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  • December 7th, 2010

County Fair

By Joel M. Vance

My home, Missouri, has 114 counties and on any week during July there will be a county fair somewhere.

Missouri, in common with much of the Farm Belt, had been drought-stricken one long summer.  A seemingly endless parade of high pressure systems sailed across the weather map, bringing high, blue skies and numbing heat.  It was a bleak time for farmers, seldom relieved.  The county fair offered a day and a night away from the relentless drought.

Farming today is a precarious business at best, always threatened by economic ambush or by weather.  The average farmer, even one who lives on a farm (many don’t) does not subsist on the land–if he subsists on anything, it is government subsidy.

Once I tried to find someone who still butchers his own meat and came up with only one name–and he was a teacher who did it as a sort of curiosity, a living history exhibit.  The concept of subsistence farming went out with the end of World War Two when huge war machines became huge farming machines and the idea was more and bigger fields, all financed by the banks.

Farmers bought additional land at high prices, riding a crest they thought never would break.  Farming was on an economic high as intoxicating as drugs and bankers and farmers alike succumbed to its lure.  Then the wave crested and dashed on the rocks of reality and many farmers couldn’t make enough to pay the interest.

Those in the economic shadows looked to a big crop to come back into the sun.  .  And then it got dry in May and stayed dry and the crops withered in the field and there wasn’t much to do about it but rattle into town in the morning and sit in the coffee shop and bitch about the lack of rain. Everybody talks about the weather, but no one can do anything to change it.

Only thing to do was go to the fair and throw baseballs at weighted milk bottles, as hard as you could.  The fair I went to was not much different than any other county fair–a little shabbier than some, but better than others.  Rural celebrations are more real than the manufactured, glossy shows of urban areas.

The shimmering July heat dissipated with evening, but the sky remained cloudless, rainless.  The rickety Midway rides clinked and whistled.  More obvious was the bellowing roar of mud marathon competitors near the grandstand.  The brute engines snarled and trumpeted like great beasts in the jungle.  More than 100 competitors, a record, drove massive pickup trucks into a 50-yard pit that had been hosed to a quagmire.  The idea was to see how far they could go before they bogged down.

It is today’s version of when braces of oxen strained against stone boats.  In my youth, tractors pulled a skid onto which waiting men would step, one by one, as the sled drew even with them.  Sooner or later, the tractor would lose traction and spin its tires.

On the face of it, it was baffling that thousands of farmers would pay to see farm vehicles drive through mudholes when drought had baked the land like an overdone pizza.  Maybe it was the sheer delight of seeing wet soil again.

Fairs have changed from the time when the most important competition was among virile bulls or the most successful home economists.  The woman who puts up the finest jar of peach preserves today finds her name buried far down in the columns of the local paper, but the winner of the demo derby will have a photo and a headline.

The fairgoers are a mixture.  An old farmer wore new striped Big Smith overalls and a clean cap.  A slinky blond wore too much makeup, a tank top and shorts designed for a junior high cheerleader which she might have been a decade earlier.  Heavyset farm wives displayed a lifetime of starchy food.

Older men were weathered; the young bucks muscled under rolled-up sleeves or T- shirts. Maybe it was my imagination, but the Fair had a forced cheerfulness about it.  Nature had betrayed the farmer. The cornstalks were fired and spiky.  Soybeans were ankle high when they should have reached nearly to the waist.  Bankers were acting nervous, like a cottontail when the coyote is hungry.

The local conservation agent manned two exhibits, one featuring stretched and cured pelts of Missouri furbearers, the other titled “Farming and Wildlife.”  No one even paused to look at the latter because the question is farming and survival, not farming and wildlife.  But the furs were popular, and the agent explained pelt differences to two young girls who fingered the sleek, short hair of a beaver hide, maybe dreaming of becoming Lauren Hutton alighting from a gleaming Chrysler.

