Last week, the hot humid days that have brooded over us for a month, sulked their way out of the county to be replaced by perky air spilling down from the northern regions. This was a sure sign that it was time for animals and baked goods and artwork and cloggers and canned goods and vegetables and quilts and derby cars to make their way to the back lot of the school for the Highland County Fair.
I never appreciated fairs until I moved to a place where the fair is a homecoming event and the absolute center of the social scene for four and a half days. School even lets out early the day before to accommodate all of the students who need time to wash and brush their animals one last time before registration and show day.
Preparing animals for the fair is a family event that can start as early as the first day of the previous fair. In the quest for bragging rights and a banner, parents and children eyeball the winners as they are paraded into the ring, and begin digging for answers. "Where did they buy that steer?" "Who raised the lamb that won?" "What bloodline should we pursue?" The answers to these questions are sometimes closely guarded secrets until a winning family retires from the ring.
After breeding decisions are made, Mother Nature is left alone to do her work. Then in early spring, the flocks and herds are inspected for possible winners. These lucky animals are brought into barns and lots for special feeding and lessons in show ring deportment. The animals are as anxious to learn to be led as middle school boys are to learn manners. A tug of war ensues and sometimes, if a steer is too headstrong, even tractors and donkeys are brought in to muscle the animal into docility.
Once the future contestants are lead rope trained then the bathing and trimming and walking begin. Our boys raised and showed steers, sheep and hogs. Each day, in the two months before the fair, the boys haltered the sheep and walked them at least a half a mile to help build muscular thighs. In the interest of time, Joe and I helped. Then the lambs were exchanged for the steers, who also got a walk. After the steer strolling, the hog chasing began as there is really no way to train a hog to go where it doesn't feel inclined to go. Hogs get their exercise by running away from frustrated humans.
After an hour or two of dragging or evading humans, the animals were rewarded with a bath and brushing. The next day, it started again. Usually by fair time, we had gone from loving our fair pets to looking forward to days that weren't quite so full. And, it's a good thing, because the day the animals are sold is still sad and would be sadder if we all weren't so tired of the whole process.
This year, our seventh since the boys stopped showing, we walked around on the last night of the fair and watched families as they prepared their animals for departure. Many were going on to the slaughter house to become someone's steak or bacon or lamb chop. It's a hard night for the kids and some of the parents, and many make it a point to be out of the barn when the animals are loaded onto the trailers. In spite of the relief that it's over for another year, there are tears shed in dark corners where the kids go so no one can see them cry. Even the boys are a little pink cheeked when they finally come back to the barn. But, the sadness doesn't last long. There's work to be done. Stalls to muck out one last time, halters to gather, equipment to load. When everything is ship-shape, the families stand just outside the barn, leaning against fences to watch the fireworks show. Then, they turn and head towards the truck for the last ride home. With no animals to take care of, everyone will sleep in tomorrow.