Mailboxes and Old Barns: Going to the County Fair

fairFor this, farm families would take off on a day that was not Sunday!

The county fair was toward the end of August, just before school started.  Every county had their own but we always went to the one one county over instead of our own because that was where so many relatives lived and provided more options for dropping in for coffee either before or after.

As we got a little older our parents would take us to the fairgrounds and leave us there for a couple of hours – alone – with two or three dollars in our pocket. That was heady stuff: with cotton candy for ten cents and each of the rides only ten cents, a kid could go quite a distance with that.

The sights, sounds, and smells start with the sound of the merry-go-round where young mothers with their toddlers visit as they stand by their child who is riding the big wooden horse for the very first time. No belts around the kids’ waists since everyone knew that that’s what God made parents for. Mom would ride with Johnny or Susie, her hands loosely on their waist and knee as she chatted with the neighbor mom the next horse over.

The pleasantries exchanged were pretty much the same whether they were acquainted or not – “Have you been to the exhibits yet? Did you see the crocheted tablecloths? The quilts? I brought my great-grandma’s quilt this year – she never left Denmark but it was a gift to my grandmother at her wedding – came here by train from Minneapolis after coming across on the boat.”

ferris wheelThe creaking of the rides was part of the charm of the scene with complete trust extended to the Midway’s operators that the creaking was not suggesting lack of maintenance. We rode the ferris wheels more than once sometimes – to be able to see the people from that height was exciting stuff – sometimes we could spot someone we knew and call to them as we went around.

The smells begin with dust…just the smell of the prairie dust mixed quite properly with the smell from the livestock barns carried on the breeze. State highways connected the little towns in eastern Montana but once you turned left or right to seek out a country church or a farm or ranch – you raised a cloud of dust behind you that announced to anyone within three miles that there was someone either coming or going.

The fairgrounds parking area was prairie, especially dry by August. There were no marks for parking. People knew to park in neat rows as they’d been doing for decades. Neatness counted. Always. And they drove slowly so as not to raise unnecessary dust for those walking toward the entry gate.

Once we paid our little entry fee and scooted through that gate our feet continued to raise the dust with every step.

A quarter could be used to get a strip of silly black and white photos from the photo booth – a must for teenagers in love or siblings who just wanted something to laugh about. Then off to the rides. The tilt-a-whirl was considered heavy duty stuff until the scrambler showed up.

Everything was rated G except for the tent with the barker outside where the passersby were invited to inside where for twenty-five cents they could get a close look at the fat lady. When I saw that mini-circus at the time it made me uneasy that somebody would pay to stare close range at somebody else. Seems like rudeness on their part and a bit of exhibitionism on hers (it was always a fat lady, not a fat man).

The only people I ever knew who actually went into that tent in broad daylight were the really brave and slightly rebellious older teenaged boys and those men who were usually avoided in everyday life. That tent seemed to be sad and out of place. No one spoke badly of either the tent or the fat lady. Neither of them was spoken of at all.

Local groups provided some of the evening music. By the 1960s in larger regional fairs The Everly Brothers were brought in.

cattle being shown

The grandstand area was used for the rodeo, sales of prize cattle, and demolition derbies, in addition to the night concerts.

Sometimes we made a visit to the Yellowstone Mercantile to buy shoes for school after we left the fairgrounds in late afternoon.

That was a special store governed by a statuesque, older woman who was a family friend. Her very appearance announced that no nonsense would be brooked in her area of retail responsibility, her braided hair always rolled in a firm bun at the nape of her neck.

She greeted us as the noisy bell rang us through the door, wearing a dress far more expensive than any my mother ever owned, sometimes turning aside from her service to us to put a few papers in one of those cable-transported sealed containers that  whooshed across the entire store to the upper level, where the paperwork was delivered into the hands of clerical types who entered the day’s sales by hand, as they occurred.

Those cable-delivered containers traveled from every corner of the store to a single point – the fascination of watching them, trying to figure out all that was happening was never-ending entertainment for youngsters. First the containers WHOOSH up to the office workers – and then the empty container WOOSHED back down to the department from which it had come.

