One of the summer traditions in both the UK and the USA is the County Fair. In my time living in the UK, I’d been to a couple of these, the most recent being in Norfolk. So it was with interest that I attended a County Fair in rural Illinois. I wasn’t sure if there would be any differences apart from the accents and the place names; after all, isn’t farming still farming, wherever it is practiced?
The weather was ideal when we visited, not too hot, but a pleasant warm and dry day towards the end of the fair week. As we were nearing the grounds, I had a call from a friend who had just arrived at the show, and we arranged to meet at the race track, where the horse races were just starting.Entering the stands this was my first surprise. When I heard that they were at the horse track, my mind went to flat racing, or maybe the steeplechase races I’d been familiar with from the racetracks back in Norfolk UK.
This, however, was harness racing, where the horse pulls a two-wheeled cart (which I understand is called a sulky) in which the driver sits. There was no betting at the course, but they did have a kind of sweepstake, where you chose a horse you thought would win, which you wrote on a slip. These were gathered in, and then after the race was over, one of the people who chose the winning horse was selected at random, and they received a prize. I got to see 3 races and did pick one winner, but my name wasn’t picked out of the hat.
It was then time for the cakewalk. I’d never taken part in a cakewalk, but I had heard about them. Somewhere in the back of my head I had the idea that it had to do with walking alone numbered squares are laid out on a path, which you walked along in time to some music. When the music stopped, you stood on the number nearest to you, then a number was called, and if you are standing on the right numbered square, you won a cake.
This was like that, but different. We did not walk around but stood at a counter on the numbered squares, and numbers were called by the showman who was walking up and down the center of the group of people. If you won you got to go and choose your prize, which might be a cake, but could also be a floral arrangement that had been in the show. Tickets were 25 cents each, and after spending 2 dollars I decided that it had been enough fun in that tent for now.
We next went to the exhibit halls, with prizes for all kinds of fruit and vegetables, baking and handicraft, as well as collections and art exhibitions. These were interesting and did remind me of the UK fairs, but then I suppose that there are only so many variants of things that can be exhibited.
One of our farmer friends had invited us to eat with them in the Livestock Producers building, and we were more than pleased to join them. The building turned out to be an open barn with a high roof and long trestle tables. The food was served from a separate enclosed area. I found out that this was only introduced in the last few year because of health and safety concerns, previously the cooking would have been done in the open air.
There was a choice of various burgers and steak sandwiches, with soft drinks and chips (that’s crisps to my British readers). We finished the meal with a freshly made ice cream milkshake and then headed to the grandstand, where we could hear the very loud noise of engines revving. This was the start of the tractor pull event, a sport that was new to me.
In the tractor pull, a sled is pulled along a 100 foot (30.5 meters) long track. The sled is interesting because it has a rear set of wheels only when being pulled. A weight starts off above these wheels, but as the sled is pulled along, the weight moves toward the front, increasing the resistance and weight of the sled. These are not just regular farm factors, although I suspect that this is where the sport came from. They are highly modified to give them more pulling power, and there are “classes”, depending on tractor size. An interesting aside to this was that, back in the memory of some of my companions, a metal weight was not used. Instead, men would stand along the track at predetermined spots, and jump on the sled as it went past to increase the weight. Another case where machinery has replaced people.
And then there was bingo. Somehow bingo seems to be universal, you see it at seaside resorts and events like the fair, and I find it oddly comforting to think that this is enjoyed by people all over the world. There was also a buzzing fairground, but I’m not that interested in rides so didn’t visit it. From the sounds coming from the area, however, it seemed that people were thoroughly enjoying the thrills and spills.
As we all walked around the grounds, my companions stopped frequently to talk. My farmer friend, in particular, stopped to chat with other farmers, and my other friends met people they had been to school with or had worked in the same place as. Clearly “networking” is as much a part of the attraction of the fair as the fun and games! For me, it was fun to hear about my new friends from old friends and get a different perspective on the people I knew.
Overall, it did have the same feel as an English county fair. True, there were differences in some of the activities, but in essence it was rural people getting together and enjoying life away from the farm or the workplace. That, I guess, is a universal desire.
Derek was raised on the UK's South Coast, and has lived in London, England, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the East Anglia region of England. He is now a resident of St Louis, Missouri, USA. He is an author and blogger, and you can also follow Derek's adventures on his blog and Facebook page.