Truth be told, as a kid, I was a mediocre 4-H’er.
In the Northeast Indiana pocket of Huntington County, the youths who excel in that time-honored league of hands-on learning are celebrated, their photos published in the newspaper, their projects lauded. But while my friends learned to can beets and raise cattle and wire light sockets and build rockets and plant gardens, I played it safe, making chocolate-chip cookies and latch-hook pillows and elastic-waist skirts.
The distinction between them and me was most obvious each year in the livestock barns at the county fair. My childhood friend Wendy was a pro at the toughest competition of them all, the swine showmanship contest, where kids as young as 8 paraded their pigs—rascally, unpredictable pigs!—around the arena to demonstrate how well their swine minded their masters. My friend Karen liked to anthropomorphize her sheep with names like Mark and Steve. Other kids kept things real; my friend Jenny called her pigs Bacon and Pork Chop.
In most categories, the regal purple ribbon for grand champions signified the biggest prize: a trip to the Indiana State Fair. I was a solid blue-ribbon 4-H’er who occasionally dropped into red territory, but the purple ribbon of a grand champion was beyond my aspirations. And yet, in a place where the local walk-up Dairy Queen adds the words “Good Luck 4-H’ers” to its marquee for fair week, even I felt like a celebrity. During the festivities, I would return again and again to the Family Living Building—where the county, to this day, houses its foods, crafts, and clothing projects—to find my baked goods wrapped in plastic and displayed. Seeing my name among hundreds of other 8-to-18-year-olds who had invested time in stretching their skills and exhibiting their best efforts made me feel connected to them, to the county, to the place we called home.
That vision of the Huntington County 4-H Fair isn’t some kind of Rockwellian painting, locked in a time capsule as a portrait of days gone by. It lives on, with the Dairy Herders Improvement Association still selling milkshakes from a concession stand that resembles a little red barn. 4-H itself still thrives, too, not only in rural regions but in metro areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and, yes, Indianapolis, where kids can learn where their food comes from and be exposed to skills they might never have learned—all from knowledgeable mentors happy to share. Today, 1.5 million kids participate in 89,636 4-H clubs nationwide. Another 60 million Americans are alumni.
I blame my lackluster 4-H career on my failure to buy into the idea that sometimes, the journey of an education is better than the prize at the end. My competitiveness, laced with a streak of perfectionism, meant I lasted only five years.
One time, though, my project almost emerged from the confines of the Family Living Building. The judges sampled my chocolate-chip cookies and—after careful review of their texture, flavor, and uniformity—determined they were worth a second bite. The cookies were later dismissed after a subsequent round of judging. But they had made it just far enough that, when I collected my cache of ribbons, I received not only the deep blue of a job well done but also a pale blue ribbon imprinted with gold letters: “State Fair Possible.” Contained in those words was a certain magic, a hint of promise. Once, that ribbon told me, I was almost good enough.
And yet, good enough for what, exactly? Could it be that the journey to the State Fair—the county fairs all over Indiana, where communities pull together and kids are competitors but not necessarily champions—is more important than the destination?
The Indiana State Fair is, of course, sacrosanct, so let me get one thing straight: I love Indiana. No, really, I love Indiana, in an effusive, shameless sort of way—a fervor that might make you think I would relish our State Fair. Most days I wear around my neck a silver charm in the shape of the Hoosier state, a heart cutout in its upper-right corner, where my hometown is and where my devotion started early. My dad was in the business of selling used truck parts and delivering them to new owners, and he and I spent much of my childhood roaming back roads, driving miles out of the way to track down tucked-away historic sites and geological landmarks noted by the Miami. When my fourth-grade teacher distributed our Indiana-history textbooks, I picked up mine with both hands and gave it a little kiss. (No, really. I did.)
My impression of the State Fair, on the other hand, is rooted in an oft-repeated family story from the years before I was born: One of my brothers won the State Fair’s greased-pig contest, a long-defunct event in which children chased a pig rubbed down with baby oil until one of the kids caught up with the wiggly, slippery creature, locked arms around its midsection, and lifted it off its feet. Sure, that sounds like a hoot—but to me, it seemed to be a sloppy attempt at representing farm fun. At the fair I knew, pigs were shined up with oil so kids like Wendy could parade them around and show off how well they and their pigs had gotten to know each other. The State Fair’s greased pig was comical, designed to entertain a crowd. The county’s greased pig was dignified, intended to demonstrate a child’s commitment to a farm animal.