We would head home by late afternoon because, as always, the cows were waiting to be milked.


cotton candy


 Signed copies of Mailboxes and Old Barns ($18/including shippingcan be ordered by emailing Payment can be made by PayPal or check to Sharon Torgerson, P O Box 513, Woodburn, OR 97071.

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33 Responses to Mailboxes and Old Barns: Going to the County Fair

  1. texan59 says:

    By the end, I could smell the cotton candy and caramel corn, or maybe it was something else. Although, our fair never quite had the “big acts” like yours. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon says:

      We saw those ‘big acts’ only in larger regional fairs – actually when DH and I got married in 1965 and spent honeymoon days at Lake Superior/North Shore in Duluth – the fair was on and that’s where we saw the Everly Brothers. The simple years they were.


  2. rosalindj says:

    That was lovely. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. yankeeintx says:

    Your country fair sounds much like ours that were all the way across the country in New England. My parents were really fond of the horse pulling contests. That involved a man on a tractor who would skillfully load concrete blocks on a skid. The big draft horse teams would then compete to see who could pull the skid the farthest. We lived close so it was an all day into the evening time for us. It was expensive to feed 4 kids at fair food prices, so we tailgated. We would all meet back at the station wagon or pick-up and Dad would cook lunch on a Coleman stove. Even though money was tight, Mom and Dad always managed to give us each some spending money. We had to decide if we wanted to spend it all on rides, or splurge on fried dough or French fries. We or our friends were involved in 4-H and FFA, so there were livestock judging contests to attend. As night fell, the fair took on a whole new life. Riding the rides, even he ferris wheel all lit up, became a whole new adventure. Thank you for the reminder of simpler times, and wonderful memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon says:

      Cash money was never much in view for us but we always had a little bit to spend at the fair. It was always a marvelous day, and still is in memory. The experience of cotton candy HAD to be part of it. Always. The way they sometimes sell cotton candy now – wrapped up in a plastic bag???!!! No way. I will never buy cotton candy any other way except being handed the giant fluff right out of that whirling pan where it was created.

      Liked by 1 person

      • michellc says:

        The little town near us had a carnival back in July. Our kids wanted us to go and my DH said, “come on let’s go act like we’re young, get ripped off at the carny games, eat cotton candy and junk food and ride the rides.” I told him, “yeah get sick or die when those rides come lose slinging us halfway across the county.”
        The kids told us it was their treat, they’d even buy us a wristband so we could ride the rides over and over again.
        I of course went and I of course got mad because the cotton candy was in bags. Luckily though we walked down the street away from the carnival where the local baseball team had a dunk booth set up raising money and the local softball team was selling roasted peanuts, popcorn, hotdogs, fresh squeezed lemonade and cotton candy in the big tub with the paper cone wrapping it all up. The carney folks were selling their bags of cotton candy for $6 a bag, the softball girls were selling theirs for $3.

        Our county fairs though haven’t changed much over the years, there are still the judging for the quilts, pickles, pies, homegrown veggies, animals, etc. Still have the cow patty toss, cake walks, horseshoe contest and even the cow patty drop. A silly game of picking a numbered square for $1(this has went up with and walking the heifer around until she poops on a square and if you bought the right number you get a prize. The city folk still come out and they still squeal when they’re splashed with some nice fresh cow poop and still can’t believe people are throwing cow patties when they learn what a cow patty is. They still seem to find animals relieving themselves something to point and laugh at or be embarrassed about.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sharon says:

          LOL – and the animals will relieve themselves. Frequently. 🙂


        • nameofthepen says:

          LMAO, Michelle. Sounds like “Cow Pat Roulette”. That’s hilarious! 😀


          • michellc says:

            Country kids had to invent things to do when the chores were all done. You never looked as if you were just sitting around doing nothing, because the parents would find something for you to do. So when you were bored with fishing, wading, playing hide and seek, and didn’t feel like reading, you came up with something new.
            I am sure that is where the cow walk came

            Liked by 2 people

  4. chitownmom says:

    We were baby boomer kids and grew up in a suburb Northwest of Chicago. My dad was from a small town, Salem, in southern Illinois. Once a year we would travel there to visit his mother, aunt, uncle and other misc. relatives. As kids, this was one of the most exoctic things we did.

