Deep tans, bulging biceps and comfortable T-shirts were clues a couple had hopes of winning the Cass County Fair’s Super Farmer Competition in the heat of the day last month.
No dirt under the nails, pale skin and carefully ironed shirts? A chicken would stand a better chance of laying a golden egg. It was easy to identify the folks who earn a living tilling the land and raising livestock.
The contest, which pitted man-and-woman teams against one another, tapped a broad swath of couples — from a husband-and-wife team who bought milk from the event’s organizer, to bonafide farmers who are up from dawn to dusk, working with cattle and harvesting crops.
Real farmers wear leather gloves for the straw-bale contest. Real farmers know how to drive a nail into a piece of hardwood in a few swings. Real farmers take no time at all to shovel corn into a bucket.
“But what’s important is that no matter who wins, we all have fun,” said Kelly Melzer, the 2014 champ — half of a team rounded out by her cousin Blake Moreland.
Pleasant Hill, Mo., was home to one of dozens of county fairs scattered across Kansas and Missouri from early June to mid-August. Some, like those in Clay and Jackson counties, are open only to 4-H participants. But others, like the Cass County Fair or such metro-area fairs as Platte County in Platte City and Johnson County in Gardner, welcome everyone looking for carefree fun. (The Johnson, Platte, Cass, Clay and Jackson County events recently wrapped up for this year.)
In a way, these county fairs offer a taste of what you’ll find at the bigger state fairs. The Kansas State Fair, held Sept. 5-14 in Hutchinson, and the Missouri State Fair, held Aug. 7-17 in Sedalia, share a lot of rich, common ground with the county fairs.
For starters, you can find a corn dog, funnel cake or smoked turkey leg at your county or state fair, says Drake Hokanson.
The retired university professor and his wife, Carol Kratz, visited more than 90 county fairs in 35 states before writing “Purebred and Homegrown: America’s County Fairs” (The University of Wisconsin Press).
“What you’ll find at these fairs is a cross-section of American life,” he said. “We found that the fairs in the Midwest were strong, rich with the good agricultural stuff that makes fairs so wonderful.”
As far as which community can lay claim to having the very first county fair, Hokanson says the ground is as murky as a fallow field after a flood. Probably somewhere along the East Coast, depending on your definition of “county fair.” It might have been in a little community in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, where a group of farmers came together to help educate each other.
“It all started as a way to improve farming,” he said. “We have long thought of ourselves as an agricultural country, even though few of us make our living in it anymore. We have a strong thread of agriculture in our national fabric and the fair is celebrating that.”
So when did the fried turkey legs and pie-tasting events come along? Not to mention the Ferris wheels and carnival games? Like county fairs, state fairs started in the 19th century to promote agriculture. Thank the 20th century for bringing us the delights that help draw thousands to state fairs — even millions to the country’s biggest fairs in spots like Iowa, Texas and Minnesota.
That mix of old-fashioned agricultural events and modern marvels is what it takes to make for a success in a state fair, say the leaders who help coordinate these events.
The Kansas State Fair draws between 340,000 and 350,000 to Hutchinson most years, and the agricultural aspect of it is a strong draw, says Denny Stoecklein, the fair’s general manager.
“We celebrated 100 years last year, and we’ve maintained about the same number of people by evolving but also maintaining traditions,” he said. “With the agricultural side, it’s taken on a more educational aspect. For some people, coming to the fair might be their only opportunity to see a pig or see how a cow is milked.”
Hokanson notes that the county fairs that are dwindling, or state fairs that have struggled like those in Michigan or Nevada, tend to be located in areas where the population is shrinking, or where smaller farms are being pushed out. The other struggle, Stoecklein notes, is that people have so many choices when it comes to spending time and money on entertainment. Today, casinos, amusement parks and downtown arenas vie for attention.
“It used to be that if you wanted to hear a big concert, you waited for the state fair,” Stoecklein said. “Now you have the Sprint Center.”
Those centers, however, won’t stop acts like country music singer Hunter Hayes from drawing a crowd Sept. 6, he says.
And Missouri State Fair Marketing Director Tammie Nichols expects acts like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 8, and Florida Georgia Line on Aug. 13 will draw many from around the state to Sedalia.
She echoes Stoecklein’s philosophy that the fair is an important tool to enlighten and educate children about the country’s rich agricultural history.
The Missouri State Fair, which drew more than 360,000 last year, has been growing steadily over the years, Nichols says. And 4-H and FFA are a big part of the culture, for both county and state fairs, she says.
“We’ll have about 30,000 entries, everything from livestock shows, cattle, swine, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits and dogs,” she says, noting that like the Kansas State Fair, Missouri’s is considered a midsized state fair nationally.
The fair, in its 112th year, helps children and adults recognize the role agriculture plays in their lives.
“Globally as we grow and change, there’s a big responsibility placed on the agriculture industry to support changes, meet demands and create safe products,” she says. “We need to know how hard farmers work to get those products to us.”
