It may be the greatest, but it's also "our fair"

Thursday, September 8, 2011

We all know the Clay County Fair bills itself as "The World's Greatest County Fair."

To many of us, however, it's simply "Our Fair."

The most striking impression I've gotten, in reading the submissions sent to the Daily Reporter in response to our request to readers for their favorite fair memories is that, while it's a huge endeavor for the community, at its heart it is a very personal experience.

The fair is as varied and unique as the hundreds of thousands of visitors who stream through its gates. We all store snapshots in our minds and in our hearts of special fair moments. I'd guess that those snapshots are different for each of us who enjoy the fair experience.

I've got my own treasure trove of fair memories. They stretch back to my own experiences as a young 4-H'er, wrangling a headstrong steer in the ring. They are also as fresh as last year's edition, the happy smile on my brother's face as his son earned the Supreme Champion Market Beef trophy in his last year as a 4-H'er.

As the camera-happy member of the family, I have thousands of actual photos as well. Those pictures are a wonderful archive of our family's fair experiences. They are also a poignant reminder of the fleet feet of time. The photo I love the most is also the most heart-piercing this year - a shot of son Drew, seriously shaking the hand of a judge, while holding on tight to his lamb.

That was Drew's first foray into the show ring as a first-year 4-H member. If he looked like he didn't know quite what was going on, it's because he didn't.

None of us did.

Without the facilities to raise cattle, we headed into sheep, with huge assistance from my sister and her husband. We couldn't tell the different between a wether and a ewe, had no idea how to break a lamb to lead, and wouldn't have been able to tell you what made one sheep better than the other.

Drew headed off to "sheep boot camp," where Uncle Kurt tried to teach him the basics of the care and feeding of the animals. Kurt guided us, and we listened and did everything he said.

"You need to run your sheep."

No problem. We live on a gravel road, so summer evenings found us leading our four head down the road on family walks. At the half mile marker, we'd let them go, chasing them all the way home. Good exercise for the sheep, and for us. Also guaranteed entertainment for the neighbors.

"You've got to learn to brace your animals in the show ring."

Come August, you'd find Drew in the yard, manfully trying to throw his entire 70 pound heft up against a 130 pound lamb who wasn't in the mood to cooperate. Most days, the sheep would win the contest.

So, that first fair came and when Drew was asked how his sheep looked, his response combined the ignorance and blissful security of youth - "They look like winners."

And, as it turned out, they were.

So, when the judge came over and shook his hand, proclaiming his sheep, "Uno," to be the grand champion, Drew wasn't surprised at all.

Fast forward eight years.

Today, Drew easily exerts his will over his sheep in our backyard show ring practice. We can tell what makes a good lamb and a so-so lamb. The excitement, however, as we drive down to pick out lambs and bring them home for the summer remains.

This year, however, is bittersweet.

Next year Drew will be off at college when the Clay County Fair rolls around. The lamb pen, under a big shade tree, will be empty.

This will be his last fair as a 4-H'er in the show ring.

Drew is excited, and rushing headlong into his future. Mom, on the other hand, will be holding on tight in a helpless attempt to keep the future at bay.I know that's impossible, so my mental camera will spend the 2011 fair snapping away. I want to make memories to hold on to in the years ahead, memories of family, and laughter, and the smell of sawdust and wet wool.

The fair has so many more memories to make for my family. They'll be different, but no less special, as the next generation takes center stage.

I smile as I remember that my family is just one small microcosm in the huge Clay County Fair world. Everyone has their own special fair memories.

That's when the real value of our fall showcase hits home. We all think it's "Our Fair."

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