165Recently, a good friend who lives in Kansas drove 30 miles to another town to judge the Sorghum Queen contest for the Stevens County Fair.  This year, 19 young women competed for the honor,  which I assume is thus named because sorghum — a cereal grain used in livestock feed, ethanol and certain human foods — is a big player in the local economy.

Nassali and her fellow judges faced the daunting task of assessing the girls’ attire, poise, overall appearance,  smile, personality (and “punctuality on responsibilities,”  according to the interestingly named Hugoton Hermes newspaper).

They were working a tough crowd. The contest is supported by local businesses — this year including Buffie’s Nails,  Janet’s Bridal & Boutique and Hoskinson Water Well Service — and by highly partisan family and friends.   The judges — intentionally selected from out of town,   Nassali later speculated — were met with cheers from some quarters and hisses from others as various girls advanced or were eliminated,  leaving,  after three memorable hours, only the Sorghum Queen, her two princesses and Miss Congeniality, who are now presiding over the fair like the royalty they are.

My friend’s experience brought to mind my own stint as a county fair judge, though from my current diminished status, you would never guess I once was important enough to preside over the dress-your-goat contest at the El Paso County (Colorado) Fair.  This was a much easier task than Nassali faced, the goats bearing some responsibility for the outcome,  their diminutive handlers decked out in Western finery and the cuteness so profound and pervasive that it seemed as if we all were winners.

According to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, the first American agricultural fair took place in Massachusetts in 1811.  My county’s fair began as a modest gathering in 1905; today, it’s one of more than 3,200 annual fairs in North America.

Now as then, county fairs place agrarian life front and center; many competitors are youngsters who participate in rural youth development programs such as 4-H.  Preparing for and competing in livestock, small animal and craft contests is an old-fashioned opportunity to test their mettle and build their character.

For the rest of us, county fairs are a bow to the past and a rebuke to the future, reminding us that virtual reality still can’t hold a candle to the rich sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the breathing, pulsing world all around us.

For those of you who won’t make it to a fair this year, here’s three minutes of unabashed Americana from the El Paso County Fair:


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  1. slukwago · · Reply

    You did the Sorghum Queen contest justice, Cate! It was surprisingly fun and felt quite high-stakes as we were cheered and hissed at depending on our “judging!” At the end of the night we exited through a back door, jumped in my little Chevy and sped back to our little town! Yet … I, Nassali who is grateful to be among your good friends, would do it again in a few years!


    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story with me, Rafiki; it is both funny and sweet. I am sure you would again answer the call as a judge, even knowing the risk, though you may want to obscure your license plate. 🙂 Very glad to count you among my friends — one of my dearest and most faithful.


  2. We have assiduously avoided the state fair, but love going to these county fairs, wandering through the barns and seeing all the animals – and the kids who are so proud of raising them.


    1. I feel that way about the Colorado State Fair — our county fair holds infinitely more charm for me — but having grown up with the Minnesota State Fair, I must say it also retains a lot of appeal. Especially the butter-carved princesses, all the crap on a stick, the Tom Thumb donuts and the seed art, in which I believe a parrot or some other pet once submitted an entry, causing an, uh, … flap. It’s so big and fun and ridiculous, it feels to me on some level like a good-natured massive in-joke among Minnesotans.


      1. The thought of wading into crowds of people sends our entire family into whining spasms. We’re more quiet-cabin-on-a-lake Minnesotans.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, me, too — I’ll soon be doing just that with my best friend — but I always make an exception for the state fair when I’m lucky enough to be in town. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. What are the criteria for ms or mr congeniality among the goats–not head butting anyone? Sounds fun!


    1. They actually do not compete in that category, as it is usually peer-determined, and all goats consider themselves congenial.

      Liked by 1 person

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