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An American tradition

County fairs part promotion, part competition and all fun and games

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Ask Future Farmers of America member Jake Downs what he has learned in raising his Black Angus-cross bull, and he has a ready answer:

"Re-spon-si-bil-ity," he says, drawing the word out like an Aretha Franklin song. And in those emphatic syllables, you hear hints of the hours he has spent washing, combing, feeding, walking and otherwise caring for the animal. Of maybe missed social events or postponed activities with friends. You hear an acknowledgement that success requires work.

Downs got the bull in the spring, when it was about 5 months old, and has turned it into a 600-pound behemoth. Soon, he will take it into the arena at the Cache County Fair, where a handful of judges will decide whether he has raised a champion. That verdict is based partly on genetics — "you don't start with a scraggly cow" — and part on his attention to detail: the feeding and care that have resulted in a nice ratio of fat to muscle; the grooming, the handling, the presentation.

But grand champion or not, Downs has learned a lot, he says.

Kirby Davis, 10, would tell you the same thing about her Yorkshire and Polish China pigs, both blue ribbon winners at the Summit County Fair. Before she started her 4-H project, "I didn't know exactly what pigs looked like; I didn't even know they had hair."

Nor did she know they put on about two pounds a day — if they get fed right — or that you have to take them for a walk every day.

"Her friends would come over, and they'd take the pigs to swim in the river," says her mother, Teresa. "It was pretty funny to see those girls out walking the pigs."

But now that the summer is over and the ribbons have been awarded, Kirby Davis would tell you that it has all been worth it.

"The fair gives the kids a goal, it helps them look forward," says Teresa Davis. "Kirby didn't ever complain about taking care of the pigs."

Kids and animals; 4-H projects and FFA activities. For feel-good stories about young achievers, there's nothing quite like a county fair. Behind every baaa-ing black-faced lamb, behind every mini-rex harlequin rabbit and silver-spangled hamburg rooster, there's a story of lessons learned, of dedication and devotion, of hours spent and pride taken.

And not just with animals, of course. The traditional 4-H cookies and dresses and the modern rocketry and environment projects all bear silent witness of effort. The fair gives the kids a chance to shine.

"Everyone knows them and sees the displays and comments on it," says Denise Smith, who lives in Coalville and has children in 4-H. "The accolades are great for kids. The fair really builds self-esteem."

And that sense of achievement cuts across the generations. Equally impressive are the award-winning cross-stitch quilt made by Gladys Anderson and the baby quilt tied together by Sunshine Terrace residence Eula Waldron, both entries in the over-65 division of the Cache County Fair. Equally worthy of admiration are Dave Carlisle's pumpkins, Tom Hebdon's sunflowers, Gordon Parker's white bread, Ann Stokes' strawberry rhubarb pie, Libby Gittins' mustard pickles, Mande Gallop's historical costume and James Sundberg's petite point.

Maybe that's one reason everyone keeps coming back, why county fairs — which in some ways seem like a relic of a bygone era — are just as popular now as they've ever been.

Some people come to be part of the show, others to watch that show unfold. But for a sense of community, for a chance to meet and mingle, for a chance to show off efforts and be recognized for achievements, nothing beats a county fair.

This year, 27 of Utah's 29 counties held county fairs — stretching from Rich County in the north to San Juan County in the south and skipping only Kane and Daggett counties.

Each has its own flavor. "They are local gatherings and have more of a community feel than the State Fair," says Judy Duncombe, secretary of the Utah Association of Fairs and Shows. "They each showcase what their own county can do."

They are rich in nostalgia. "I can't visit the sewing exhibits without thinking of my grandma," Duncombe says.

But, she says, they also play an important role on the local level.

Each year the fair association holds training sessions for county fair personnel, to talk about things like the best way to exhibit vegetables, how to display signs, how to keep rules consistent, ways to improve fairgrounds.

But it works both ways, says Duncombe. "We (at the State Fair) have learned some of our best ideas from them. I try to visit as many county fairs as possible, and I go to steal ideas."

What truly amazes her about those fairs, she says, is the level of local involvement. "So many people donate so many hours to make it happen. They are labors of love."

But also labors of significant economics.

Most fairs don't charge admission — only for special attractions. They take in money for vendor space and entrance fees and give out money for prizes. Budgets determine in large part what can be done.

The Summit County Fair, for example, is mostly paid for by transient room taxes collected in the county, what county treasurer Glen Thompson calls the "pillow tax." No property-taxes are used.

And when it comes time to hand out premium money — $3-$4 for a blue ribbon; $12 for a copper plate — Thompson likes to use $2 bills. You'd be surprised, he says, to see how far and wide those bills circulate in the county.

Country music provides the soundtrack for most county fairs; strains from Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Tim McGraw float over the fields and stands.

"By far the most popular," says Helen Cooper, in charge of lining up nonstop entertainment for the Cache County Fair. She books mostly local acts. "We don't have a large budget, but we have some great entertainers in the valley."

The Davis County Fair, on the other hand, has had remarkable luck in booking up-and-coming country stars. "We had Trace Atkins, Wade Hayes, Chely Wright," says Bill Johnson, a member of the county fair board. "And we almost got the Dixie Chicks, just before they made it big. But they had to cancel."

Bill Buckley, on-air staff member at KSOP radio, loves to come to the Davis County Fair, where his station broadcasts live. "It gives us a great chance to come out and meet our listeners in person."

