County fair, everyone’ll be there

The first time I went to the Stanislaus County Fair, when I was maybe ten, I was so smitten with the event that afterward I built a cardboard fair, complete with baking competitions and miniature golf course, for my Fisher Price people. I haven’t been to one in twenty years, due to living everywhere but here. So we plumped our sun hats on our heads, bemoaned that we’d forgotten to put on sunscreen, and set out for Turlock on the least blisteringly hot day of the week.

Long shot of county fair midway on a sunny afternoon, with ferris whell and drop tower prominent.
Springsteen even has a song about similar events: County Fair. Title is from the lyrics.

The Stanislaus County Fair is the largest event in a small county, drawing over 200,000 people each year. It originated in 1911 as the Turlock Melon Festival. Melons are no longer dominant here: the leading crop in the county, by far, is almonds, with melons at number ten

The fair got its grounds in 1927: 72 acres of cow barns, concrete buildings, dust, and sycamores. The history of the fair grounds is chequered. It was used to corral Japanese-Americans for shipment to “relocation camps,” to “rehabilitate” unruly soldiers, and to host the first classes of the local state university before the first campus buildings opened. 

Small beige shack with bright blue trim, including iron gates. It looks like a guard hut.
Entrance gate.

These days, the fair is mostly Midway, which isn’t what I visit for. I am here for the domestic arts competitions. But before we get to those, there are cows to admire.

The cow barns are the first thing inside the main gate and, when we arrived, by the far the liveliest exhibit area. It was cow show time! Any cow not on display was likely being groomed to gleaming bovine perfection.

This sloe-eyed charmer was hoofing it back from being shown in the ring.

Meanwhile, goats were vibrating with goat boredom…

Tan and white goat in a stall looks directly at the viewer.
Goats are always ready to accept a pat on the head or eat your phone.

…sheep were chilling in style…

Sheep lying down in a leopard-print onesie.
“A spotted sheep!” we both exclaimed, wrongly but enthusiastically.

… and pigs had given up on the hot day entirely. If any spiders were composing banners to the excellence of these porkers, the arachnids, too, had settled down to nap away the heat of the day.

Pink pig sacked out on a bed of shavings. He looks exhausted.
When the high goes above 100, this pig is all of us.

Dad and I were there primarily to check out the competitive home arts divisions, to scope out whether I want to enter next year. I have baking ribbons from the Arizona State Fair, but Arizona’s a different beast. Stanislaus County’s baking competition has multiple categories for oatmeal cookies, suggesting a Valley obsession that I can’t yet explain. We are not, as a people, Scottish. If our cookie categories were based on dominant ethnicities, they’d be Mexican wedding cookies, graybeh, spritz cookies, agnoletti, biscoitos, and “other.” (I come by my graybeh legitimately, so I could get behind this plan.)

Booth in a gray wall, featuring signs stating that the Knights of Columbus will sell you pie, ice cream, and a linguica sandwich.
Midwesterners have brats; here in the Valley, we have liguica. Among the region’s early settlers were Portuguese dairy farmers. Linguica is spicy and delicious.

So we went looking for the domestic arts buildings. I was expecting that the pandemic would have unleashed a renaissance of home arts. That was a wrong guess: the exhibitions are much smaller than when I was a mid-sized child or even when I briefly lived here 20 years ago. (It’s still neat stuff, I just want more of it.) If you live in a county with a fair and you bake or quilt or whatever, get in there and enter! 

The competition that elicited the most entries was photography. Painting didn’t get quite the same level of widespread passion, but I have to show you my unironic favorite of the painting entries: the Perplexed Leopard.

Framed painting, probably acrylic, of a leopard with a perplexed expression, against what might be a farm field.
Doesn’t that expression grow on you?

The background sure looks like the leopard’s gone wading in the Stanislaus River and emerged in a field out where the farm land starts to roll gently up toward the Sierra foothills. The artist, Doug Kolsters, appears to live in Oakdale, the Cowboy Capital of the World, which is another story for another day.

Adult baking didn’t have oatmeal cookies on display (they stagger the exhibits) but did have quick breads and muffins, both categories that are dominated by two people. In small-town life, you do not try to break the hegemony of a single entrant, unless you enjoy making life-long enemies. So I’m now leery of those categories and thinking of reserving my efforts to achieve a perfect crumb for the state fair. Maybe I’ll enter an oatmeal cookie, since I churn out a lot of those because Dad likes them.

