State fair.


The great thing about any state fair is not the midway, nor the agricultural exhibits, nor the animals, and not even the butter cow and calf. The great thing about the state fair is the meeting of country and city, a few days of courtship when we can all forget what it is we dislike about one another and just have fun. City folk can try their hand at shearing a sheep or milking a cow, and country folk can bet on a trotting race or slip off the fairgrounds entirely and go check out the casinos downtown.

I was raised in a state fair city, Columbus, Ohio, home of perhaps the nation’s greatest state fair. (Yes, this includes you, Texas.) It runs for more than two weeks and I couldn’t imagine missing it when I was growing up there. If I still lived there I’m sure I’d still be attending, complaining along with everyone else about the heat, and the smells, and the ridiculous prices, and the scuzzy guys running the rides. Complaining is part of the fair experience. But actions speak louder than words, and you always come back. Because secretly? You love it.

Michigan’s state fair is held in Detroit, which shocked me. I figured it would be in Lansing or Grand Rapids or another more centrally located city, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Detroit is Michigan’s city-est city, so it should host a tribute to the country. Kate and I and one of her friends attended today.

Not only is the fair in Detroit, the fairgrounds are on the infamous 8 Mile Road (motto: “Seeing that your liquor-store and strip-club needs are met in every block — sometimes twice”). A century ago Joseph L. Hudson sold the land to the state agricultural association for a dollar, and there the fair remains today, just inside the limits of the decaying city with the worst national reputation this side of East St. Louis, and every year farm kids come from all over the mitten to show their goats and pigs and cows and horses. They’re joined by pitchmen selling waterless cookware and aluminum siding, beekeepers displaying a see-through section of the hive, 4-H clubs with their blue-ribbon squash and pumpkins, vendors of fried dough and mystery meat impaled upon a stick — oh, you’ve been to the state fair somewhere. You’ve inhaled the odors of saltwater taffy mixed with manure. You know.

I covered the fair for the Columbus Dispatch in ’84. There was a new exhibit that year — the cow maternity ward. The fair management thought a few people might want to come by and watch a heifer give birth, what the heck. By the third day they were erecting bleachers, so great were the crowds. Apparently the last two decades have been growth years — the Miracle of Life tent at the fair this year is sponsored by Chrysler and Jeep, and has a generous space featuring cows, pigs, goats and sheep. Michigan State vet students staff the pens, holding up the new babies for petting and answering questions about why things are happening the way they are inside the birthing pens.

When we visited, a cow was closing in on delivery. She stood in the corner of the pen with a faraway look of concentration, breathing shallow, a little hump-backed. Her bag of waters had already broken. The vet students said if we cared to wait, we’d see the calf emerge in about an hour. Kate was already totally grossed out and was relieved to vote for coming back when it was all done.

“What’s coming out of the cow’s butt?” she asked.

“That’s not her butt, that’s her vagina,” I said. “Probably just remnants of her amniotic fluid. Birth is messy.”

I could see the wheels turning, the mammal-to-mammal connection being made. She wanted the hell out of there, and I couldn’t blame her. So we hit the midway, where I tried hard not to think about metal fatigue and how the ride operator lost all of his lateral incisors. When we returned, the calf was on the ground being rubbed down by the students while the vet waited on the placenta. I’m sort of glad we missed the middle of that movie, because by now I was getting hungry.

I found a trailer nearby — Trudy’s All-American BBQ. (Thank you, southerners, for inventing the pulled-pork sandwich served Carolina-style, with the slaw on top.) The girls ate their carny food, and we went inside to escape the heat. We ended up at the booth of the people waging war against the emerald ash borer, the reason I hear wood chippers so many mornings lately. We left with green pencils and a handful of emerald ash borer temporary tattoos.

It was freebie city all through the ag exhibits — drinkable yogurt and bottomless cups of chocolate milk from the dairy folks, more temp-toos from the cherry growers and insect-control folks. We filled our bags with them, and paid too much for everything else.

But that’s the fair, isn’t it? By the time we sat, exhausted, in front of a dog agility contest, we felt we’d seen not everything, but enough. We missed the fishing pond shaped like the lower peninsula, but we saw the butter cow. We rode the rides but missed goat showmanship. We saw the rabbits but skimped on the sheep. I knew it was time to go when I found myself seriously considering buying a pair of racing pigeons offered for sale in the poultry building.

