Remembering the summers of my childhood there are some distinct memories. Things that modern children will never get to experience, like riding your bike behind the mosquito fogger truck and trying not to run into other kids doing the same thing, or the truck if it stopped suddenly. It is a wonder all of us are still alive.
Memorial Day and all of the festivities kicking off the summer and the Greene County Fair, which proceeded the opening of school by about a month and sounded the warning bell that summer was wanin,g were the two main bracketing events.
Just as a current child will not get to fill his or her lungs with insecticide like we did, they would no doubt find our anticipation of and fascination with the Fair quite incomprehensible. ” You got excited about riding a few carny rides, and looking at chickens?” Yep, sure did. You always knew when the Fair was in town because the flies came with them. I do not know if flies just matured around that time each year or if they truly traveled with the Fair folks, but they never failed to be more plentiful that first week of August.
My parents would usually take us out on Sunday, before the Fair actually opened because it was free. The rides were in the process of being put up, the Merry-Go-Round, Tilt-A-Whirl, Bumper Cars and my personal favorite, the Ferris Wheel. Some of the food vendors would be open, foot long coney dogs, caramel and candy apples, sugar waffles, fudge, lemonade, cotton candy–I presume the Fair was supported at least in part by the American Dental Association.
The people who showed things were also out and about on Sunday afternoon and evening. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, all had their own areas. Four H kids were grooming, bathing, walking their charges. I loved going to look at the animals. One of the most devastating experiences of my childhood was when I was about 12 and a group of friends and I went into one of the barns and ran into a young white farmer boy who my friend Dale had played Little League with and knew. The boy was showing a cow and he took us to the stall and we watched him brush the cow and we petted him. Then the boy informed us that the cow would be sold at the end of the Fair and sold for meat
I knew cows were meat, but I had always presumed that the pampered animals in the barns at the Fair were pets! It suddenly dawned on me that a similar fate awaited the rabbits, chickens and pigs. After that I pretty much lost my taste for barn visits, only going back when I had friends who were showing animals.
There were also women who showed quilts, doilies they had made, embroidery, rugs, afghans, antique glassware and of course food. Pies, cakes, cookies, quick breads, all vied for blue ribbons. When I got older I showed a few cut glass pieces myself. I was quite proud of my exhibitor’s pass, which got you into the gate without paying by the way.
The Greene County Fairgrounds in those days was a lovely place. Lots of grass and mature big trees. People parked pretty much everywhere they could and kids ran around all day. On certain days there was harness racing and I learned to tell the difference between a pacer and a trotter. Watching the men ( and the occasional woman in later years) sit in the buggy and drive their horses around the oval track was exciting.
The old grandstand was wooden and dangerous. You could count on someone getting a splinter somewhere during your time at the races. To sit in the stands sticky with candy apple and cotton candy and watch the full moon come up over the picturesque Presbyterian Church across the street as it made a backdrop for the horses racing for home was truly like a Norman Rockwell painting.
The old grandstand burned down a few years ago and was replaced by a metal monstrosity with no style at all. That and the addition of betting has changed the entire atmosphere of the races for me.
When I got old enough to come to the Fair by myself one my favorite things was to go to the barns to see the horses. The barns were behind the grandstand and if there was no race that evening you could stroll along between the lines of stalls and see horses, sometimes with their owners grooming them, but frequently just with their heads stuck out into the center aisle. If it was a race night you could hang out near the barns and watch them bring the horses out and harness them to the buggies.
But, my very favorite was the Ferris Wheel. To strap yourself into the car and suddenly be lifted up above the huge trees, up where you could see the entire Fair, the barns, the grandstand, the people, the lights and even further on a starry night was magic. The trip down always made you feel like you were flying and if you went with a boy he was bound to rock the car before you were 13 and bound to try to kiss you after you were 13. Either one was highly anticipated. The former gave you an excuse to clutch at him and scream, the latter gave you a chance to clutch at him in an entirely different way.
Some families went to the Fair every day, but my family only went twice, free Sunday and on Fridays. It was a looong week when I knew the Fair was in town and I was not going. When I got old enough to go by myself, around 12, I went every day. Sometimes I paid, sometimes I sneaked in. If your parents gave you money for the Fair it was usually in two categories, spending money and money for admission. If you could hold on to the money for admission you could buy more rides, food and chances at the games so you could win a stuffed animal, or more likely some cheap plastic consolation prize.
I had never thought of sneaking in the Fair, until I went with a group of kids who bragged about never paying to get in. They knew a place where the fence behind the horse barns was loose. All you had to do was unhitch it from a nail go through and put it back on the nail. Sounded easy, and I already had a bit of a reputation as a goody-two-shoes so I agreed to sneak in too.
We waited until about dusk–easier to sneak in–and took a circuitous route to get to the breached area of the fence. The problem is that people lived behind the Fairgrounds and we had to go through a yard to get to the fence. Not only did we have to go through a yard, we had to go through the yard of some white people, this at a time when seeing people of a different color in your yard would have been considered unusual if not alarming.
So we had to case out which house looked dark and/or empty so we would not get challenged by the homeowner whose property we were about to trespass on in order to commit misdemeanor theft by not paying to get into the Fair.
Everything was going well, the people seemed to be absent from home, until a rather large yellow dog came out from under the back porch. He was not happy to see us in his yard, not that it probably had anything to do with our color. We were afraid though that his barking was going to alert the neighbors who did have lights on in their homes.
We made it through the fence in record time, although a couple of us suffered snags in our clothes. I told my mother I tore my blouse on piece of metal on the rides. It was worth sacrificing a piece of clothing to be considered one of the cool kids.