No professional promoter puts on the Platte County Fair.  It is volunteer, from the grizzled farmers manning the ticket gate to the dentist who has a rickety booth advertising cut-rate orthodontics. I was hungry and wandered past the dentist to a booth featuring a fish dinner.  With iced tea, it cost $4.50 and I got a plate heavy with two generous chunks of scored, deep-fat fried carp, no doubt from the nearby Missouri River and possibly laced with most of the world’s known carcinogens.  But it was superbly done.  Carp cookery is an art.  It takes someone whose hand with smoking lard oil, cornmeal, salt and pepper is as sure as that of George of the Ritz’s with a crepe.

There were the obligatory side dishes of baked beans and cole slaw and I fell to hungrily, then headed back to the building where there was to be a fiddle contest.  In an adjoining building, a teenage rock band, cheap amps cranked to the max, shouted incoherent lyrics to girl friends and a few contemporaries.  The fair crowd was not partial to heavy metal.

But the local bluegrass band filled the hall.  They played for an hour before the fiddlers’ contest.  Fiddling has been a Missouri music staple for more than a century.  Decades ago there were fiddling contests in the Capitol; now the contests are sadly gone, leaving only the wind and confusion of a typical state legislature without music.

They once were called Old Fiddlers’ Contests, but so many of the old fiddlers now play “Billy in the Lowground” in some celestial contest that they’ve done away with age discrimination.  Today’s old fiddler is likely to be a teenager.  There is a curious generation gap–contestants either are in their 70s or are younger than 30.

Fiddlers must play a standard piece, then a waltz, finally a “show tune.”  But the “Orange Blossom Special” is banned from contests.  Every fiddler would choose it because of its pyrotechnics.

A young woman from Kansas began with a Cajun tune and her clear, simple playing transported us to a fais do do in Lafayette, down in Sout’ Louisian’.  She got a big hand and smiled a sweet smile that had to earn points in the judging, no matter what the rules say.  Her waltz was the “Missouri Waltz.”  No fool this kid–this is Harry Truman country.

A tiny boy, sitting on the dirty floor of the wooden building where the contest was held was mesmerized by the throbbing fiddle.  A rawboned man laughed at him and he ducked his head in teary embarrassment.  The girl’s show tune was “Redwing,” unadorned, but with full-throated tone.  She hit the notes squarely without squawk.

Presently the judges returned and she was the winner of $125 and a big trophy.  She played a couple of numbers with the bluegrass band and then the crowd, its attention diverted by the distant grandstand tumult, began to evaporate.

Out on the Midway, a young farmer with sleeves rolled up on his blue work shirt stared up at the Basketball Throw: “Two Goals Wins” and rubbed his hands on his dirty jeans.  From this angle anything was possible and he reached in his pocket for a quarter.

I headed out into the clear, starry night and looked to the West where the last traces of daylight showed a few clouds.

Anything was possible.


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  1. Glynn Harris

    December 8th, 2010 at 8:26 am


    Joel……What an enjoyable read, but when I read anything you write, I get the same impression. Don’t blush when I say this but you have always been one of my favorite writers, especially your humor pieces (well, actually everything of yours I have ever read is spiced and laced with humor). You’re an inspiration to me. Makes me want to go dig out and read “Grandma and The Buck Deer” again!
    Glynn Harris

  2. Kim Kraus

    December 8th, 2010 at 11:29 am


    Mr. Vance, what a wonderful piece. The way you describe even the tiniest of detail transports me to that place. It is with wonder I read your pieces, wonder at your ability to make me see and feel. And your description of things is right on…not over done or exaggerated beyond what I know to be true. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Carrie Vance DeValk

    December 8th, 2010 at 7:14 pm


    As a youngster, I didn’t appreciate what you wrote. But now, as an oldster and someone who tries to write, I revel in your words. I’m proud.

  4. Emerson

    March 5th, 2017 at 9:53 pm


    @Eric, I’d agree with that, but I still don’t think “I’m not going to do any social media because it’s a fad” is going to be viable for most businesses. Even if it’s just listening (and I think that’s a perfectly legit way to go). So Twitter may well be a


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