Last weekend, Mary Frances and I enjoyed the State Fair. She took her 4H Photography project and competed in the Digital Editing division.
We made the most of our day. And the most of the fair.
4H is a wonderful youth program which encompasses far more than animals and agriculture. My kids tend towards Visual Arts, Public Presentation, and Horse Bowl. Horse Bowl. I could write for days about the girls’ Horse Bowl competitions.
My kids have enjoyed 4H for years. At some point, most of them qualified for the State Fair and we’ve trekked down to the fairgrounds for our county’s judging day.
Last Friday night, we drove part-way, stayed overnight with some friends, and got an early start in the morning. I managed to park about as far away from the 4H building as physically possible. We were booking it to make the 9:00am project drop deadline. As the minutes ticked by, Mary Frances grew increasingly concerned. I briefly thought about stealing a golf cart. Or a goat. But I decided against it. We finally asked for directions. Times were desperate and the clock was ticking. This necessitated a shortcut through a barn.
The Swine Barn.
The smell of pig hits you and takes your breath away. It’s not like the comforting smell of a brat or apple-smoked bacon. The putrid fumes defy precise olfactory description. I have no idea how someone works in that environment. Some people managed to play cards and eat breakfast among the pig pens. Not us. We were like speed walkers, darting quickly among the cages and show arenas, desperate for the fresh air at the far side exit.
Heel, toe! Heel, toe! Heel, toe!
After dropping her project off and securing a judging time, we enjoyed some of the 4H displays. I’m always amazed at the talent and creativity of 4H kids.
Then we walked to watch the grooming of cows. Well, I thought they were cows. But they are steer. I struck up a conversation with a woman who was willing to answer all of my questions. She first corrected my nomenclature. There is a difference between a steer and a bull. Never call a bull a steer. If you reverse that, the steer might take it as a compliment. There is also a difference between a cow and a heifer. I’m a cow and Mary Frances is a heifer. If you want to be inclusive, you use the phrase cattle. That covers all possibilities and states-in-life for the various animals. It’s like saying y’all for cows. I mean cattle.
I was intrigued by all the spray cans littering the ground around the stalls. Here’s the scoop. The latest style in steer fashion is a big, bushy coat. Essentially, you want your steer to look like a bear. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s like a bouffant hair-do versus a pixie cut. A matter of preference. Well, the cattle bouffant is the new style and all the competitive steer are wearing it this summer. This puffy, soft coat is achieved by housing the animals in air conditioning, wetting them down, and then standing with a hair dryer to evaporate all the water. And doing this on a daily basis. Seriously.
And my kids complain about taking the trash out. I briefly imagined myself yelling at the kids to complete this chore: “Johnny, go spray down that steer. And then blow dry it. Bone dry. Don’t make me ask twice!”
On show day, a variety of adhesives are applied and the steer is given a trim. They are actually spray painting the animals a different color. The contrasting shade helps guide the grooming process. Just like in a hair salon, once the stylist is pleased, the entire look is set with another type of spray. Who knew they made Aquanet for cattle? Personally, I thought the animals looked a little irked to be out of their air conditioned surroundings. The whole process was fascinating.
We returned to the 4H building for Mary Frances’ 10am judging session. While she was judged, I studied the fair schedule and mapped out a fantastic plan for the day. I also tried to figure out why I was taking these strange, artistic pictures with my phone. Apparently, I hit the portrait button by mistake while documenting the cattle.
As soon as she was done, we made a bee line for the Home Economics building, sidestepping the Swine Barn this time. I wanted to see the Yeast Bread and Jelly Roll bake off. It was pretty low key though the cooks were dancing to the Elvis Presley music blaring through the speakers. The smell of the cinnamon bread was divine. That cook also had the best dance moves.
We walked through the building taking in displays of quilts, needlework, canned goods, breads, and vegetables. The onions were huge this year. And the zucchini looked like baseball bats.
Then we were off to an Irish dance performance by the Central Illinois Irish Dance Academy. One little girl was overcome by stage fright and ran to her mom in the audience. Best part of the show.
We wandered around a bit while waiting for the next show. We found a massive statue of Abraham Lincoln, appropriately masked and apparently vaccinated.
On our way to the next show, we were sidelined by the call of a Bingo game, sponsored by Gift of Hope. Did you know there are 6 types of organs (heart, lung, kidney, liver, pancreas, intestine) and many types of tissues (I forget) that can be donated? I didn’t but I still got a pen and Mary Frances scored a Chapstick.
We arrived just in time for the Lotus Fire Belly Dance show. The highlight was a woman dancing with a scimitar balanced on her head. Stellar.
Next up was the diving show. I watched the springboard portion but chickened out as soon as they started climbing to the bird’s nest diving platforms.
I remember Greg Louganis hitting his head on the diving board during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I still can’t watch diving. Not on TV and certainly not at the State Fair where Steve launched his Speedo-clad body from a 25-meter platform into a fish tank. He survived and Mary Frances teased me for hiding behind the Ford truck display.
Afterwards, we stopped into the coliseum and found a dog agility show in progress.
We learned that it is more entertaining when a dog goes rogue, selecting their own sequential pattern to the chagrin of their owner. This team was an audience favorite. The poor woman was chasing her dog all over the place. She should have done the jumps herself.
Since we had eaten through our snacks, we decided we needed some fair food. Something on a stick which is the preferred delivery method. On our way we met Sadie, a therapy dog in training. Now this is an amazing program. A group rescues dogs that are about to be euthanized. The dog is then assigned to an inmate at a correctional facility. The inmate trains the dog, working towards the K9 Good Citizenship certification. Once the dog achieves the designation, the animal is available for adoption, free-of-charge, by a veteran. Pretty cool program that helps dogs and people at every stage.
We enjoyed a lunch of cheese fries and corn dogs. Actually, as far as fair food goes, this is one of the more nutritional options.
We casually walked through the horse barns. We can handle the smell of manure. The draft horses had been loaded into their stalls. Clydesdales. Friesians. Belgians. They are the most beautiful of horses with such sweet dispositions.
But this might have been my favorite animal. Those ears. I wonder if the poor creature is self-conscious standing next to a mighty Percheron. Maybe that’s why it was in a stall off to the side. I found myself humming the lyrics to a Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things does not belong.”
Finally it was time to pick up her project and head home. By the time we got back to the car, we had walked close to 13,000 steps. Which probably helped burn-off that corn dog.
On the way home, we made one last stop. We saw this on the drive down and I knew we needed to visit.
It’s a true destination. I highly recommend it if you are ever driving I-55 near Pontiac. I’ve never seen a beef jerky counter nor a Winnebago retrofitted as a camping gear display.
We had a ball exploring the menagerie.
Even the bathrooms were impressive. Look at this combination soap, water, and hand blower dispenser. Genius!
We walked out with a pulled pork sandwich, a southwestern salad, an iced tea, and a package of dehydrated marshmallows. Which my kids think is the best part of Lucky Charms.
It was a special day and we have some great memories. I savor one-on-one time with my kids. It doesn’t happen often. So we made the most of the time.
We went big. And then we went home.