We drove home along 8 Mile, and I marveled again at the wonders of capitalism — all the strip clubs have signs advertising their low cover charges, which competition has driven to $3. Juliet fell asleep. Kate clutched the stuffed bear she won throwing darts and sorted her tattoos.

I guess we’ll be back next year.

NOTE: Your comments in the preceding thread touched me, and I thank everyone who rang in. I guess I gotta keep doing this.

Posted at 10:33 pm in Uncategorized |

14 responses to “State fair.”

  1. harry near indy said on August 18, 2005 at 4:20 am

    ah nancy, you forgot the indiana state fair, which is going on until sunday the 20th. it may not be the greatest one in the u.s., but it’s a dang good show.

    it’s right in the middle of indy in an area that is between the’hood and a business corridot. so the folks come from dekalb and angola and princeton and very, very rural parts of indiana and mix with the city folks who come for the food and the rides.

    i think the city and suburban kids go to the ag exhibits because they’re disconnected from the place which does raise their food. i think it’s enlightening for them to see cows and chickens and hogs and all those critters.

    i try to go about every two-three years. i went two years ago.

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  2. joe said on August 18, 2005 at 8:45 am

    Did they have the worlds largest hog?

    That was always my favorite at the Indiana State fair.


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  3. Dorothy said on August 18, 2005 at 9:14 am

    I lived in Ohio 2.5 years and now I feel sorry that I did not try harder to get up to Columbus. You make it sound so tempting! I’ve been to several county fairs in my days, and I’m guessing they aren’t as spectacular and fun-packed as the state fairs.

    In Butler County, Ohio’s fair I found a quilt exhibition which led me to membership in a wonderful Fiber Arts guild. The leader of the group was not called President of the guild, but instead was dubbed “Queen.” They were such a fun group of gals! When I needed help to learn how to knit (which I still haven’t mastered), one lady just grabbed the yarn and needles from me and did it for me. She thought she was teaching me, but all I could do was sit and be amazed at how her hands flew. That’s how I am with crochet. I think I give up on knitting.

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  4. vince said on August 18, 2005 at 10:46 am

    Better than the State Fair of Texas?

    (You better not call it “The Texas State Fair” – that’s a dead giveway you’re ‘not from these parts.’)

    Dallas, like Detroit, hosts the state fair. Not a central location. Not a country spot. It’s just tradition.

    It’s probably the latest state fair in the year: October. It’s too bloody hot to hold it when everyone else does theirs.

    And this sucker lasts FOUR weeks.

    Does the Michigan fair have catfish on a stick? Okay, thankfully Texas only tried that one year.

    Does Michigan have a butter sculpture of ELVIS? That’s what Texas is promoting for this year.

    And taking a page from a playbook Detroit knows a little about, Texas features an auto show that Detroit takes very seriously. (Gotta cater to those city folk too.)

    Oh and don’t forget Big Tex. He’s a 52-foot-tall standing Howdy Doody, with a remote controlled jaw talking to fair goers all day. He wears a 75-gallon stetson.

    And of course, since Texans must boast of “biggests!” they have The Texas Star: the largest ferris wheel in the U.S. at 212 feet in diameter.

    There’s 4 weeks to make your plane reservation Nance. You could hit TWO fairs this year!

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  5. mary said on August 18, 2005 at 11:42 am

    The California State Fair is going on right now. If I start driving north this morning, I can make it there on time to see Carrot Top tonight. The fair’s in Sacramento, a town I don’t visit often. Actually, I’ve only been there once in the twenty years I’ve lived in this state.

    I’ve been the the LA county fair. It was really tacky, but not in an entertaining way. Not nearly enough of the butter sculpture stuff and too much of the waterless cookware stuff. Maybe I should check out the neighboring counties that are a little less cheesy or more cheesy, literally.

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  6. Claire said on August 18, 2005 at 12:01 pm

    Isn’t the Ohio State fair the biggest in the country? I grew up in Columbus, but only attended a couple of times. My mother hates crowds and carny food. Somehow, though, I missed the birthing tents.

    Anyhow, I love your blog. Thanks!

