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.”
The 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.
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.
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