The fair, like many in the Midwest, is often used as a barometer to show how the state’s agricultural business is doing.
While the tie to agricultural roots is common to both state and county fairs, state fairs tend to be a bit bigger and bolder, Stoecklein says. Think more rides, nationally known musical acts and bull-riding rodeo champions. And the best and brightest FFA and 4-H stars from the county fairs have a chance to shine at these state fairs.
“And what that means is that we appeal to all generations,” he says. “What I love most about the fair is that you see multiple generations of a family having fun together, and it’s not often you see that.”
Judy Turner-Davis, president of the board of the Platte County Fair, says this longtime county fair has long succeeded in drawing generations together.
“People get to see friends and family they haven’t seen all year,” says Turner-Davis of the event held in Platte City. “I get calls from people early in the year, asking when it is so they can plan their vacation around it.”
At 151 years, it’s the oldest continuously running county fair west of the Mississippi, she says.
“We have the rides, but we still have the mule show and Floral Hall, which takes us back to our roots,” Turner-Davis said.
Wander past the tarot card reader toward the food vendors, and at quick glance, this does seem like a flashback. Parents tote toddlers who stuff cotton candy into their mouths with blue-stained fingers. Men in cowboy hats and worn leather boots head for the stadium.
But look more closely and you’ll see the signs of modern life. Those men are heading for a demolition derby with garishly painted cars from the 1980s, not a rodeo, which had roots in the early 1800s. And a young woman pauses to take another bite of fried goodness as she types away on her iPhone, proving you can have your funnel cake and tweet it, too.
For Hokanson and his wife, the most enjoyable aspect of researching their book on county fairs was arriving at the gate and asking the person taking tickets, “So, what should we see?”
No matter how large or small the county fair, he says, they were always in for a treat.
“We were at a county fair in Alaska, and we hadn’t been there 15 minutes when Carol was tapped to judge wild blueberries because a judge hadn’t shown up,” he said.
What they found, he said, was that county fairs were a way to celebrate a sense of place, with everything from area businesses passing out toys to hospitals handing out literature promoting what’s great about the county.
“But in another sense, what is best about them is the people-watching,” he says. “You might see a family get-together, or you might see old friends bump into each other and catch up over corn dogs. The county fair is really a reunion.”
If you believe the term “egg on your face” is simply an old-fashioned way of stating someone is embarrassed, you missed one of the highlights of the Cass County Fair.
The egg-cracking portion of the Super Farmer competition, held July 19, was a highlight for the kids in the stands. The concept is pretty simple. Each man in a male-female team takes a seat and hopes that the first of the half-dozen eggs his partner will break over his head is the one hard-boiled egg in the bunch. If not, the team will lose points for every gooey raw egg that drips down his face.
Talk about adding insult to injury. The only bright side is the laughter from the crowd.
“I was up last night, shaking eggs, trying to figure out if I could tell the raw from the hard-boiled,” said Diana Hartzler, one half of the team that included her husband, John, who was dripping in goo soon after his wife got cracking.
But the team had plenty of other chances for redemption, and it was clear that the two had years of farming experience when they quickly moved stacks of hay bales from one side of the arena to the other, pounded nails into boards with only a few hard swings, and shoveled corn into pails in seconds.
Though they didn’t place in the top three, Hartzler said the experience was rewarding.
“It’s small-town fun,” she said, then paused to laugh. “The three-legged sheep herding got us. We butchered chickens this morning; too bad that wasn’t part of this event, ’cause I have that down.”
Super Farmer was only one of many events that drew crowds to the fair, which is in its 21st year.
Nici Wilson, city clerk at Pleasant Hill, says the fair offers a great combination of 4-H events, rodeos, music, demolition derby, Motocross and, of course, classic fair fare and rides.
“We anticipate about 15,000 people will come to the fair,” she said. Like all pros note, the secret to great attendance has as much to do with Mother Nature as it does the events offered.
This fair, though smaller than some, spreads out into the charming town of Pleasant Hill. A bluegrass festival downtown was part of the festivities, and the entire town seemed to be in the spirit of the fair, as a trolley drew crowds from downtown to fairgrounds.
Back at the fairgrounds, cheers drew more people to the Super Farmer competition, where cousins Kelly Melzer and Blake Moreland were sweeping many of the categories.
And it was not simply luck that earned them a top spot in the three-legged sheep gathering competition, Melzer said.
“We live on a dairy farm, so we’re used to getting things done,” she said, before rolling her eyes. “Although sheep aren’t as smart as cows.”
It’s a sentiment shared by her parents, who came in second in the overall competition. The whole idea of getting back into the pen after running around a hay barrel seemed too complex for the sheep when Brenda and Jay Moreland hobbled out, three-legged.
“I hate sheep,” Jay Moreland said with a grin. Still, when the true farmers took second place, their daughter cheered them on. Though some are new to the contest, many of the contestants are related to the Morelands, one of many signs the fair is a beloved family tradition.