    The houses were so small there (compared to where we lived). My grandmother lived with her mother, brother and sister. Since it was only a 2 bedroom house, my great grandmother’s bed was in the dining room and my great aunt lived in the basement. There weren’t any walls in the basement to make a separate room so my great aunt strung clothes lines and hung quilts to make a room for herself. In these days, they did not have air conditioning so the basement was the coolest place in the house during the hot summer months and I loved going down there and envied my great aunt her special place, never realizing that some might think it demonstrated a lack of funds.

    Salem would get SO HOT in the summer. It was a different sort of hot than we had near Chicago. Maybe it just seemed hotter because there was so little for us to do. We’d sit in the living room and maybe try to watch TV but there was little on that we wanted to watch and we weren’t allowed to watch very often because my great grandmother didn’t care for the noise. Just as she did not want us to play the piano they had that no one ever played. The yard was pretty big but because it was so hot outside we didn’t spend much time there during the day. My great uncle did have a couple of dogs, but they were not house dogs. In Salem, most dogs were not house dogs. So his stayed in garage / shed in the back and we could only see them through the wire fenced in yard he set up. But they were definitely not friendly. My great aunt liked to garden and woe to the child who accidentally threw a ball into her flowers!

    Towards the evening it would cool off and people would go sit outside in the yard. But there were always chiggers to worry about. Still, the cooler weather was so appreciated that no one cared.

    And then, there were the magical nights we went to the reunion. This was an annual fair that celebrated the Salem soldiers from WWI and WWII. And part of the celebration included a carnival. As suburban Chicago kids, this was unlike anything we had ever seen. It was set up in a park that was filled with trees and rolling land. There were rides, games, and food. There was the tilt-o-wirl and a merry-go-round. Also a ride that was like a huge bowl and you stood against the inside of the bowl and it turned around faster and faster until the dropped the bottom out. You were held in place by centrifugal force. Guaranteed to make someone loose there corn dogs. There was also a double ferris wheel. My sister, who is a year older than I, would ride with me and she always, always rocked the car to make me plead with her to stop. There was also a roller coaster called The Mouse. We went on it every year even though I have strong memories of it throwing me back and forth so hard it caused my plastic headband to fly off!

    And the games. Oh, how we loved them. One year we discovered a game where you pitched nickels at carnival crystal plates. I have no idea how much we spent but we came home with a large number of them. My poor mother, she thought they were hideous and we were so proud to give them to her!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sharon says:

      Like your great aunts cool basement accommodations – yes! We just figured such things were special. Like sleeping outside on the grass at night when the house was just too hot. That was not a problem but an opportunity….nothing like that ceiling of stars from horizon to horizon to make a kid not want to go to sleep.

      We never had a double ferris wheel – but we did have kids who insisted on rocking the chairs… scary stuff!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sharon says:

      Oh! I forgot about the Mouse – the first time I experienced that was at the beach rides at – Long Beach? Seal Beach? There was a permanent ride operation there – and it had ‘the mouse’ – that about made us toss our cookies.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. czarowniczy says:

    Woooo Hooo!!! How convenient you mention this our rural county fair starts TOMORROW!!!!! Fair here includes a rodeo – covered building with open walls and the distinct smell of livestock permeating all. Fair has a large FFA/4H section where the future farmers (who speak English (OK, Southern English) as a primary language have the pig, chicken, rabbit, cattle and horse (one always brings a sheep) display the results of their projects ( a good word out here). Adults bring their cattle and horses for display and judging while one (probably related) brings sheep, an easy default win). They have adult rodeo events and sub-adult events where local pre-teen/teen riders do things on horses that would have the child welfare folks in the cities filing suits left and right. Things is that these adults and sub-adults are showing skills most of them use daily as the live on farms/ranches.
    The crafts (knitting/sewing/canning/quilting etc) sections are getting thinner as the folks of a certain age (ain’t gonna admit to that yet) who actually do those crafts thin out too. Still got the stuff on display though, just not as much, and you can buy the home-canned muscadine, paw-paw, persimmon and all manner of other fruit jams. Picked stuff is there too – gonna pay a bit more for the blue ribbon stuff though.
    The local vendors have the hot food, pop/kettle corn and cotton candy sales so for the price you get a much larger serving than you will in a more urban county fair. This will be our first year as a ‘wet’ (beer & wine) city so I don’t know if the’ devil’s brew in 3.2′ will be on sale – no biggie though.
    We’ll be attending in either work boots or rubber boots as if you go into the stalls with the livestock (a lot outside the stalls too) you cab expect to step into fresh-for-the-pickin’s manure, something that makes the more urbane visitors blanch a bit. You’ll see more than a few pickups with a spare set of boots in the back for when it’s time to go home. Good practice for the mid-terms (couldn’t resist).
    Yep, this fair’s set somewhere in the mid-60s with a touch of ‘fast disappearing’ but as long as there are working farms and ranches the rodeo part will still be here. The grandson and I will be in boots and jeans, sitting on the butt-burnished hardwood tiers in the rodeo arena watching the roping and riding events as we pick pieces of flotsam out of our cotton candy. I figure that about the time he’s starting to get bored with the roping and all he’s gonna be anoticin’ those young women in the barrel races. Something in a rural county fair for everyone – go to one while you still can.

