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In Which Our Midwestern Correspondent Attends the Nebraska State Fair

State Fair

by Elisabeth Reinkordt

The end of the summer in Nebraska, as in much of the Midwest, is marked by the annual State Fair.  The fair spans a week with two long weekends, and on Labor Day, the fun is over, the cows go home. The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, though, coincides with the home game opener of Nebraska Football; thus, another season begins.

The Nebraska State Fair began in 1868, one year after statehood, making this the state's 139th fair.  This year marks the 109th Nebraska State Fair at the state's fairgrounds in Lincoln, and the second-to-last to be held at that location.  In response to lagging attendance, the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature decided in its past session to move the Fair to Grand Island, 100 miles to the west of Lincoln.

This is farther from the population centers, marginally closer to much of the agricultural population, and conveniently clears the way for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to develop a so-called Technology and Innovation Park on 251 acres of superbly located real estate.

My parents took our family to the fair just about every year, and usually we'd go on Labor Day, when the gate admission was lower in order to eek out a few extra dollars before the fair shut down. By this time, most of the animals were loaded up into their trailers and headed home to the far corners of the state, exhibits were being torn down, and not much but the Midway remained in the way of active entertainment.

Even though this might not seem to leave much excitement for a child who suffered from motion sickness, I still loved the mixture of bright-colored signs, the stench of livestock, the absurdity of the food, and the aimless crowds.  There was a distinct sense that you could get yourself terribly, terribly lost from your parents.

Entries at the State Fair get selected from the best at county fairs all over the state, with categories in 4-H and Open Class. At the age of eight, I joined a 4-H club, and began preparing projects for the Lancaster County Fair. The first year was pretty miserable, as my neighborhood club, the Hearts & Rainbows, was mostly concerned with making appliquéd sweatshirts with puffy paint, putting Contac paper on big barrels, and hot gluing miscellaneous pastel things to one another.

I started with sewing, however, and entered my first fair with a two-piece tunic-and-capris ensemble. 4-H'ers who sewed were encouraged to model their creations as well, and thus began my days on the runway.  The second year of 4-H, my best friend Alison and I became part of a newly formed club, the Leapin' Leprechauns.

This club was co-ed, and we did everything from model rocketry to CPR to cooking to table setting contests.

My brother, ever the cat-lover, took our family cat Mikesch to the 4-H cat show, where he won the ribbon for "Best Personality" after the cat freaked out at the judge.  My sewing progressed, and eventually I made and modeled my 9th grade promotion dress, a three-piece tailored suit, and finally my senior prom dress.

I also took photography every year, and took several prints to the State Fair. The year our club did Bird Watching as a club project, most of our bird houses went to state, due mostly to the fact that not many other clubs were interested in that project.

For rural clubs, livestock competitions are everything.  Bucket calves - those weaned early and bottle-fed to encourage tameness and easy handling - are meticulously groomed, sheep carefully shorn, pigs washed squeaky clean.

The exhibitors, dressed in starched white shirts and black pants, then bring their prized animals into the arena to be judged against others of the same class.  Judges look carefully over each curve of the pedigree, demand lots of maneuvering of the animals, and, after several stages of ranking, give their justification for ribbon placement. With our wild, grass-fed black Angus, I would never have stood a chance in the ring.

I made two trips to the State Fair this year. Monday night, Boyz II Men were the main act at the Open Air Auditorium.  This, naturally, required attendance.  While sitting down to a fair dinner of Husker Indian Tacos, I saw my parents' neighbor, a rancher who drives tractor-pulled trams around the fairgrounds at fair time.

He noted that, while the Fair had been pretty dead all day, it was clearly packed now.  In a nod to demographics, it was also a far less white crowd than usual - a very different set than shows up for the country music that dominates the rest of the entertainment schedule.

The Boyz did not disappoint, throwing red roses into the crowd during "I'll Make Love To You" and shedding the sport coats they'd sweat through for an encore.  In a nice bit of scheduling, local up-and-comers Triggertown - a band featuring washtub bass, dobro, guitar, banjo, and fiddle - played murder ballads and union songs to close out the night.

Saturday, I braved the football crowd, getting in that last piece of summer, and, admittedly, getting nostalgic about the Fair's leaving for Grand Island.  Not quite as nostalgic as Garrison Keillor's live broadcast from the Minnesota State Fair, but that's his job.

Elisabeth Reinkordt is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and filmmaker living in Nebraska. Her website is No Coast Films.


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[...] Middle America at its finest. [...]

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