My home-county fair is most notable for what it doesn’t have: no admission fee, no parking charges, no midway. No rides that cause a corndog to revolt against you. No games. No prizes.
Last year, 978,296 people—a number that eclipses the population of Indianapolis—funneled through the State Fair’s gates. Some of them, of course, were just looking for a deep-fried pepperoni stick. But many came for something more: a link to a rural way of life, even if they had never lived it. After all, even those of us more than a generation or two separated from the farm seem to long for a connection to it. Suburbanites raise chickens, city-dwellers grow their own gardens, and farmers markets are universally fashionable. Even goats are experiencing a resurgence in urban popularity.
Today’s State Fair does have the Pioneer Village, where kids can pretend to be farmers and sell their crops at market, and the Indiana Soybean Alliance’s new Glass Barn, meant to educate fairgoers about modern farming techniques. But the Fair also dwells in extremes. Take last year’s most talked-about food draw, the redneck burger—not exactly indigenous, given it debuted at the state fair in Florida—topped with cheese, bacon, fried bologna, baked beans, and potato sticks. At its worst, our State Fair takes country-ish ideas such as watermelon seed–spitting and a three-ton popcorn ball, makes such a show out of them that they become cartoonish, and then presents them—with a wink—as a celebration of rural Indiana.
I suppose those of us who adore the real rural Indiana are supposed to be thankful for the attention and accept it with an aw-shucks attitude, but the public mocking makes me bristle, and I don’t think I’m alone.
“When you go to the county fair, everybody understands the value of a pig or a cow,” says Cindy Klepper, city editor of The Huntington County TAB. Years ago, as an intern, I covered the fair for Cindy, who assured me my stories would be more appreciated by the community than anything else in the paper. “When you get farther away from the farm, people don’t seem to understand it,” she says. “When I go to the State Fair, it’s all about the food and concerts and rides. The animals and the 4-H projects, they seem like an afterthought.”
Our August tradition wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Indiana State Fair predates 4-H, tracing its lineage to 1851, when the Indiana General Assembly created a State Board of Agriculture and gave it the job of founding a fair “to encourage agriculture.” An article published in The Breeder’s Gazette in 1916, the year of Indiana’s centennial, described our Fair like this:
“These celebrations have been carried forward by a people deeply appreciative of the heritage handed down to them by their sturdy pioneer forebears, through dangers and disasters that constitute a bloody page of history, and imbued with an illuminating pride in the richness of the natural resources of the state and the development which has attended their unremitting efforts worthy of the sacrifices of their pioneer ancestors, to reap largely from the fields which they redeemed from the wilderness in the early days.”
Run-on sentences aside, times have changed. In 2012, the year of the last agricultural census, some 25,000 Hoosiers declared farming as their principal occupation—a 30 percent drop since 1987. Meanwhile, the political and cultural divisions between rural and urban Indiana cut deeper and deeper into the Hoosier spirit. The city centers shade blue on election nights; the farm country and little towns color red.
But the predominant hue of the Indiana State Fair is the purple of a champion ribbon. In theory, this urban fairground that was rural when it was built should be a place where city and country, blue and red, can all come together.
That’s a lot to ask from any fair, much less one meant to honor a place that has long had a hard time defining itself—a truth evidenced most directly by the fact scholars can’t agree on an origin for the word “Hoosier” and know only that we are mostly proud to own it. So, given 17 days in August to showcase what makes us “us,” we appear befuddled, as if we don’t know ourselves well at all. We inspect the world’s largest pig and eyeball the cheese-carver from Wisconsin, and nod and think, yes, this must be what Indiana is all about. We satisfy our hankering for times that were simple by splurging on carbohydrates that are complex, hitching rides on carnival contraptions that don’t seem to agree with the fair food, and looking forward to $2 Tuesday, when we can get more, more, more for less.
We leave with our bellies full but our souls—the vessels we were trying to fill up in the first place—empty.
Perhaps we’re looking for sustenance in the wrong place.
