Posted by: justawriter | July 22, 2009

Far afield – How did you fare at the fair?

I feel fortunate to be living in Beulah these days. I lived in West River and Montana at different times during the 1980s and ’90s, so I know what an unusual sight it is now, at the beginning high summer, to see the hills and valleys bursting with green, vibrant life. All this color seems to have put a spring in everybody’s step and made the Mercer County Fair even more of a celebration than ever. That has me thinking about fairs and why we hold them every year.
The fair is a tremendously old institution. The Romans started the practice of having holidays so the people could gather in huge markets to see the newest trade goods. After the fall of Rome, the church carried on the tradition, often establishing fairs on the holy day dedicated to a community’s patron saint.
These fairs were great trading events and merchants came from far and wide to show off and sell their finest wares. For some, a good fair could make their year, much like merchants view the Christmas holidays today. The attraction of the fair was so powerful some countries would open their borders to tradesmen and merchants, so long as they were traveling to one of the great fairs. Neighbor feared neighbor back then, as the specter of war was never far away.
But the desire to have the best fair – or at least one that would put the town down the road to shame – was so great that the kings of old would forego tariffs and taxes and border security to make sure the finest cloth, gold, food, spices and other luxuries were offered at their fairs.
Like so much of the Old World, the fair was transformed once it established its roots on American soil. While the old world fair served to bring the riches of the world to the countryside, in America the fair was a celebration of local bounty. There were riches on display, but those riches the result of husbandry and craft, not of military and mercantile conquest. The stars of the show weren’t exotic spices, perfumes and silks from the far off Indies, but cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens along with quilts, vegetables and clothes grown or sewn by yeomen farmers and their families.
Because county fairs are such local celebrations almost everyone understands what you mean when you simply say “the fair.” The thing is, “the fair” changes every 50 or 75 miles. For me growing up “the fair” was the Pembina County Fair in Hamilton. My grandparents would take us every year and I must admit that for most of my youth, I was more enamored of the midway than the exhibits. But as I grew I realized more and more of the skill and pride that goes into every carefully groomed horse’s mane or blue ribbon winning jar of mouthwatering chokecherry jelly.
The unique feature of the Hamilton Fair is that it had for many years the only sanctioned harness racing track in North Dakota. My memories of my fair were taking my Grandpa Bill to the races in the last years of his life. Grandpa was a horse man, even if he had long ago substituted horsepower for horse power on the farm. While he enjoyed the pacers and trotters and even the comical chariot races, he waited for draft horses to show their stuff.
In his youth, after what was called the Great War but was just the first of many great wars, Grandpa Bill ran a team of Belgians. Just as I became a young adult, age and a series of strokes robbed Grandpa’s limbs of their power and skill. But watching those amazing animals comforted him.
I think as he watched the teams surge against their harnesses, mighty legs straining, nostrils flaring, the sledge loaded with many thousands of pounds of rocks and iron slowly starting to move, he was brought back to those days when he too was powerful, full of hope and able to move the world. That’s my story of “the fair.”
I have a new fair now. I can see bits of it through the trees from my office window as I type. I’ll be collecting stories there that you will be able to read elsewhere in these pages. Of course there will be a thousand stories there I won’t be able to write.
The young couple watching their first concert as more than just friends. The young wife and proud husband taking their child to the first fair. The future rancher showing her first calf, after putting more work into it that she ever put into anything else in her life. The crochet artist who finally takes home the purple grand champion ribbon after years of blues, reds and whites.
I won’t be writing these stories, but they will become part of the fabric of Mercer County none the less. Some will be memorable enough that they will be repeated at every family gathering until this generation passes the torch to the next. Other stories will only be memories that straighten your spine, make you grin, or maybe just put a twinkle in your eye. These are the stories that define a community.
I sincerely hope you all wrote some wonderful stories this year and will write many more in the years to come at your fair – and now my fair – the Mercer County Fair.

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