There is nothing better than summer in Wisconsin, and for many years on our dairy farm the best part of summer was county fair week. I could write in this article about how county fairs are a great opportunity for hard-working youth to display what’s right about rural Wisconsin. Certainly, that is all very true. But as I think about our family’s years at the fair, something I wrote about a few years back came to mind and I thought I would share it again.
I spent a good number of years as a “fair mom” when our four, now-grown children exhibited the best of our herd of registered Holsteins.
Before my children could drive, I would make the early morning trek to Janesville with a carload of blurry-eyed kids who needed to begin washing their cattle before the entrance gates opened. I always felt kind of like a fugitive as I hoisted them (along with their clothes, bags of feed and whatever else they needed) over the fairgrounds fence.
I didn’t come from a dairy background, so I never understood why they require kids who are showing cattle to wear white. Not only was it hard to find white pants for my boys, but I can tell you that no amount of bleach can do battle with cow manure. I would surmise that the person who first decided that cattle exhibitors should wear white was probably a man who didn’t do laundry.
Most of my fair memories involve my kids. They used to have malt-drinking contests while spending their afternoons in the cattle barn. My only rule was that they had to eat a piece of bread for every malt they downed. One year, I let my youngest son go on some crazy carnival ride after he had filled up with fair food. “I gotta lie down,” he said after getting off the ride.
“Well, let’s go back to the barn,” I said.
“No, I gotta lie down right now,” he said as he sprawled out on the middle of the midway pavement, dizzy and sick.
There were other mishaps as well, like the first time one of the boys showed a full-grown cow. While primping her before the show, he thought he would add some Black Magic spray to touch up a spot on his cow where her skin was black, but her hair was white. The aerosol spray exploded all over his mostly-white cow. There were some frantic tears, but a funny looking, spotted cow still did pretty well in the show ring.
Some of the mishaps occurred in preparation for fair week. I remember one of the boys trying to train an unruly heifer. Looking out my kitchen window I spotted that heifer dragging him across our gravel driveway. “Let go of her!” I screamed.
“Dad said never to let go!” he yelled back.
“Quit listening to your dad!” was my response.
Feeding and entertaining four kids over the course of fair week could get expensive. But it was good practice for the kids to learn how to how to budget their money through each day. I could give each a $10 bill in the morning to buy food for themselves that day. A couple of them would be out of money by lunchtime. On the other hand, one would bring $8 home that night.
Sometimes we had to draw straws over who was going to get to exhibit which cow, as some were better than others. In 1998, our daughter lucked out when she drew a gentle bovine beauty named Sissy. She took top honors at the county and Wisconsin State Fair. When asked by curious reporters about how it felt to take the top prize, she was quick to share the credit with her brother who stood in second place. She told the reporters that she and her brother were a team and she could never have done as well without him. Here were two kids who were usually up in each other’s face graciously giving credit where credit was due. Her brother never once complained that his cow didn’t do as well. As a mom, their actions made me prouder than all the trophies Sissy racked up that summer.
Fair week always ended with a mammoth pile of dirty, wet clothes. Thinking back, the week was a lot of work, but it was also fun. As dairy farmers, we never ventured far from home. The county fair was basically our summer vacation.
My kids are all grown, married and have moved off the farm. But they all enjoy coming back and taking my grandkids to the county fair every July. When they come, the old stories are retold and we laugh about them all over again. Those years were definitely a highlight of this farm mom’s memories.
We all have a lot to be proud of in Wisconsin, and no time is that more evident than during fair week.
Debi Towns is the senior director of governmental relations with Wisconsin Farm Bureau. She served many years in a variety of government positions for the State of Wisconsin, including serving two terms in the State Assembly. Debi hails from a Rock County family dairy farm where she and her husband have resided for the past 43 years.
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