Turn Back Now

We missed the Green County Fair again this year, back in my home town. Every year, we talk about going, but we rarely make it. We’ve been back only a couple of times since we moved home to Wisconsin a decade ago, and I think I know the reason why: When I was a kid growing up on a dairy farm four miles from town, the fair was the highlight of the summer. Today, to my citified self, it feels a bit like an anachronism.

Whenever we do get back there, one of my favorite things to do at the fair is to wander through the cattle barns, which was where I spent my fairs as a kid. How many of today’s kids, now so deeply involved in agriculture, a field that was likely to break your heart 35 years ago and is many more times likely to do so today, will pursue city careers after high school or college and never look back? Many, if not most. Yet there’s something charming about the decorated barns, the carefully named animals, and the kids, some undoubtedly the children of my own 4-H contemporaries, lounging in the hay beside their animals, secure in the feeling that this is where they’ll always want to be.

To walk through the Exhibition Hall and to look at the various photography, gardening, and woodworking projects is to remember my own attempts at such projects, and to remember how, after the fair was over, those projects seemed like fallen leaves that had outlived their useful purpose. I wonder how many of these projects lead today’s kids to lifelong hobbies, and how many become junk in the back of the closet, just another “thing I was into for a while when I was a kid”?

Almost everything that seems eternal and unchanging to the young does indeed change, but then again, certain things about the Green County Fair do appear timeless. The faded signs on the old Stock Pavilion still say “The Show Window of Southern Wisconsin,” although the pavilion is no longer where kids such as I was meet their moments of terror in the show ring. Kids still stay overnight in the barns. The Monroe VFW and Monticello Music Parents food stands have been in the same spots for as long as I can remember, which means 40 years at least. On the midway, the biggest changes are the fashions kids wear and the price of ride tickets. There will always be a tractor pull, a demolition derby, cream puffs, the beer garden, and deep-fried cheese curds. Through over 150 years of constant change, from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Age, Green County’s rural folk have gathered every summer to celebrate who and what they are. It’s an admirable purpose and a worthy occasion, and its worth is not affected one damn bit by city-slicker pretensions.

Next year, I need to get over myself and go home for it.

There’s only one song on my Desert Island list that falls in time with one of those early 70s fair weeks. It’s by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, which by 1972 was actually a quartet: the Cornelius Brothers, Eddie and Carter, and Sisters Rose and Billie Jo; the latter had joined up after the group’s first hit, “Treat Her Like a Lady.” “Too Late to Turn Back Now” was at its chart peak during fair week in 1972—sweet singalong soul that represents the absolute textbook definition of a Desert Island song: Without “Too Late to Turn Back Now” in it, my life would be unrecognizable to me.

5 responses

  1. County fairs are amazing time machines, aren’t they? And covering them provided some of the comic highlights of my reporting internship in college (exhibit A: getting stuck in the mud in the parking lot).

    Right on regarding “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” That’s one of those five-second songs, as in five seconds and you know exactly what you’re in for: a great pleasure for the next three minutes or so.

  2. We don’t get there every year, but when we do go to the fair, we might not see all of the commercial exhibits and we’ll walk through the midway without partaking of anything, but we never miss the animal barns. And we never pass up the hand-cut french fries. Nicely done piece. Thanks. (And yes, “Too Late to Turn Back Now” is a summertime classic.)

  3. Don’t have a Desert Island List, but if I did Cornelius and company would certainly be on there. This was a perfect song for a little kid trying desperatley to play along to on the guitar in front of the mirror as if he were auditioning for Soul Train.

  4. Thomas M Long Jr | Reply

    One of the greatest things to go to is the county fair. I miss the Stphenson last week but always go to the Boone and Winnebago fairs. I am lucky that I still have a best friend who still runs a dairy farm. Being the father of a 5 year, it is always great to take her there. Addy’s question was ” How to cows pee?” .We took her to Mark’s farm and she was discussed on the peeing part. I am fortunate to live city and country life. How I yearn to be back in my age of 17 baling hay during the summer of 80. Any songs during that summer… it’s still rock and roll to me, little jeanie, emotional rescue,steal away ….billy joel, elton john , rolling stones, bobby depree…. takes me back.

    1. In the summer of 1980, I was the night guy at WXXQ in Freeport, Illinois, and my last week on the air that summer I did my shows from the Stephenson County Fair. Small world, time flies, etc.

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