County fair at nightYou spin me right round: The attractions of Cleveland County Fair in Shelby, N.C.Photo courtesy ForeverSouls via Flickr

Around the end of July, I start getting hungry for funnel cake and sno-cones. When the tomatoes turn red and the corn is so tall I can’t even reach the top by jumping, I get a hankering for the tilt-a-whirl.

It must be county fair season in the Midwest!

What do you think of when you think of fairs? For me, a song comes to mind that my grandfather used to sing to me, about a girl who was waiting for her beau to come home from the fair with hair ribbons. Or the Tim McGraw song about the girl he met at the fair when he was 17.

Growing up in an urban county in Wisconsin, the memories I have of our county fair mostly involved fried food and rides that made me wish I hadn’t eaten the fried food. (See Grist’s slideshow of Fair Fare.) Now that I live in a rural community, the fair takes on a new meaning.

Fairs in the summer date back centuries, and probably originated as a part of the Celtic celebration called Lughnasadh, held when the grain ripened. Modern fairs have evolved a lot since then, but celebrating harvest remains a staple. At fairs today, people show off their biggest vegetables and their best crafts, photos, and art. They catch up with new neighbors and old friends, and find out the news around the county. Politicians gather votes, activists try to raise interest in their causes, and teenagers gather their courage to court the person they’ve had their eyes on all summer.

ChickenLovable moptops: White-crested Black Polish chickens like this one were on display at my county fair.(Flutterbug5/Flickr)This year, I’ve been canning quite a bit — applesauce, cherries, all kinds of vegetable pickles, pie filling. Some of these experiments worked out better than others, and after a little encouragement from a friend, I entered eight of my best jars in the county fair. At the entry desk, it became clear to me that the things I brought were fairly unusual — I mixed veggies together for a prettier jar for example, or I canned sauce instead of straight fruit. Not as many people seem to can things these days, as evidence by the fact that most categories only had a few entries at most. So I came home with six blue ribbons, mostly just by showing up.

The grand champion of all the canned goods was a very lovely jar of cherry jelly. It was perfectly uniform in color, and practically glowed red. I was surprised to learn that everyone takes their entries home intact — in the past, they must have tasted at least some of the fair entrants. What fun is being the judge of a baked goods contest if you can’t sample each one?

People in Burt County, where I live, seem much more interested in breeding and raising livestock than preserving food, and the chicken house was full of all shapes, sizes, and colors of birds. My favorite to look at is the Polish Crested, which is a small bird with an oversized mop of feathers on its head. I doubt they lay eggs well though, so I don’t think I’ll be getting any of my own.

Unfortunately, my time at this year’s fair was cut short. I had just finished my cherry-and-sugar-dusted funnel cake in the 4-H building when the wind picked up. By the time I ran to the car, the storm had started and the torrents followed me all the way home.

Just what we need, more rain. I missed looking at the sheep and the pigs, and I didn’t get to go on any rides. There’s always next year though. Rural America may be shrinking, but the county fair seems to be in good shape yet.

What was your last experience at a fair?