State fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing.
So the summer fades and our children return to school—and this feels at once like a liberation and a reminder that we have only a few years with them. The fall leaves me melancholy, but thankfully there is perhaps our most beloved family tradition, the Kansas State Fair.
I grew up assuming the fair was an indispensable part of the American landscape. But this year the state of Michigan, bowing to budgetary pressures, abandoned its 161-year-old state-fair tradition. A part of me wonders, even as we plan our day at the Kansas fair, whether my children will do this with my grandchildren.
Fairs, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions (IAFE), can be traced back to 500 B.C. Before UPS and TiVo, people had to get together for shopping and amusement. Fairs have existed as microcosms of society from the beginning, places where you can buy sharp knives and slabs of cooked meat, be enticed by all manner of hucksters, and survey the oddity and splendor which are your fellow man’s wardrobe choices.
Small wonder, then, with the decline of agriculture and the advent of satellite TV, that state fairs are struggling. South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois and Colorado state fairs have recently faced financial strains, and Arizona used federal bailout funds for theirs last year. The defunct Michigan state fair, meanwhile, was the oldest in the nation.
Kansas doesn’t rank in the top 50 fairs by total attendance (Texas has held the top spot the last two years), but when you adjust for state population we look pretty darn good. We trounced Texas last year, for example, with one attendee for every 8 Kansans, versus one Texas State Fair attendee for every 13.6 Texans.
By that measure, we’re nowhere near Iowa, Minnesota or Alaska, where fair attendance routinely averages a third or more of state population. Still, it’s total numbers that catch the eye, which might explain why Oprah Winfrey wore a cowboy hat and taped a show at last year’s Texas State Fair.
While the numbers vary considerably from state to state, all told some 150 million Americans visited agricultural fairs last year, estimates IAFE president Jim Tucker. State fairs represent the America many of us praise from afar, or live within, or simply puzzle over.
Fairs embody our roots in agriculture, entrepreneurship and rabble-rousing. Where else can you, in a matter of minutes, buy a tractor, ride a camel, sample the latest in waterless car-washing technology, marvel over a 20-pound cucumber and then saunter a few hundred feet to hear Hank Williams, Jr. belt out “Family Tradition”? Let’s face it: no matter how sophisticated we become, a life-size statue of Elvis sculpted from 800 pounds of butter will always fascinate us.
And if you don’t understand this, then I’m afraid you don’t understand America. Don’t look for enlightened insights about American culture from those like Frenchman and “American Vertigo” author Bernard-Henri Lévy, who could afford no more than a “quick visit” to the Iowa State Fair, but who lingered over prisons in a manner that would make Foucault blush. If you’ve never hurled a tattered baseball at a pyramid of milk jugs, run your hand along a shiny new combine, or cheered at a pig race, then save your opinions for people who roll their eyes at Lee Greenwood.
Come to think of it, perhaps a qualification for commentators on American culture should be the ability to explain a cheese curd. The food alone can make fairs worthwhile, all of it from heaven or hell, although I’m not really sure which.
There are the funnel cakes, steak sandwiches, and roasted and buttered corn on the cob so hot you can brand cattle with it. And let’s not forget the panoply of fried delicacies. Every year brings an item that nobody before had thought—or dared—to fry and eat: pickles, Twinkies, HoHos, and—surely a sign of the apocalypse—bacon-cheeseburger doughnuts. Alongside these are all manner of skewered delights: pork chops on a stick, potato chips on a stick, cheesecake on a stick, waffles on a stick and, as ever, corn dogs and candy apples on sticks.
It seems insane to me: Not the unhealthy food, mind you, which I wholeheartedly support, but arming thousands of children with sharp wooden sticks. Perhaps that’s just the usual handwringing from a parent of four little boys who hopes to see them all through to adulthood with two eyeballs apiece.
That is always part of it, of course, both attending the fair and raising children, this fear that harm will come to them. In that sense the fair is not only microcosm but metaphor. At least it is to me as I put my ten-, eight-, and five-year-olds on a whirling, spinning, lighted metal contraption, wave goodbye, and pray to God that the carnies weren’t drinking when they assembled it— all while restraining my three year-old, who is outraged that he can’t go with his brothers. We are always sending them away, one way or another, and hoping the way is safe.
Though it’s a metaphor, however, the fair is gentler than life, because within minutes they come back to us, hair tussled, cheeks aflame, eyes wide. And at the end of it all, long after the sun has set, we pack them into our minivan, where they fall asleep almost instantly. Then we drive home through the dark country night, thankful to have been part of something so exhausting, and hokey, and irrepressibly American.
Mr. Woodlief’s memoir on fatherhood and marriage, “Somewhere More Holy,” was published by Zondervan in May.
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704358904575477500355733286.html