A few years ago, a good friend who lives in Kansas drove 30 miles to another town to judge the Sorghum Queen contest for the Stevens County Fair. Nineteen 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 — that 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 presided over the fair like the royalty they were.
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:
The original version of this post appeared in July 2016.