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Without Fairs, 2020 Just Isn't the Same

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, September 18, 2020

Exchange editor Jerry Goshert has been covering county fairs for the paper for 25 years. In this article, he offers his perspective on the fair season that wasn't. —Matt Yeater, publisher

There are only two seasons in my life: fair season and something called "getting ready for fairs."

I didn't see either one this year, and I feel slightly out of kilter.

A few weeks ago, I went to one of those fair food drive-throughs just to get a taste of something fair-like. I bought a breaded tenderloin sandwich—one of my fair-season favorites—and devoured it in the fairgrounds' parking lot. It was delicious, but it left me wanting more.

Then it dawned on me that what I was looking for, and what I missed out on this year, was an authentic fair experience.

A county fair is like a small-town reunion, where country folks take a break from routines to come to the fairgrounds and watch young people show livestock. But far more than just a venue for farm animals, each county fair is a community event. On auction day, everyone comes to the fair to bid on livestock and, in so doing, support the next generation of agriculture.

When I go to a fair, usually on auction day, I see many familiar faces. My relationship with some families goes back well over 20 years, when the parents were 4-H'ers themselves. Now their children are showing cattle or hogs.

When I was a young reporter, many people came to know me as the "Exchange photographer," but through the years—this is now my 25th with the paper—I hope they have come to know me a little better. I look forward to the smiles and firm handshakes I get from 4-H leaders, parents and even volunteers.

Smiles and handshakes. During the pandemic, those have been replaced by face masks and elbow bumps. I'm probably not the only one who feels this way, but my interaction with people just isn't the same as it was a year ago.

This was the first year that I didn't go to any county fairs during my time here at the Exchange. Normally, I travel to a fair once a week from July through mid-August, and sometimes I cover two in a week. My personal record is three.

At each fair, I take a bevy of photos—all of the livestock champions and a few human-interest shots. At one single event, I record the names of maybe three or four dozen people as I get photo identifications. At some fairs, I am the only photographer covering their event. At other fairs, I have come to know the local photographers by their first names. When the auction is over and I put my camera away, we usually bid farewell and say "See you next year!"

At the Cass County (Mich.) Fair, one of the friendliest people there was the late Jim Guse, a former fair president and 4-H volunteer. He always had a kind word to say about the Exchange, calling it his "bible" because he regarded it as the final word on local livestock prices. He told me he looked forward to reading it every Thursday evening.

I can recall dozens of people, like Jim Guse, who have told me how much they appreciate the Exchange's coverage of their county fair. Many times, our paper is the only one telling the story of a really big event in their lives.

This year, many county fairs hosted show-and-go livestock judging so the 4-H'ers could exhibit their animals in front of a judge. If this wasn't possible, counties offered virtual judging.

Even with the scaled-back format, most 4-H'ers I have talked with are very appreciative of the opportunity to show their animals this year. But in the same breath, all say they would prefer to have the traditional county fair experience.

What does that mean for them? They talk about being at the fairgrounds, spending time with friends and having fun before the start of the school year. It's about human interaction, isn't it? The COVID-19 pandemic prevented 4-H'ers from bonding with each other, through such things as water fights and playing cards.

As a parent, I did go to the Elkhart County 4-H showcase on the day my daughters showed their dairy feeder calves. I brought along my camera to take photos of the champions, but I spent most of the day serving as a coach to my children. I also traveled to the Indiana State Fair on the day of the Supreme Drive. While that was a legitimate fair experience, I wasn't allowed to enter the fairgrounds without first being temperature-checked and only then would they allow me to enter the coliseum with a state fair escort. These were part of the state fair's protocols for limiting attendance and ensuring public safety.

Here in September, I usually mark the time by attending the final three fairs on the schedule: Allegan, St. Joseph (Mich.) and DeKalb. Their auctions are held on a Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in successive weeks. This is the first time I have said this publicly, but I love going to fairs in the fall. The exhibit buildings boast a wide range of colorful garden produce, along with interesting 4-H exhibits. The DeKalb County Free Fall Fair, as it is known, flows onto the city streets with a festival-like atmosphere. People are usually in a good mood.

At the Allegan County Fair, I have experienced chilly autumn weather one year and summer-like temperatures the next. I usually spot several people I know and say hello. If the fair hadn't been cancelled, everyone would be enjoying sunshine and seasonal temperatures this week. But, sadly, there is no fair this year.

Many people have asked me for my thoughts about the pandemic. Some think the precautions we are taking, such as cancelling large public events, are warranted, while others think they are unnecessary. I see both perspectives. Certainly, the pandemic has dealt a terrible financial blow to the fair and festival industry, but, given the risks, I understand why local fair boards postponed their 2020 events to next year.

2020 will go down in history as the year without county fairs. I just hope we can move beyond this uncertainty and return to a normal schedule in 2021.

Right now, the calendar says we should be entering autumn. But after 25 years, I follow a different calendar and have a different rhythm. This week, I should be at the Allegan County Fair and the next two weeks I should be in Centreville covering the St. Joseph County Grange Fair and, finally, the DeKalb County Free Fall Fair in Auburn.

I guess I'll have to get an early start on that "other" season in my life.

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