“It really doesn’t matter who wins it,” says Melzer, who is in her 30s. “My grandpa was out here, cheering me on in a hula skirt the first time I did it, back when I was 16.”
A 2-year-old boy or girl will spend much more time on stage cuddling a new stuffed animal than facing — never mind waving to — a crowd of around 200 cheering fans.
But when the 3-year-old group took the stage at the Platte County Fair’s Missy/Master Contest, the audience was treated to a few of the more precocious kids offering up a grin or a bit of a shuffle. And by 4 and 5, those winning personalities their parents see every day start to shine through at the event. By age 4, gender differences also snuck in: For boys, the fist pump ruled, while little girls have the Miss America wave down pat.
Janet Leachman, who has been bustling kids on and off stage since 1976 (a task that makes herding cats seem simple) says the judges look for animation and overall adorableness in picking the winners of all age categories.
Erica Donaldson is entering her son, 3-year-old Drake Cunningham — for the second year.
“We entered last year and he was a little shy,” she says on a hot afternoon, July 23. “This year he wants to get up there and dance.”
A bit of a jig, a huge grin and a fist pump won young Drake first place — along with huge applause from the audience.
As the event wrapped up, it was easy enough to follow the crowd to the day’s biggest event: Hundreds packed into the grandstand to watch the demolition derby. David Pflugradt was in the stands, a bucket of beer bottles at his feet. “I raced in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says, wiping sweat from his brow. “Things are a lot different now, but back then, you kept your nose to the corners and didn’t worry about taking out cars.”
It’s standing room only by the time the event starts.
Those crowds are heavy in part because, with the exception of the carnival rides, it’s all free, says Turner-Davis.
“We’re most proud that we accept no tax money, and we’re a not-for-profit,” she says. “We have a lot of volunteers and sponsors in the community.”
The highlight of the fair, she says, is watching those crowds when the fair first starts.
“I look around and people are talking and laughing,” she says. “We all work so hard, and this is our bonus. The majority of people who come are just good, honest people, looking to celebrate a longstanding tradition.”
Constants at most every county and state fair — beyond the fried food, livestock and the rides — are the buildings marked with the classic four-leaf clover, an “H” on each leaf. When the Cooperative Extension System at the USDA was created in 1914, 4-H was created as a way to enlist young minds to introduce agricultural technology to communities.
But while you’ll still hear 4-H kids in Johnson County talk about raising cattle, goats and chickens, you’ll also hear them discuss everything from rocket science to geology.
At opposite sides of the Johnson County Fairgrounds, kids between the ages of 7 and 18 were busy with a variety of events on July 28. The crowd-pleaser was the dog agility show, where dozens of kids showed off their success in teaching their furry pals such skills as wriggling under platforms, leaping through rings, and weaving around poles — though most pooches failed at the latter skill.
Christy Milroy, mom of Megan, 15, and twin 11-year-olds in 4-H, says the group reaches everyone, from the most bashful tween to kids like her athletic, outgoing daughter. When the family moved to Spring Hill, they caught onto the agricultural lessons of 4-H and now have goats, horses and chickens.
“But you might also get in with a group interested in rocketry or photography,” Milroy said. “That whole responsibility thing bleeds over into their everyday life, and you see it in better grades and more confidence.”
On the other side of the fairgrounds, children and teens are setting up exhibits in categories like aerospace, forestry, electric, woodworking and entomology.
Tara Markley, the Johnson County 4-H agent, says in urban areas, 4-H is as critical as it is in agricultural areas.
“We stress the STEM skills — those that focus on science, technology, engineering and math,” she said. “We have a youth who rebuilt his uncle’s John Deere tractor. Photography is incredibly popular, and you’ll even see robotics represented.”
Many of the approximately 75,000 visitors to the Johnson County Fair will visit the livestock exhibits, auctions and competitions. But they’ll also get a chance to see projects like the rocket that young Gabe Rauers constructed.
“I shot it off and it went 68 meters,” said the young redhead, who believes rocket science might be in his future.
For 17-year-old Sabrina Graham, geology caught her interest, though photography is another passion.
“In 4-H, you get to learn about electricity and geology, but you also learn about leadership and public speaking,” she says. “Those are all skills I can use through my life.”
Jesse Gunkel has the poise and wisdom of a professional spokeswoman when she discusses her years in 4-H. Fiber arts and food are the passions of this 16-year-old, who is considering becoming a chef.
“I’m on the council, and I’ve made so many friends,” she says. “I live in Shawnee, but I’ve learned so much about what it takes to raise animals from friends around here. Mostly in 4-H, you meet the very best kinds of people.”
The four H’s stand for head, heart, hands and health. It seems clear from talking to the 4-Hers at the Johnson County Fair that they take seriously the pledge their fellow members across the nation embrace:
“I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
And my health to better living,
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.”