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The Fair

The tradition of a fair goes back to Roman times, when the authorities would declare an intermission of labor and tradesmen from afar sold their wares. In the Middle Ages, fairs were tied to religious holidays honoring patron saints.

Not all of the activity on the fairgrounds was pious, of course. Eventually one of the biggest attractions become a temporary court set up to try, convict and punish those who committed offenses during the celebration.

Wouldn't that be fun!

The golden age of fairs and exhibitions in the United States came between 1875 and World War I, a robust time when a burgeoning young nation sought to flex its muscle.

Fair associations built huge exhibition halls and gobbled up acres of prime real estate for their events, held annually for usually no more than a handful of days.

County fairs originally started to promote better farming and home-making practices.

Since the beginning, however, those noble agrarian ideals drew fewer people than did the spectacles brought in to accompany the event.

Rides that throw people around, get people wet, make them fall, bounce, scream and get sick have always been a vital part of any fair.

With spectacle came the charlatans, the sellers of snake oil, liver pills, gas additives, cheap jewelry, horrific food and tacky entertainment.

I regret to say I once paid three dollars to see the World's Fattest Woman at the Polk County Fair in Fertile.

The 4-H clubs first assumed a role in fairs in the 1890s, in part to give the youth something wholesome to do during the event. You can't get in much trouble when you have to watch your cow.

Vice and virtue collide at the fair. Every summer, a battle between good and evil breaks out and wears down the once-green sod.

Churches open their food stands. Their clean-cut members hustle to make enough money to pay the pastor another year's salary.

A few feet away, the oily carnies sneer and growl. Agents of temptation and vice, they separate the innocent locals from their cash through deception and guile.

My grandfather loved fairs. He decorated local county fairgrounds with the plants he sold. He also supported a booth which sold gospel tracts and trinkets.

The lady who sold the trinkets, Hannah Chalmers, came up from Minneapolis. As a 10-year-old, I dubbed her Allis, after our tractor. She liked that. We became fast friends.

One summer, Allis Chalmers discovered I collected rocks. A week after the fair, a box arrived in the mail which had cost $7 to send. It was a box of polished rocks. From Allis.

My mother figured we had better reimburse poor Allis for the postage since she didn't make much money selling plastic John 3:16 glow-in-the-dark key chains.

I think Grandpa thrived on the battle between between good and evil at the fairgrounds.

When the area fair board once considered having a beer garden, Grandpa said you do that and I'll never bring a flower to decorate the grounds again.

No beer.

In the late 1960s, a girlie show of some sort showed up at the fair. Grandpa was appalled. The next winter, he pulled a group of upright men together and started a Christian Gospel Fellowship Tent.

The reason Grandpa formed a committee was to have able men on tap to put up the tent and haul in the piano. Otherwise, the Tent, as it became called, was a dictatorship.

Grandpa's mission went beyond gospel matters. He believed, amongst other things, that the grass in front of the big old Industrial Building should be kept green, even during the fair.

So, he'd set up a sprinkler right there to irrigate. Right during the fair. Exhibitors bringing in their flower arrangements had to duck through the water and wade through the mud to get to the registration desk.

One year, old fair board member Reynold up and moved the sprinkler off to the side.

Retaliation was inevitable, and it came swiftly.

Grandpa was offended by the ugliness of a rope which cordoned off an area for Wally's cop car. He was sure Reynold was behind the atrocity.

So, Grandpa tore up the rope and stakes and threw entire the mess in under the big shrub on the corner of the Industrial Building.

Reynold and Grandpa are twenty years gone. Nobody knows who got in the last lick.

But the county fair rolls on, always bigger and better than ever than the year before, still pitting good against evil for four titillating days each summer.

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