I left the house bright and early last Saturday, before 8 a.m. In several hours, I was pulling into the Indiana State Fairgrounds. I stopped at a nearby CVS to pick up a discounted admission ticket ($7) and parked directly across from the entrance for only $5. Already, this fair is more affordable than half the festivals I’ve been to.
The traffic is thick and the sun is already hot, so I dip into the first building I see. Turns out it’s the cattle barn. The building is endless: long rows of gigantic cows, nestled up to the whirring fans in their faces. The area is wide open – no stalls or partitions. I could walk right up and say hello, but I’ve got no interest in the business end of these bovines. Next to each pair of cows, sits an entire family in various states of relaxation. They appear to be tailgating. There’s food, drinks, camp chairs and coolers. Every few feet I see a competitor, usually a teenager with a number pinned to their chest. I pass several folks who are cleaning their cows, some with a hose, others with a vacuum. Really.
Walking out into the competitor’s arena there are teenagers, children, adults leading livestock through the gates. They move on to the cattle call, and I head for the sheep. A boy of no more than ten races by pulling a neatly shorn sheep behind him. I pull open the door to the anteroom and to my right is a gift shop. “Wool for sale” says a sign on the table display, next to bags and bags of the stuff. Ribbons hang from various bags, decorating the collection and driving up the price. In the pens I see more naked sheep, sheep in blankets, sheep in coats. There are teenagers with rhinestone studded belts literally dragging their sheep by the ears through their paces in the arena.
The pigs are nearby in their own area, and nearly every one is asleep. This barn is hot, and the fans are on high. I search for piglets but am unsuccessful. The pigs share the aisles with the people and I am nearly bowled over by a wide bodied pig, waddling ahead of it’s master in overalls and flannel. Stereotypes abound. I look for spiderwebs with profound predictions, but no dice. Charlotte is not present in Indianapolis.
Once I’ve made a circuit of the animals, I wander out onto the Main Street. A John Deere tractor rattles by with a sign proclaiming SOY BIODIESEL and carrying two long cars full of folks taking a spin around the fairground for $1. A tinny voice from the driver’s seat announces the monster truck racing in the stadium, and I veer toward the food tents.
Fried everything. This is the stuff fairs are made of. Fried brownies, fried butter, fried bubblegum. And then, there’s pork. Indiana is apparently down with the pig, and patriotic Indiana Pork signs line the Pork Tent where all sorts of good smells are wafting out. The bubblegum sounded weird, but the donut burger made my eyes bug out. I steered toward the Dairy Bar and picked up a grilled cheese sandwich and a lemon chiller milkshake for a mere $5. (Later I would snack on a corn dog for $4 .. a waste.)
In honor of the Year of the Dairy Cow, one of the main attractions is the Dairy Barn. I followed the “Don’t miss the big cheese sculpture inside!” sign where I found a woman and her apprentice hard at work on several blocks of cheese. The design is drawn up on a nearby easel and promises an entire week of work. The crowd is full onlookers and photo snappers. The lead carver is wearing a mic and dictating her every move, making jokes with the crowd. My first thought was, that has to be extremely expensive. This was closely followed by, “where are the crackers? pass the wine.”
I wander past the Midway, the land of rides and prizes and harried mothers. I see little ones with fistfuls of tickets and stars in their eyes, and I hustle toward the Horticulture building. In the basement I find the culinary prizewinners. Plated cookies for days, with ribbons and notecards. Clever cakes and thick slices of bread share space with preserves and Ball jars full of bright colors. The main floor is dedicated to blue ribbon vegetables, flowers, and honey. Beekeepers have come to town to explain their work, sell their wares, and they travel with the American Honey Queen and the American Honey Princess, complete with tiaras.
A passing thunderstorm drives the crowd indoors, and me into a 4-H building that feels like a science fair with posters and model rockets. At this point I’ve only seen half of the fairgrounds, and it’s been several hours. I consult the map and leave the building for the Family Zone and what I hope are baby animals. Everywhere there are hand washing stations and hand sanitizer. This makes me, my mother and the farmers very happy. Baby goats are chowing down on pellets from a machine, and calves are munching on handfuls of carrot handed out by volunteers. But the highlight is the pair of potbellied pigs snuffling around the pens eating just about everything. My grocery bill would be through the roof if I brought one home, but I am sorely tempted.
There are tractors with For Sale signs that cost more than a house ($250K+), and a Pioneer Town set up complete with cobbler and blacksmith. Go-karts are zooming in the distance and the CowTown set up is quite small, for the banner animal of the fair. But the row of stables on the end of my loop around the grounds made up for everything. Here were my mother’s favorites: horses. With their heads out of their stalls nosing for sugar cubes, they posed for pictures and stood still long enough to be admired by fairgoers. One of them was nibbling on my camera and shot me a look of disappointment when he realized it was clearly not edible.
A dance stage, a Ford giveaway area, and a long line of John Deere tractors led the way back to where I started. I stopped into a building I had missed on the first round, and found myself surrounded by alpacas and llamas (and no I don’t know the difference). Some of the animals looked so highly groomed they could have passed for poodles. Watching them walk with their owners and parade around yet another arena, I had settled onto a bench to rest my feet and heard the words “costume contest.” They weren’t kidding. I circled around the pens and within 45 minutes several of the animals were being trotted out in various forms of costume, many dressed to match their owner. A Flintstones pair, Dorothy & the Scarecrow, Woody & his horse. The winner stood in collared shirt, slacks, suspenders, tie and fedora next to a teenager dolled up as an old lady. Brilliant.
It is fairly easy to get faired out, and I was exactly that by 6 p.m. Total expenses were under $20 for food, and there were plenty of freebies throughout the day (holler, Turkey Hill ice cream). Some startling exhibits I could have done without: live spay / neuter surgery on a cat and live birthing of a calf. Even the most curious of kids were saying “MOM. What is THAT” for both of these graphic processes. Otherwise, the fair was everything I thought it might be. In fact, it was cleaner than I thought and certainly much bigger than I originally anticipated.
This weekend I’ll go to Springfield for the Illinois State Fair, for the sake of comparison and for a fried food binge with Holly. One is more important than the other.