    Liked by 3 people

    • czarowniczy says:

      hang in there – as I look back at the post I find my my enthusiasm and executive skills tempered by antihistamines. Just took a closer look at the fair schedule – there will be a number of goat and swine judging events this year and any congresspersons entered MUST be neutered. OK, I made the neutered part up but still sounds like a good idea.
      To all those liberal soccar-family-primary-parental-figures-of-unstated gender still recovering from the shock of kids not only abusing animals by riding/roping them in public displays of animal exploitation, but doing so without huge helmets and fun-proof armoring, this is in the fair’s bulletin: “We have something new at the County Fair this year.
      Cowboy mounted shooting demonstrations will be held on Saturday, September 6, 1:00-3:00 p.m. in the arena.” Oh…my…gawd (valley girl eye dialect) will the inhuman and regressive brainwashing of susceptible innocent children into interpersonal violence never end?
      Woo Hoo…and the possibility of beer too!!!!!

      Liked by 5 people

      • czarowniczy says:

        And it jes keeps on agettin’ more betterer. The Fair needs volunteers to help keep it going and to keep expenses down. To ensure the Fair-going public’s safety the volunteers will require a background check; however (again, directly from the Fair bulletin): ” Other forms of background checks will satisfy the volunteer background check requirements.This includes concealed carry permits, teacher background checks, and adoption background checks. ” Does YOUR county fair accept CCWs as a proof of anything, never mind being a law abiding citizen?

        Liked by 3 people

      • michellc says:

        Every once in awhile the bent nosed folks show up at the rodeos. They seem to go back and forth on the mutton bustin and the calf scramble, one second it’s child abuse and the next it’s animal abuse. They curse the riders and the ropers and the bulldoggers because you know they’re abusing those poor animals. I’ve seen them cheer for the bull when he’s got the cowboy on the ground. I always want to turn a bull loose on them and let them get a first hand experience.
        Someday they will probably get their way and end rodeos, already lots of rodeos no longer have the calf scramble. Too many scared the parents will sue if little Johnny gets some dirt in his eye.
        I’m glad though it was something I got to experience as a kid and something my kids got to experience before they started trying to outlaw it. Once upon a time kids couldn’t wait for that announcement to enter the arena and every kid just knew they were going to be the one to get that ribbon off that one calf’s tail in amongst all those calves. There was only one kid though who came away with the prize and you never heard one cry that it wasn’t fair.
        Parents didn’t worry about their kid getting hurt and most laughed when one face planted in the dirt or got drug around by the calf when they wouldn’t turn loose of that

        Liked by 1 person

        • czarowniczy says:

          Yup, every now and then someone comes up from the city and tries to pet the nice cow only to have a run in with the social introvert bull in the group. Then there’s the nice horsey or cow that agrees to be petted and, in the process, readjusts its posture and plants a gelatin-laden hoof square on the petter’s foot. Don’t play with your food, Hon.
          As for the rodeo nay-sayers, we’ve a bit too small and rural for that though the sight of them protesting at the arena would provide great comic relief as the ring-tenders clean the manure up between events.