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  7. MichaelG said on August 18, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    I’ve been to the California State Fair many times. Love it. There’s plenty of time, it’s open from 08-12-05 to 09-05-05. That’s what? Four and a half weeks? I used to take my daughter. Today I’m going with my grandson. Leaving in about a half hour. We’re gonna see all the stuff Nance was talking about. Can’t wait!

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  8. joodyb said on August 18, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    The Great Minnesota Get-Together (ie State Fair) is held to be the best in the U.S. I had to feel kinda sorry for them after my first year’s attendance; they think EVERYTHING is the best here (is this because they never go anywhere else, I wondered?) but they CLEARLY had never been to the Columbus in August. Fine for a nostalgic whiff of Holstein and pickle on a stick (they also think they invented the on-a-stick phenomenon), but the grounds can’t be half the size. Ohio State Fair memories, terrifying to bizarre: runaway cows nearly hit by State Patrol cars, nerdly Ohio Youth Choir and attendant deflowerings that took place under the not very watchful eyes of Glenville Thomas’s alleged chaperones. The very, very best: touching Dennis Wilson’s arm at a Beach Boys concert at the Grandstand, where we were nearly electrocuted in a storm.

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  9. Miss Beth said on August 18, 2005 at 9:34 pm

    Note to Joe: They do indeed have the “World’s Largest Boar” at the ol’Indiana State Fair. I met him last night. I am no longer a big fan of Zuckerman’s Famous Pig…

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  10. basset said on August 18, 2005 at 9:56 pm

    The Indiana State Fair, like the 500, is something I never saw till I moved out of state – now we try to get there every year, largely because the Tennessee State Fair is such a sorry excuse for one. Wouldn’t make a good county fair back home – in fact, the Wilson County Fair half an hour east of Nashville puts the state fair to shame.

    The way I like to explain it down here is… “The Tennessee state fairgrounds have a 3/5 mile racetrack, and the fair goes about a third of the way around it. The Indiana state fairgrounds have a full mile racetrack, and the fair goes all the way around it.”

    The Tennessee fair also does not have tenderloins, pork chop sandwiches, roasted corn or shook-up lemonade. Bikers, roving bands of glaring young men with their hats on backward, fried dough, and South American Indians playing pan-pipes and trying to sell cassettes on the midway, yes, but no real fair food – they even ran off the church-lady food stands, so carnival junk food is all you can get to eat.

    If you want to see a truly miserable state fair, though, go to Mississippi – a carnival and a few animal tents set up in an arena parking lot. Just don’t let anyone know what you think of it until you’re past the state line.

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  11. janet said on August 19, 2005 at 12:01 am

    Saw Martha and the Vandellas at the Michigan State Fair when I was 11 and I will never forget it. I took the bus with a friend down Woodward Avenue. Five years later I listened to the race riots (living safely in Royal Oak) from the phone in my grandparents’ house in Gesu Parish. That was the end of parent sanctioned field trips to Hudsons and riverfront concerts.

    8 Mile was not always the great divide. Urban frustration and rage melded with the reign of Coleman Young to drive a stake in the city, but I still remember Motown sequins. It was a sweet summer.

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  12. jeff said on August 19, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    Just go to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

    A stupid hick town that shouldn’t exist.

    You’ll never want to go again.

    A festival of mud and manure.

    The worst [and most boring] three days of my life and that includes the near death experience when I spent that much time in an ICU!

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  13. brian stouder said on August 20, 2005 at 11:56 am

    “A stupid hick town that shouldn’t exist.”

    Now, now!

    I am going to spend a long weekend in Springfield in October, for the Lincoln Colloquium, plus touring of all the Lincoln-related stuff (the colloquium is being held at the Lincoln home, but other events will be at the big ne Lincoln Museum there, plus a few walks through historic neighborhoods and so on)

    I’ve never been there, but I am looking forward to it. We’ll report back then, and discuss whether it really is “A stupid hick town that shouldn’t exist.”

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  14. Former Ohio Resident said on September 30, 2005 at 11:56 am

    Tennessee State Fair a miserable affair, Basset? Ohio may have a great Fair and all that but try to walk around at night without getting mugged. Park your car and come back to find the wheels gone. Then go back to your friend’s place and find the sofa and TV missing. Great place, Columbus. Oh, how I do NOT miss it.

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