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The American County Fair Tradition

Updated on March 25, 2018
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

Getting things ready before the crowds arrive.
Getting things ready before the crowds arrive. | Source

The Same as Always (and That's a Good Thing)

County fairs spring up across the USA usually in late summer or early Fall.

In small rural areas of California like Mariposa County, the fair is eagerly anticipated. The fair theme for in 2009 was "A Fair to Remember" and what made it so memorable was that it was pretty much the same as all small county fairs have been for generations across the USA. This annual event in Mariposa County is more than 80 years old and things are pretty much the same as they have always been. American county fairs seem to be built of similar basic elements.

Due to state budget cutbacks, California no longer contributes funds to county fairs. Small fairs like this one are scrambling to find ways to fund the events. Though community fundraisers and popular support have kept the tradition alive, there may be changes in the future. But for now the fair seems safe, with only a few changes.

Non-scary dragon ride similar to the Tilt-a-Hurl.
Non-scary dragon ride similar to the Tilt-a-Hurl. | Source


County fairs across the US began with groups of rural people coming together to celebrate the harvest, to compete in friendly contests and to socialize with their country neighbors. Local farmers brought their prize animals and best produce to earn bragging rights. Local merchants, crafters and home cooks brought their products to sell.

All of these aspects and more, still bring the crowds to the fairgrounds.

Life is Good!

What's not to like?
What's not to like? | Source

What is it About?

It's About the Food

There's cotton candy, corn-dogs, cinnamon rolls, and a hot dog stand that is run by the high school football team boosters. It's almost considered to be considered unpatriotic to pass up the fair food.

You can buy a giant pretzel or a grilled corn-on-the cob for eight times the the price you could make it at home, but somehow it seems worth every penny when you are munching your snack and wandering among the exhibits.

It's About the Fun

There are games of skill and a quite a bit of luck. There are watermelon seed-spitting contests. There are square dancing demonstrations, knitting contests, trike races for the tykes and, of course, the dachshund races running on all fours and in all directions.

It's About the Entertainment

There are wandering clowns, jugglers, face painters and balloon artists.

Freshly grown

Winning vegetables.
Winning vegetables. | Source

And There's More

It's About the Produce

There are exhibits of prize pumpkins, produce, flower arrangements, bonsai trees, canned vegetables, and baked goods.

It's About the Arts and Crafts

There are photo exhibits, paintings, drawings, woodcarvings, quilts, clothing and collections all created or assembled by the hands of county residents.

Prize ribbons seem to be scattered across the displays by a generous hand.

The pumpkin contest.
The pumpkin contest. | Source

It's about the Promotions

In front of photo displays swagged with crepe paper streamers, are booths with tables full of literature .

Sitting behind the tables are earnest and smiling people giving out candy and pens and totebags.

They are promoting recycling, volunteerism, community projects, tourism, solar energy, Boy Scouts, Republicans, Democrats, or Jesus.

Ponies off to the riding area.
Ponies off to the riding area. | Source

We Still Have Cowboys

Cowboys come in all sizes.
Cowboys come in all sizes. | Source

It's About the Special Events

There are cowboys and horses doing rodeo stuff, and good old boys (and girls) crashing good old cars into each other in the demolition derby.

People pay extra to watch the cars crash into each other while inhaling potent exhaust fumes as the drivers do their impressions of crash dummies.

It's About the Rides

The kids wait all year for the carnival rides. There are no rides taller than the Eiffel Tower with names like "Unspeakable Plunge of Terrible Horror "or "Tempting Triple Death" at this fair.

I think the liability insurance on such things have made the fair people tame down some of the rides over the past few years.

Most of the rides just twirl around real fast and make you hurl if you are over eighteen. They are safe for kids.

Cattle barns have a distinct aura

Mama cow looks after her newborn in a cool corner of the barn.
Mama cow looks after her newborn in a cool corner of the barn. | Source
A summer buzz for a lamb.
A summer buzz for a lamb. | Source

It's about the Animals

Of course there are animals.

In many minds animals are the most important reason to have a county fair.

There are curious goats, trimmed up sheep, smiling hogs and beefy cattle as well as spiffy poultry and brushed-up bunnies .

The kids show off the animals they have cared for all year, hoping to get a good price at the auction. They are all hard-working winners.

It Doesn't Have Everything

As I said, it is a small fair.

There are no internationally known has-been bands playing, only several local semi-amateur groups which sound pretty good if you like country-rock and genuine enthusiasm.

There are no huge pavilions filled with butter sculptures.

There is not enough butter in the county to supply that kind of exhibit here, after supplying all of the fast food vendors with several thousand pounds.

Besides, the weather is often quite warm on Labor Day Weekend --butter melting weather.

Friendly goats like a lttle attention.
Friendly goats like a lttle attention.

There no roving gangs or threatening characters at our small county fair.

It's small enough that residents will recognize lots of neighbors.

There are characters, but they aren't particularly scary.

You will see cowboys with numbered signs on their backs, old ladies wearing balloon hats and cliques of teens with strange clothing and unique hairstyles.

OK, the ladies in balloon hats are a little scary.

Rodeo Cowboys Appreciate the Poultry Exhibits, Too


There are Sheriff's deputies, Highway Patrol officers, Firefighters and other officials and emergency personnel on hand-- but the fair goers are quite well-behaved.

Mostly the officers are handing out pencils, CD holders, badge pins and an assortment of kid attractive items.

There are rarely any disrupting or disturbing incidents at the fairgrounds there is zero tolerance for any behavior that is anti-fun.

The beer garden sponsored by a local service club, does a good business, and the wine stand operated by another service group takes in profits for their special community projects.

Lookit That!


It's About the People

The best part is, you talk to a lot of people you haven't seen for awhile.

You see some of them admiring pigeons.

You see some of them eating deep fried artichoke hearts.

The local, surprisingly good symphony orchestra plays classical pop music before the fireworks signal the end of the three and a half day annual event.

Everyone is smiling. We will remember it again next year.

It will be the same . . . we hope.


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