Up the Road: To County Fair Season

May 31, 2017

This week we head Up the Road to revisit the great California country fair. If you haven’t already noticed, it’s the season. The Glenn County Fair, which has been going strong for more than 100 years, wrapped up a few weeks ago, followed by Chico’s Silver Dollar Fair. But not to worry. There any plenty of fairs still to come. A few suggestions in a minute.

Even kiddie-size rides are exciting at the county fair.
Credit Brian Neudorff

I know some people love the carnival rides, cotton candy, and country-western bands. But I go for gem and mineral shows and all those friendly, farm-life competitions and exhibits—everything from 4-H and FFA livestock projects to horticulture, gardening, and pie-baking. I’ve been known to get pretty excited about rodeo drill teams, too—something I never got to do because my horse, Khubla Khan, was a demon in the arena. He’d been barrel racing champion of Montana for three years running and was so competitive he’d take off at a dead gallop if other horses even thought of cantering. A whole other story.

It’s a wonder that fairs are still so compelling in this digital age. Maybe we love country fairs because, no matter how modern and sophisticated we’ve become, many of us are just a generation or two from the farm. Farming might be in our jeans. That’s true in my case.

For some people, the carnival and rides are the fair's big thrill.
Credit Thomas Hawke

My grandfather was a citrus farmer in Southern California after World War I. He was also a very good tractor mechanic—which is how he managed to start buying orchard land, a few acres here, a few acres there. Long story short: It was those navel oranges, his success as a farmer, that made all the difference in my family. With the extra money, he put all his younger siblings through school, as well as his children. My mother was the first in her immediate family to go to college. Her stepmother, quite the sewer, whipped up a wardrobe on her old Singer treadle, clothes fine enough for any of the more privileged girls that mom met at UCLA. My mother packed up those stylish, handmade clothes and drove off to college in a beat-up blue pickup my grandfather spruced up with leftover bathroom paint. By the time my Aunt Elaine packed up her own antique truck for college, my grandfather—a smart guy, eighth-grade education or no—had single-handedly boosted his siblings and his children—and all of their children, and their children—into the middle class. Hats off to family farming, the real kind.

Who you calling bacon boy?
Credit Montgomery County Planning Commission

Millions and millions of similar family stories paint part of the picture of the Industrial Revolution here in the U.S., the slow but steady migration from farm to city life. County and district fairs were part of that modernization, organized to promote new technology and practices. That we now consider fairs, noted for being so hands-on and community oriented—so old-fashioned—shows how easy it is for progress to overshoot the mark.

Still, what was old often becomes new again, one reason to add fairs to your farm-season travel plans. Consider:

Peppers, Mendocino County Fair
Credit Hotash

The Colusa County Fair in Colusa, kicking off on Thursday, June 8, with nightly fireworks, Lanky the Clown, Mr. Cinderfella contest, Chef’s Challenge, fruit and vegetable carving, Monster Trucks, and Cowboy Ken’s Rawhide Ranch Trackless Train, so you can take a load off and still get a full fair overview;

The Tehama District Fair in Red Bluff, opening on Thursday, July13, with all the usual plus chili cook off and destruction derby;

Working the crowd: winning sheepdog run at the Mendocino County Fair
Credit Hotash

The three-day, surprisingly uncommercial Mendocino County Fair & Apple Show in Boonville, starting September 15, showcasing Anderson Valley and Ukiah wines and produce, giant pumpkins, bubble gum-blowing contest, Sadie the Balloon Lady, sheepdog trials, and the California Wool and Fiber Festival and sale—one of the nation’s oldest and largest fleece judging events.

Apples, Mendocino County Fair
Credit Hotash

Until next time, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road and North State Public Radio, telling it for fair.