If I ever wanted to be a farmer like my father, I don’t remember it. I got off the farm just as soon as I could. I got a job in town when I was 17 and I never looked back.
Like many farm kids, I joined 4H as soon as I was old enough—nine, I think. I don’t recall any discussion about it; my parents had been active in 4H when they were kids. In fact, I have found from reading old newspapers that both of them were 4H superstars, highly decorated with prestigious awards. So we kids had no choice in the matter, not that we wanted one.
For a 4H kid, the highlight of the year was the county fair, at which you would exhibit the projects you had presumably spent the whole year working on. Presumably. For some 4H kids, their projects were their passions. I liked 4H well enough, but I didn’t burn with interest in the projects I had chosen. For me, they were just things I had to do. As a result, the fair would sneak up on me, and the projects I entered were often slapdash or worse.
The worst of it was taking a calf into the show ring. The idea was that you’d care for the animal practically from birth, tame it, train it to be led calmly with a halter, groom it, and then show it at the fair. The reality was me putting off the whole process until a month before the fair, picking out a calf from the selection in Dad’s herd, and hurriedly, half-assedly training it. Then I’d drag it into the show ring for several terrifying minutes before the skittish animal and I were put out of our misery with a pink fourth-place ribbon, which was the worst we could do.
Once that was over, however, the fun of fair week began, hanging out in the barns with our friends and dodging our parents, who had other things they wanted us to do, because there’s always work on a farm in the summertime.
The real rock stars at the fair were not 4H kids; they were the family farmers who competed in the open class show. They’d bring several animals from their herds to be judged each year. These families had enough children involved so that the labor of training, showing, and caring for the animals was divided. And they were fiercely competitive. The same families would duke it out for the blue ribbons and the grand champions year after year. For all I know, some of them still do.
Because the animals represented a significant investment and could be worth thousands of dollars each, the families who owned them were not always content to leave them alone at night, watched only by the handful of cops who prowled the fairgrounds after closing time. One or more herdsmen—family members or others—were therefore deputized to sleep in the barns. And despite my general disinterest in farm stuff, that seemed like a grand adventure. And so, 41 years ago this month, I spent the night at the fair, with a friend whose family showed open-class every year.
It was not quite like I had imagined. We did not have the run of the fairgrounds after closing, free to roam a fantasyland denied to mere mortals; we were quite literally put to bed by the cops handling security, who made sure we were in our sleeping bags at midnight and that we stayed there. We were, however, permitted to keep the radio on all night, which was only fitting because we also kept the radio on all day, blasting WLS or WCFL. You could walk from barn to barn and hear them. In the last week of July in 1975 it was “Listen to What the Man Said” and “The Hustle” and “One of These Nights” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “I’m Not in Love” and “Jive Talkin'” and all the others, over and over again.
The 2016 Green County Fair opens this week. Times change, but the fair doesn’t, not much. If you go, you still hear the occasional radio in the barns, or see 4H kids with earbuds in. Because times change, but the music never ends.