A year ago, my husband, two daughters, and I
were living in northeast Florida, in the little city where America began. (“St. Augustine,” local tour guides are fond of saying, “was going through urban renewal by the time Jamestown was founded.”) The city is rich in the history of 16th-century Spanish explorers and 17th-century pirates and privateers. It has centuries of deep and documented history.
How, I wondered, could Indiana compete with all that? How would my children feel yoked to our roots if my work didn’t involve wandering the Hoosier countryside to deliver used truck parts?
My love for Indiana’s agricultural heritage has grown more passionate as it has become more personal. Generations of handing-down and parceling-out have left my brothers and me with a sliver of Howard County farmland that we rent to a farmer who raises field corn and soybeans. Our connection is certain enough to remind us that it is Murphy land, carrying my mother’s maiden name and the legacy of a great-grandfather who homesteaded it. But it is also tenuous enough to suggest we are just a few dozen acres away from forever cutting our ties to the farming life. If my generation doesn’t sell, our children will one day face the same choice.
When that time comes, I at least want them to understand what they would be giving up. And so, last summer, I planned a weeks-long trip to Indiana, timed to coincide with the event that had always made me feel most connected to the place: the Huntington County 4-H Fair.
Each of Indiana’s 92 counties has a county fair, though no county’s is like another’s. Some are rather like the State Fair, writ small, with carnival rides taking center stage and 4-H projects on the sidelines. Some separate the fair from the 4-H, celebrating the two in different weeks. Many have personalities all their own: Bartholomew County, for instance, still hosts a greased-pig contest.
My home-county fair is most notable for what it doesn’t have: no admission fee, no parking charges, no midway. “I love the purity of our fair,” says the Huntington County 4-H Fair Association president, Cory Boxell, who graduated from high school in the class ahead of me. “The consensus countywide is, it’s special, and it’s kind of sacred.”
That’s right, no midway in Huntington County. No rides that cause a corndog to revolt against you (well, no rides at all). No games. No prizes. Even food vendors must either represent a local church or nonprofit or donate a percentage of proceeds to one. And none of the food is more exotic than an elephant ear—unless you count a Suicide, the half Pepsi/half Mountain Dew I ordered as a kid whenever I felt daring.
“Every year, the people who offer the carnival-type things call us and offer,” says Karen Detamore Hinshaw, Huntington County’s extension director. “And every year, we say no.”
Karen and I went to kindergarten together, making each of us a relic from the other’s 4-H days. She’s the same Karen who used to give her castrated sheep names that made them sound like friends.
“Here, they really want the fair to focus on the kids and their successes and the things that they’ve done in 4-H,” Karen says. “We’re lucky enough to have such huge support for 4-H that we don’t have to do the midway to get the crowd. People will come for the projects and the kids and the shows and the food.”
By “shows,” Karen means livestock shows, not Robin Thicke concerts.
My old friend Luke Vickrey, once the tuba player in our middle-school band and our high-school newspaper photographer, is now the County Goat Association president. “I enjoy the fact that it’s always the same,” Luke says. “There are buildings that are gone, and new buildings that have gone up, but the essence of what makes the Huntington County fair what it is doesn’t change. You can always count on milkshakes and pork chops.”
Of course, the continuity isn’t the only charm. One afternoon last summer, standing in the hot July sun outside the FFA building, my family and I gathered around the Kiddie Tractor Pull to watch children climb on pedal tractors and compete to see who could have the longest pull of the weight. Around us were a lot of familiar faces: Gayle, once the president of my old 4-H club, the Banquo Busy Bees; Jane, my best friend from junior high; Mark, the quiet, dark-haired boy who lived down the road from me a quarter-mile—the closest thing I had to a next-door neighbor; and Terry, who used to tease me on the school bus but also let me play with his vast collection of toy tractors.
Their children were competing against mine. In the first heat of the tractor pull, my 7-year-old powered her load with ease and left the track brimming with confidence. In that moment, with the sun shining and my daughter beaming, I thought maybe an annual visit to this community, on the days of the summer when it’s at its best, might be enough to keep my children anchored to their Indiana heritage. But the happy sentiment didn’t last long. She didn’t fare as well in the second heat and stomped off, soured that she couldn’t succeed at a skill she had never heard of until that day.