A display of baked quick breads on black gingham shelves, with blue ribbons nearby.
The quick and the bread.

Fair baking is different from any other baking you’ll ever do in your life, as on the most popular judging system, only 30% is taste. The other 70% goes to issues like uniformity of crumb, uniformity of coloration, texture, lightness, and other appearance issues. I’m thus currently engaged in tweaking cookie recipes so that the bottoms don’t brown at all compared to the tops, as a blue ribbon cookie must be of perfectly uniform color throughout.

Of crafting categories, the obvious eye-catcher was this wood-working piece by Robert Laughlin.

Stump carved with screaming man.
Wood spirit wants you to enter craft categories.

The next biggest show of enthusiasm, after livestock and photography, was the 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and shop class exhibits, where each participant submits an identical wooden stool or metal-worked tool or whatever. Surely there’s a local country-western band that needs to write a song in which American-flag cornhole is the central metaphor.

A cornhole board, painted to look like an American flag, except the white stripes are stained wood.
American-flag themed cornhole boards.

At this point, any Midwesterner is asking “but whither seed art? where are the portraits of JFK, MLK Jr., and Elvis done in tiny grains?” Our local seed art never evolved beyond gluing macaroni to construction paper in kindergarten, but we can instead offer Fruit Murals, which display the bounty of the FFA chapter. I think these are great and we need to see similar on more occasions.

A colorful swoop of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, greens, other vegetables, and sunflower heads, arranged on a chalkboard.
Name that vegetable!

The other category I wanted to check out was floral, as Arizona sometimes had a miniatures category that I never got around to entering. There were some minis on display, but I’m still not sure if they had their own category.

An arrangement of pale off-white and green buds in a clay flower pot. In real life, it is 4" high.
Very small, and I don’t think they’re live flowers.

Floral is dominated by prize flowers in bud vases, a challenge I’m not taking on because the yard is very, very thoroughly landscaped and I would be a reckless fool to mess with it. If I want or need to grow tiny flowers for miniature arrangements, I can probably make a case for it in one of the raised beds, but I’m not messing with the entrenched lilies.

A parade of sunflowers and zinnas iin white or clear bud vases. This stretches across tables into the distance.
Per aspera ad aster

My favorite part of floriculture is the room settings, a fair staple that was a huge deal in the 1920s, but not so heavily entered in the 2020s. We’re going to sit on our hands and resist trying this, right? Right?

Fancy rustic table setting, with a painted backdrop of pine trees and a lot of plants.
It’s gorgeous.

We walked around the main drag and the Midway a bit, yielding two of my favorite finds. One is the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District‘s suitcase demonstration of places in your yard that nurture mosquitos. Mosquito abatement is one of the backbones of civilization here: the first statewide enabling act was passed in 1915, following a bad outbreak of malaria a few years before. There is periodically aerial spraying, though not nearly as much as when I was a kid. (The wisdom of the original inhabitants was to move away from wetlands during mosquito season, not so practical with farm fields and stucco tract homes.)

Miniature landscape in a suitcase, featuring a little black and white house, a picket fenced yard, a dog house, a bird bath, a swimming pool, garbage in a can, and a heap of old tires.

My other fave also involved insect pests.

Old West-style building with sign saying "Baby Care Center sponsored by Lice Clinics of America."
Got to admit it’s an apt match.

Neither of us are big on rides, and judging by the line for Midway tickets, we were unique in that. I used to love fair rides, until the year I was 25 and went to the Minnesota State Fair with one of my housemates. We were determined to live the experience to its fullest, so we went on everything. I got thrown around so much that I couldn’t turn my head for three days.

So ultimately we got soft serve and sat at a table where we could watch a cover band to one side and a man in a mirrored suit to the other, as the sun descended over the eucalyptus. In the distance, the ferris wheel rotated and the marketing-minded spiders awakened to hype their bigs. Next year… oatmeal cookies. You all get out there and enter your local fairs: small-town life ain’t gonna rural itself.

Black pamphlet decorated with bubble-shaped photos of various aspects of the fair. Yellow and white lettering declares that this is the schedule and savings book.

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