ferris Wheel, please let me know.

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