July 26, 2013

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Hey, don’t look now, but it’s fair time again in Indiana

Cynthia DewesWhen you smell the spun sugar of cotton candy and the sickly sweetness of caramel popcorn, you know it must be fair time again. Indiana is still a rural enough state to enjoy this summer phenomenon following the Independence Day festivities on July 4.

County fairs start off the season. They used to be, and sometimes still are, called 4H fairs because that organization is one of the main reasons for these events. Projects for 4H dominate the displays and programs at the fairs, and kids are everywhere. Their enthusiasm is infectious.

Old guys man the front gate and many of the fair booths, but the young people are the fun ones to watch. At a Lions Club golf-driving booth, for instance, most of the customers are teenaged boys trying to impress their girlfriends.

And there are dads showing their 4-year-olds how to tee off. Never mind that their wild efforts often cause the old attendants to duck for cover. At the Putnam County Fair, however, there’s one young man, now about 15 or 16, who has appeared for many years and usually wins the modest money prize given daily to the high scorer. If he doesn’t become a golf pro someday, we’ll all be surprised.

Not only the smells but also the sounds of the fair put us in the mood to celebrate. The calliope tootles away, and the 4H animals let us know they’re on duty. Cattle are mooing, horses neighing, chickens babbling in chicken dialect and pigs grunting.

You can’t miss the carnival barkers’ loud voices, which is of course their purpose, and you constantly hear kids screaming with delight. And although fairs seem to lead charmed lives, once in a while you even hear thunder and lightning and see people scrambling for cover.

The 4H animals on display are really something to see. There are breeds of chickens and rabbits that defy description. Bunnies range from sporting silky, angora-like fur to Afro-like pompadours to what appears to be premature baldness. They’re brown, black, every shade of gray, white, mottled, you name it.

The chickens boggle the mind, too. Some of the roosters are huge, with glossy spreads of tail feathers. Others have outsized combs on their heads, but all of them possess those unnerving reptilian eyes that strike fear in the beholder.

And the pigs! I once saw a sow at the state fair who was so large she couldn’t stand up. The poor thing just lay there snuffling and probably contemplating her fate as a breeder of piglets. At least the horses get to prance proudly around a track, and cattle get to be well-groomed as they stand on display. Still, all the animals are well-loved by their 4H friends.

The purpose of 4H, among other things, is to build character and a sense of responsibility in young people, as well as to educate them about farming and living in general. Those who raise and show animals come to understand that the animals they love will inevitably become the food we eat, and that we are therefore stewards of God’s plenty.

The 4Hers also compete in cooking, baking, crafts, woodworking, photography and many other creative efforts. One of my favorites is their collections, often unique and always entertaining. As in rocks that somehow resemble people, and mushrooms competing for strangeness.

In a time when many urban children have no clue about where their food comes from, the 4H organization and the county and state fairs are good ways to educate them. So have fun and don’t get sick eating too many ears of buttered corn.
 

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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