A Fair Legacy
By Bill Stork, DVM
Alongside rolling rural roads, you have surely noticed the square blue yard signs with white block letters that say "Fair."
Look closely, and you may see boys and girls sporting cut-off jeans and tank tops with knee-high brown rubber boots. 75-pound 7th graders hang onto one end of a shiny nylon show halter, with an 1800lb Angus steer on the other.
Smell closely, and you will see others with a long stick in their hand, a grimace on their face, and words unbecoming on their lips. These are the boys and girls showing pigs for the Meat Animal Project, attempting to impose their will on a 280lb omnivore the Romans once used to plow rocky virgin soil.
By the time you are reading this, they will be penned or tied, shaved, scrubbed and on display in the barns on the north end of the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Above them will be signs and sayings for their respective 4-H groups, and under them will be two feet of clean yellow straw or shavings. Behind them will be a sleep-walking kid waiting to escort the animal's next "movement" out of sight and smell, so that when mom and dad walk through with tired toddlers high on their shoulders there are more "awws, and "can we pet them?" than "P.U" through pinched nostrils.
Whether you are drawn to the fair for the Badger State Truck Pull, the Little Big Town concert, or fried Twinkies on a stick, budget a bit of time to absorb what a rural county fair is all about. Walk through the dairy, beef, swine, goat, poultry, rabbit and craft barns. I promise you will be in awe by some of the photographs on display. In my case, they were taken by friends I had known by way of their vomiting cat, and had no clue they had ever picked up a camera.
Pause to appreciate a barn wood table crafted by a young man out of scraps of siding and fence posts from his grandparents' farm. Appreciate the detail of the dioramas created by kids, of the farms they grow up on, bale hay for, or visit. Look for a stunning cherry wood mandolin, every piece but the strings and frets made by a handyman farm hand from just across the river, of wood salvaged from a Saturday night bonfire social.
There was a time when the county fair was the highlight of the year. Summer was brief, all about surviving winter, and planting, picking, mowing, baling, cutting, splitting, stacking and fixing. The fair was five days of rest, socializing, and maybe showing off a bit.
A few generations on, there are considerably fewer folks with calluses and cow manure. That said, those hogs, steers and heifers don't just stand and lead by way of their good nature and the desire to please. It all begins when the snow still flies. The animals at show have been weighed, fed and recorded for months. As Fair time nears, kids court local business and service providers, shaking hands, taking pictures, and inviting interested buyers to see their animals on the farm.
All are hopeful that when their pig stands at the meat animal sale, and the Stade boys precede their machine-gun auction banter with, "Now there's a fine looking young lady, mighty proud of her hog," the bids come fast and furious. If all goes well, they'll cover their costs, plus a few weeks of college tuition.
Many kids who show learned from their parents, who in turn were inspired, motivated and instructed - if not prodded - by a somewhat maniacal FFA instructor named Lyle Wallace. Nearly every day of his summer was giving to kids. He would load his blue Ford station wagon and hurtle through the county roads. No doubt, at times caring more than they did, he ensured that every kid had blood samples, health papers and bidders for their animals. Without fail, there was a 50-cent ice cream cone from McDonald's at the end of the day.
Lyle Wallace did not invent agriculture, accountability or citizenship, but he represented them well. He and his wife were tragically killed in a car accident in 1997. Lyle and Becky left behind three exemplary children and a gymnasium full of students who have gone on to farms and families from Lake Mills to Rosendale and beyond. His kind of caring lives on to this day on the sidelines and practice fields of the Lake Mills varsity boys' soccer team.
"To live on in the hearts of those you leave behind, is to not die." I can think of no better time than – at an event he worked so hard for – to reflect and recall a man who for his students and family, gave it all.