That is All: County fair memories


First Posted: 1/15/2009

There is a special, distinctive aroma realized when the smell of bovine urine mixes with the scent of warm corn dogs.
Bittersweet. Tangy. Rural.
What a treat for one’s nostrils.
The odd mixture signals a unique event. Ah yes, it must be county fair time again in America.
Sticky cotton candy fingers and thick tractor exhaust. Riding chaps and barrels and ribbon-winning pumpkins and sunflowers. Pigs with funny names like “Oinky” and “Cutie Pie” headed to the auction block.
The county fair is a way to celebrate the harvest, and to show off agricultural prowess and success.
It’s a vehicle for farmers and their children to show the rest of us what they’ve been up to, how they live and how they try to make a living.
From antique tractors to new state-of-the-art tillers, it’s a way to appreciate the past and marvel at the future — a 4-H and John Deere a go-go, with carnival rides and ring toss games thrown in for good measure.
The county fair is also a perfect excuse to have a demolition derby. And can there be anything more fun than purposely smashing cars into each other? I think not.
This annual parade of sights, sounds and smells is a favorite gathering spot for so many people, myself included.
Some of the most fun times I’ve spent with my daughters were at small and large county fairs in northern Michigan and downstate Michigan, and as a young boy my family also made the annual fairs a must-do activity.
My first memories of the county fair were forged as a boy growing up in middle Michigan, surrounded by flat and fertile farm fields. As I got older, I would work those fields, helping harvest corn, wheat and hay.
The Caro Fair, held each summer smack in the middle of Michigan’s thumb, was always a week to look forward to. My parents and I never missed a year.
I recall the fondness my father had for the antique tractors and other farm implements. He’d bring me along to the loud and smoky thrashing demonstrations.
The Caro Fair also had my favorite rural beauty pageant, where mostly rugged farm girls vied for the title of Bean Queen.
In my teens, I was drawn to the much larger Eastern Michigan Fair in Imlay City. Held in September, it was a regional fair bringing together people from several counties in Michigan’s thumb.
I saw my first “celebrity” there. It was Kenny Rogers, on the downward slope of his career — somewhere between “Ruby” and his later Gambler and “Islands in the Stream” days.
My biggest regret was never conquering the big swinging cages. You know, you alone — if you’re strong — or you and a partner enter a colorful steel cage on a swinging axis and get it swinging back and forth by using your body weight. The neighborhood kids and I would always get soooooo close to getting the cage up and over, but never quite pulled off that feat.
When I was a young dad, up north in Michigan, I recall taking my 5-year-old daughter to the Cheboygan County Fair for some fun, but ending up lying on the damp ground for half an hour to get my stomach calmed down.
We got into a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl that only spun one direction — and did so rapidly and continually for the entire ride. This is when I discovered that somewhere between my wild teenage years and my newfound adulthood, my metabolism or balance or whatever had been altered. I could no longer survive any and all amusement rides without paying a price — and I don’t mean tickets.
My poor little girl had to pull her daddy off the Tilt-a-Whirl and push him back behind the carny trailers until I collapsed on a grassy slope and moaned for 30 minutes. My daughter, bummed and bored, stayed by my side and helped me get back on my feet. Next stop, kiddie bumper cars and dad would sit this one out.
As I got older and had more children, I loved taking my kids on the Scrambler and taking the outer seat so they could smoosh me into the side and scream with laughter. We’d also shout out ‘‘hellos’’ to strangers standing near the ride — by the time they looked up, we’d be gone.
We also got a kick out of the livestock, although not literally. The barns at the county fair are always fun — the ultimate petting zoo.
Not only is the county fair an aromatic sensory overload, it’s also a culinary collision of offerings.
Where else can you have a giant Polish sausage smothered in onions, a side of wet-with-grease French fries, and for dessert a big and crispy sweet elephant ear?
Man, now that’s some good eatin’. Pass the ketchup.
That is all.
— John Charles Robbins can be reached at 739-4322, Ext. 122, or at [email protected].

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