Terry couldn’t resist. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “You did a lot better than your mom would have done at your age.”
He was right; she does have more natural skill than I ever did. But I saw something familiar in the episode: competitiveness, with that hint of perfectionism. I realized that perhaps what my child needs—what a lot of kids need, I imagine—is to embrace trying, falling short of success, and then trying harder.
Maybe an annual visit to this community, on the days of the summer when it’s at its best, might be enough to keep my children anchored to their Indiana heritage.
This year, at last old enough for 4-H, my 8-year-old will collect, dry, identify, and display a collection of leaves. She will wire a light socket with the help of some 4-H volunteers who are licensed electricians and patient enough to teach children how to solder. She will exhibit an intricate Lego sculpture, bake some cookies, present a speech, and design a scrapbook. She will sew an elastic-waist skirt and then model it at the 4-H Fashion Revue. I talked her out of raising a goat. Maybe next year, I said.
The best news of all: Now that we’ve moved back here, she’ll start her 4-H career in Indiana, a few counties away from where I grew up. Most of the projects were her idea. I only insisted on one: forestry. Her explanation for bowing out was so eloquent that I momentarily considered letting her off the hook.
“Identifying trees,” she said, “is outside my circumference zone.”
“Circumference zone?” I asked. “You mean comfort zone?”
“I live in a circle of things I know how to do,” she went on. “Outside of that is a circle of things I don’t know how to do. And outside of that is a circle of things I don’t want to know how to do, and that’s where identifying trees lives.”
Of course I hope my daughter wins some blue ribbons. But now more than ever, the red ones are important, too. In an era when every child on every team “earns” a trophy, I want her to understand that sometimes, learning new things (even ones outside your “circumference zone”) is hard—but essential to growing up.
The livestock auction takes place on one of the waning days of the Huntington County 4-H Fair. Boxell—the county fair association president—arrives at the Show Arena at 7 a.m. He greets the auctioneers—volunteers, like everyone else who touches this event. He surveys the approximately 850 pigs, cattle, goats, and chickens that will be sold to area businesspeople and residents and then loaded onto trucks and hauled off to meat processors.
“I go in every year thinking, ‘Let’s just hope and pray that people show up and buy these animals,’” he says. “But even through the down times of a few years ago, it always just worked out.”
Generally, about $300,000 exchanges hands that day. The fair board takes no cut; every dime is handed over to the 4-H’ers. The auction represents the finality of the farmer’s side of the farm-to-table cycle. The kids use the money to recoup that year’s investment and reinvest in more livestock for the next fair.
When I was a kid, a rumor resurfaced year after year around the swine barn on auction day. Word was that if you were emotional with your animal in the Show Arena—if you demonstrated how much you had grown to love this hunk of meat, draped your arm around its thick neck, buried your face into its rubbery skin covered in bristly hairs, and maybe even let loose a tear or two—you could tug at the bidders’ hearts, driving up your pig’s price-per-pound.
My friend Karen remembers those rumors, too. But now that her job often involves recording the bids at the auction, she has a front-row view of the goings-on and a good idea of what truly boosts the sales.
Every once in a while, she says, when a kid is standing among the wood shavings that make up the floor of the arena, hanging tight to the harness wrapped around the nose of a dairy cow, something remarkable happens that has nothing to do with the quality of the animal or whether the 4-H’er is sad to see it go. She’ll notice the bidders in the bleachers, leaning toward each other.
“They all get together and say, ‘I can put in this much,’” Karen says, “and the next person says, ‘I can put in this much.’”
Often, she tells me, these moments materialize when the child has been through a difficult time. Maybe the teenaged boy just lost a parent, or the fourth-grade girl has a sick sibling. For those kids, Huntington County bidders put their heads and their wallets together to drive up the price.
“The 4-H’er has no idea. They’re just standing there,” Karen says, “and the bids keep going and going and going.”
Chances are, we may never really define “Hoosier” or know its provenance.
But if we are stuck looking for exemplars, I like to think those are Hoosiers bidding from the bleachers at the Huntington County 4-H Fair this month, coming together as a community just when community is needed most.
This article appeared in the July 2014 issue.