But radio stations are not the only ones that set up booths at the fair. The politicians come out in force.

And nonprofit and service organizations find an outlet: Support the wildfire fighters, urges the American Red Cross. Give homeless animals like Dusty or Jim Bob a happy life, pleads the Cache Animal Rescue Association. Enter the Rubber Ducky Race — there's a new one every hour — and benefit the Mountain Crest Key Club.

Mike Olson, a Davis County deputy sheriff, has been coming to that fair "ever since it was held at Davis High School, even before Lagoon." Olson hands out information on basic safety, substance abuse and the DARE program. "It's a great chance to dialogue," he says.

All kinds of commercial vendors take advantage of the fair atmosphere to tout their wares: Pampered Chef, Rocky Mountain Stove & Fireplace, Living Scriptures, Temporary Tattoos, Miller Blue Ribbon Beef.

Small, homegrown enterprises — cooling neck scarves sewn by Lesetta Coleman, Texas Twister fruit drinks created by Diane and Dwight Memmott, R Best Kettle Korn popped and sold by Brandon and Erik Dahle — also vie for attention.

"It's the best kind of advertising," says Gwen Henley, who owns a fabric store in Coalville and brings quilts and baby blankets (her husband, Larry, a sergeant with the sheriff's office, does all the hemstitching) to the fair. "You meet a lot of people and get to talk with them one-on-one."

For Jason Taylor, former resident and now president of Roy-based Digital Direct Technologies, coming to the Summit County Fair is like coming home. "It's a chance to catch up on local news, to see people I know." The fair, he says, is like one big family reunion. "Everybody knows everybody. I love the atmosphere here; I hope it never goes away. I don't even care if I do much business."

Who needs a cell phone at the fair?

But Roy Edwards, who came from New Mexico to sell cowboy hats, wishes for more transaction. "Too many kids wearing baseball caps and baggy pants," he shakes his head sadly.

Pie-eating contests, Dutch-oven cook-offs, bubblegum-blowing competitions. Mechanical bull rides — slow for kids, faster for adults; clowns making balloon animals — Rainbow (Carol Earl) averages 400 a day. Demolition derbies; hypnotists; a hundred choices for snacks or meals; exhibits that display community pride. The county fair packs everything imaginable into its days.

At night, a different kind of magic takes over.

The midway lights up the sky, neon lights flashing in mesmerizing rhythms. The rides go on all day, but they captivate and sparkle at night.

Tilt-a-whirl. Ferris wheel. Scrambler. House of Mirrors. Raiders Walk. Super Jet. Berry-go-Round.

Midway West fills 14 trucks and trailers and spends 46 weeks out of the year wandering from fair to fair. A good share of that time is spent in Utah, says C.J. Confredo, concessions manager.

"We have a great time here," he says of the Cache County Fair. "We love to be invited back each year."

Gone are the days of the sleazy, shill-infested concessions area. Midway West runs a clean, family-oriented house, he says. There are games — some involving more luck than skill and vice versa. "But some offer prizes every time."

Ride tickets now cost 75 cents apiece, and rides require three to four tickets. The more tickets, the bigger the pop. "The Gravitron is particularly popular with teens." But there are plenty of kiddie rides, too.

"People love it," says Confredo. "I wouldn't be a fair without the midway."

A lot of people feel the same about the other nighttime tradition: rodeo.

"It's a big, big part of the fair," says Calvin Amy, general manager of the Diamond G. Ranch in Toquerville, which supplies the rodeo stock for the Summit County Fair.

This rodeo is in the top 15 on the Wilderness Circuit, he says. It attracts some of the best athletes out there. And make no mistake, he says, today's professional rodeo riders really are athletes. "They don't chew, they don't drink, they work out really hard."

They have to, he says. Rodeoing is tough. "Overall, there's about an 80 percent buck-off rate. Last night, I think we set a record. Of 14 bull riders, only one stayed on."

Rodeo, says Amy, is one of those events where you sure don't want to see anyone get hurt. But if something does happen, you hate to miss it — because everyone will be talking about it over hay bales and tractor hoods for months.

Beyond that, it still captures the spirit of the Old West that no one wants to see go away.

"Sixandaquarter, sixandaquarter, gimmehalfhalfhalf," auctioneer Seth Winterton jumbles the words together like a Mozart melody. "Eightdollarhere, eightdollar, giveaquarterquarterquarter." And in the singsong syllables, you hear evidence of hard work paying off, of dreams realized.

For many young people, the Jr. Livestock Auction is the highlight of any county fair. This is where the animals they've raised and tended for so long are brought up for sale.

"They've put in their time, and now they see it pay off," says LaNae Ovard, who has been secretary of the auction for 20 years. What's really nice about it, she says, "is they have a chance to make more than on the market."

Friends, neighbors, corporations, foundations, restaurants, senior citizen centers, they all come together to "boost" the price. And this year's sales were really good.

On the open market, lamb is selling for about 79 cents a pound, says Grant Tingey, with the Utah Livestock Auction Management Association. But at the Summit County Fair, the kids were getting $6, $7, $8 a pound. "That money's paid for more than one college education," he says. "It's just great for the kids."

Kids and animals. Neighbors and friends. Effort and recognition.

For all that and more, you simply can't beat a county fair.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com