Growing up, the third week of July meant the Marias Fair and the biggest week of the year for me. Trophies were awarded, friends were made, water fights were had, and it was the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of work. A decade or two later, the fair may not look the same as it did during my era, but I (still) love the county fair.
In an era of easy Amazon shopping and social media competing for kids’ time, the concept of a youth taking the time to produce a completed project is extraordinary. Whether it’s a pint of strawberry jam canned with grandma, a leather belt tooled by hand, a handcrafted woodworking project, or a beautifully decorated cake, the fact that an 8 to 19-year-old made something, forever excites me. That quilt, pie, or parts of the swine poster is typically not the first draft either. Behind each exhibit was likely a mom, dad, older sibling, or leader asking, “Are you sure that’s blue-ribbon quality?” With the motto, “Make the Best Better,” I love that we are teaching kids in 4-H to self-evaluate if they are producing their best.
To this day, my best friends are still those from 4-H. Within a few minutes of being at the fair this year, a 4-Her from another county ran up to me and asked if I had seen her Glacier county 4-H buddy yet. The relationships and friendships built at the fair are second to none, and I love to see kids connect with other kids who have the same interests as them. Whether it’s pushing a wheelbarrow cleaning pig pens or washing lambs together, every task is more fun with a friend.
From the relationships built at the fair, community begins to develop. A community of cheerleaders, encouragers, and friends. One of our incredibly shy 4-Hers illustrated this in that prior to his first swine show at the fair his mom asked him how thought he was going to do. “I think awesome, because everyone keeps telling me I’m going to do awesome,” he said as a matter of fact. This continually reminds me that kids rise to the expectation we put in front of them and the importance of being surrounded with positive community.
The county fair also represents the local community. The lineup of market steers largely represents the local ranches breeding programs. Many volunteers have now served through two or even three generations of families and continue to serve because they believe in the program. The livestock sale packs the barn with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and business owners. Babies are passed from one friend to another and rocked to sleep by the chant of the auctioneer while nervous nine-year olds seek out their livestock buyer for a handshake and hug. These are the people that make up our community, present and future.
I love to see hard work rewarded, and the county fair consistently does that. The fair reflects who has put in the work in the months prior, and to see a showman and their
animal interact seamlessly in the ring is much like a well-orchestrated dance. As these kids display their projects, their confidence grows tremendously. Regardless of whether they leave the ring or Exhibit Hall with the purple rosette, no one can take away their confidence from the work they’ve invested. I hope these kids at the county fair become addicted to working hard and will carry that over to whatever career path they choose.
With most judging being done on a qualitative basis, youth learn to accept and respect the judge’s opinion. The fair provides an opportunity to learn humility and to lose graciously as well. There were many times I thought that I should have placed differently, but that only fueled my desire to work harder the following year.
Lastly, I love that with hard work and drive, anyone can succeed at the county fair. Maybe the kid that struggles to interact with other kids can find their passion in the poultry project. Maybe the kid that isn’t athletic can find their niche showing livestock or creating quilts. Maybe the girl who is struggling through the pre-teen years can pour her heart and soul into her horse project.
To me, the county fair is much more than fried food and entertainment. It is where character is revealed, confidence is built, and work ethic is rewarded. To me, it represents a snapshot of what is still good in rural America and every year I leave encouraged by the incredible youth we (still) have at the county fair.