          • michellc says:

            They don’t have the sense God gave a goose. I’ve seen them show up at the smallest and the largest rodeos. For the most part they’re laughed at, every so often some ol’ cowboy gets tired of their mouth and when he goes and has a friendly chat with them and they discover he’s surrounded by like minded folks they leave or sit down and shut up.

            Something is wrong with people who will gasp and cry if a calf gets hurt but cheer when a Cowboy does.


  6. ZurichMike says:

    Way back in 1987 I was in law school and a finalist in a baking competition at the State Fair of Texas. I had never been to a county fair, let alone a State Fair. Oh, my goodness! It was fabulous. I didn’t win, but it was great to be in the competition. Afterward I wandered about and was especially amazed at the cattle show — and how gorgeous cows and steer and sheep could be all groomed to perfection. I wish I had a camera for one scene — a little girl about 9 years old fast asleep on a little ledge in the pen with her prize cow, and the cow gently licking her head. So sweet!

    “Fair lore” is something that makes me wish I had been raised where such events were usual and charming. I just loved seeing families walking around having great fun at little to no cost.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sharon says:

      Yeah, seeing the kids sleeping alongside their animals in the barns – that’s part of the best memories. The 4-H and FFA barns in the middle of the country are, literally, just good clean fun this time of the year – still.


  7. Menagerie says:

    I was a city girl all my life until December 2001, when by the grace of God and lots of hard work by my husband and I, we purchased fourteen of the rockiest wooded acres on a ridge in Georgia. So my childhood memories of going to the fair are not the county or state fairs described here, but they were just as exciting and exotic to me.

    We always went at night, sometimes several nights. The lights on the rides seemed to me to cover such a vast territory that we could never see it all. I loved seeing the bright lights against the backdrop of the dark night, I loved the smells of the food, the excitement and happiness of the crowd.

    We always ate the grilled corn on a stick, and I still remember how delicous it was. That was the draw for my dad, and he would take us back night after night just to eat the corn. He swore it was the best corn he’d had since leaving the farm in Kansas during the Great Depression.

    He would give us quarters to go play to ping pong ball game with the gold fish, and we always went home with several gold fish in plastic bags. They never lived but a day or two. I sure hope it isn’t a mortal sin to not be able to keep a gold fish alive!

    My favorite ride was the ferris wheel, and I always loved it when they stopped for a few minutes and I was high in the air, looking over the bright lights of the whole fair, the world at my feet. It was a few moments of blissful dreaming. I still absolutely love the ferris wheels, and I am so glad my grandchildren will soon be old enough to allow me an excuse to once again go on the carousel with them.

    A few years ago, I made my first ever visit to a rural county fair, and I had a blast. I enjoyed inspecting every cow, hog, chicken and rabbit, and it was a real treat to see the old fashioned crafts. Czar’s right, it’s fewer and fewer young people who take time to learn the knitting, crocheting and quilting, but there was beautiful workmanship on display. My husband, who grew up in the country, laughed at my appreciation for things he grew up with, and certainly saw in a different light that an ignorant city girl, but he indulged me kindly.

    Thanks, Sharon, for a trip back in time.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Cyrano says:

    We didn’t have rodeos in northern Illinois, but we had Joey Chetwood’s hell drivers. We loved it! They drove cars with no mufflers over ramps and through fire and stuff. It was great! Thanks for the return trip, Sharon.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. doodahdaze says:

    Back then the fair, was really a fair. We would go and I remember the exhibits. Produce and all kine stuff. Then the man hawking knives and gadgets with a crowd around. He was super salesman. The clown in the dunking booth was a fave of mine. He would insult suckers so much they would get livid and spend all their money trying to dunk him. I still remember the sights, sounds, and smells.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. nameofthepen says:

    Sharon, this was dreamy, as usual. Just lovely. Thanks for the “mini-vacation”.

    I was reminded of the L.A. County Fair I went to once. It wasn’t as steeped in Americana time and place as the one described in your beautiful essay here, but it was still a glimpse of another life away from the big city.

    And then, I remembered the commercial for it, and, lo and behold!, it was there on YouTube. Did you ever see this? 😀


  11. evolveideas says:

    In 1990 I had the 2nd best lemon pie at the Florida State Fair. My meringue was weepy or it would have been first. It was so much fun, my family and me being on the edge of our seats as the awards were being announced starting at 5th place.


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