What comes to mind when you think of the fair?
Do you see the Ferris wheel? The bright lights of the midway spiraling off in all directions like a fallen chandelier? Hear the roar of concert crowds and demolition derby cars?
What do you smell? What do you taste? Cotton candy? A sausage sandwich? A chocolate milkshake from the 4-H milkshake booth?
I think of all those good things when I think of the Medina County Fair, but not only those things. If you look, you also can see what’s behind them.
I see a church basement in wintertime. It’s a 4-H meeting, where an 11-year-old girl is poring over dozens of project ideas, trying to decide what she’ll enter in this year’s fair.
She settles on two: Rockin’ Rocks and Creative Writing. While a lot of her friends have put such things far out of their thoughts during the summer, she spends days in June and July writing poems in a spiral notebook. She hunts rocks in the garden and arranges them under labels that read: metamorphic, igneous and sedimentary.
On the appointed day, she appears before a judge — one of many adults who have given up an evening to interview 4-H’ers about their projects. The girl maintains her poise, answers questions about what she has learned, and walks away with her grades: An A for each. Her projects join those of hundreds of other 4-H’ers on display at this week’s fair.
Look back a ways and you can see the farm kid buying the calf he’ll raise, feed and groom. He’ll spend hours preparing the steer and himself for those anxious few minutes in the spotlight of the show ring at the fair, minutes that will go a long way in determining how much return he will get on his months of investment.
Of course, the real return is in the satisfaction that comes with seeing a project through, the feeling of partnership with his animal, and the experience he’s gained that will help him do even better next time.
A local business owner — who has plenty of other expenses calling for her money, especially in this economy — pays a generous price for the steer at the Junior Fair Livestock Sale.
It’s sometimes a difficult moment to part with an animal you’ve spent as much time with as you have with your own family. But, the profits from the sale go into the bank. In a few years, the money will help buy textbooks and pay college tuition. Maybe he’ll attend agricultural school, go into farming, and become one of the people who help put food on our dinner tables and clothes on our backs.
I think of that little moment in the E.B. White classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” when Mr. and Mrs. Arable watch their children — Avery is 10 and Fern is 8 — head off to explore the sights and sounds of the county fair.
Standing there at the livestock barn with Wilbur the pig, whom they have brought to show at the fair, Mrs. Arable feels that pang of anxiety familiar to parents.
“Do you really think it’s all right?” she asks her husband, as the kids disappear from sight.
“Well,” Mr. Arable replies, “they’ve got to grow up sometime. And a fair is a good place to start, I guess.”
You see that at the Medina County Fair: Kids taking responsibility. Kids growing up. Mr. Arable was right: It is a good place to start.
Look around and you also see bakers, canners, cooks, photographers, farmers, tractor-restorers, gardeners, artists, needleworkers and many others, who have brought their creations for judging and display. Like the kids, they have been working and planning for months for this week.
You see the fair board members, staff and volunteers who make the fair happen for the rest of us. They have held up heroically through difficult and tragic circumstances along the way. During the other 51 weeks of the year, after working their day jobs, they come to the fairgrounds to attend meetings, clean buildings, plant flowers, paint what needs painting and repair what needs fixing. And for vacation, they take this week off from their jobs and work 18-hour days at the fair.
Last week, figures released from the 2010 Census showed America’s rural population continues to decline. It stands at 16 percent of the U.S. population, the lowest ever. Big cities also continue to shrink. So where are Americans moving? To the suburbs. The percentage of Americans living there has reached an all-time high: 51 percent. The space between urban and rural communities continues to fray. We know something about this living in Medina County.
The fair is an annual celebration of that ever-precious rural heritage — and of the steady, talented people who live that heritage when no one else is looking. For this one week, they live it big, where we can watch and admire them.
At the Medina County Fair.
See you there.
Contact John Gladden at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @thatjohngladden.