By SCOTT WEISSER
Spending a day at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair is an enviable job. Chatting with people and getting a sense of all there is to do is a plum assignment for a news reporter — if that reporter remembers to wear sunscreen. This one didn’t.
Wednesday was my big day at the fair. Today, I glow crimson like something spawned in an unholy land.
The fair? It’s fun. Check it out. At least put on a hat.
A history lesson
The park was alive with kids, which made sense since Wednesday was Kids Day. Kids ran to and fro. They tested their skills in contests. Curtis Hill III impressively spat a watermelon seed. He has a gift.
It was time to find an air-conditioned space. The fair’s historical room fit the bill.
The room is chock full of memorabilia and press clippings from Elkhart County fairs past. Sample fact: The first meeting of the Saddle Club took place Sept. 25, 1956.
More local history was learned through a call to Fair Board member Marion Troyer.
The first fair was an agricultural exposition held in 1850, he said. Organizers had $44.79 in their treasury when the two-day event began. When it was over, they had $72.
Dennis Baters of Wister, Okla., was in the fair’s Farmstead area hand-crafting brooms. He’s been making brooms for a living for 16 years “but I’ve been playing with it for a long time.”
This marks Baters’ seventh Elkhart County Fair. “It’s a great environment,” he said. “The crowds are some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever seen.”
The locals know it as Food Row. Call it Temptation Row. Or Fat Land.
It’s possible to eat your own body weight at one or several food booths and then — as if by miracle — feel the need to dine again within 30 minutes. The lure of fair food vendors is supernatural.
On a busy day like Wednesday, there’s no finding a place with no line of customers. Think “less of a line.” That sirloin tips place? Good eats, but be prepared to wait at peak time.
Fair-goers have their favorites, and my vice is the Hot Wisconsin Cheese stand. Cheddar nuggets, mozzarella fingers — a delight. I swore off the cheese after multiple buys this week. Rehab scares me.
Sweet victory, bitter defeat
“That was the weirdest shot I’ve ever seen,” said Ty Gard of Muncie, manning the “One In Wins” carnival game.
Weird yet effective.
I don’t know why I thought my life would be more complete with a large, plush stuffed tiger. Call it a whim.
Winning a tiger meant lobbing a basketball through a “One In Wins” hoop. Five dollars bought three tries.
My first two shots were sloppy, amateurish. The third was a high toss that hit a display tiger. Then the ball fell through the hoop, to general disbelief.
The stuffed tiger marked the beginning, high point and end of my carnival winning steak. The ball-toss game was a mockery, my mallet swing that of a drunken lumberjack. No bell chimed.
But I have my tiger.
The real thing
Fun facts about Bengal tigers:
• They’re frightened of umbrellas.
• Their spinal cords are more pliable than ours.
• Tigers in captivity can live into their 20s.
Fair-goers can learn these tidbits and more at the Marcan Tiger Show. Predators by nature, the big cats in the fair show are fairly docile. Cute, really.
The Marcan show features four or five cats. This means that even if the animals develop a taste for human blood and break loose, you only have to outrun four or five other people.
The Bengal tiger population has dropped sharply in the last century. The Marcan Tiger Preserve is located in the Florida panhandle and is dedicated to the animals’ preservation and protection.
The perils of footwear
Emil Broni directs the fairgrounds’ medical clinic near the grandstands. When the medical crew gets called out, it’s usually to deal with fair-goers’ stumbles, falls and minor cuts.
The clinic’s walk-in patients mostly ask for Band-Aids for blisters.
“The major thing they don’t do right is everybody likes these flip-flops,” Broni said. “And those are the ones that tend to cause the blisters. It usually takes two to four bandages every time they come in just to deal with the blisters.”
Broni’s advice? Wear shoes and socks.
“It would be the best thing, for other reasons, too,” he said. “This is not the cleanest environment to walk around in with all the animals and stuff. Cuts and bruises can easily become infected.”
Michael Paul is a seven-year 4-H member. He was taking it easy Wednesday afternoon with friends in the shade of the dairy building.
4-H livestock exhibitors at the fair rest when and where they can.
“We get here at the fair about 5:30 (a.m.) to wash them,” Paul said, his Holstein lounging nearby. “It takes about an hour, hour and a half. Then we give them a couple slabs of hay.” 4-H’ers and their families then stick around to clean up after the animals.
“The night before (the show), we stay out here past midnight to make sure the animals stay as clean as possible,” Paul said.
Don Flager stood by the side of the road, looking west. Stationed at Gate 2, he kept an eye out for incoming traffic.
Gate 2 entry requires a special pass. You either have it or you don’t. Flager’s job involves saying “no.”
“So far, no problems,” said Flager, who’s helped park cars for five years of fairs. “Everyone’s been good today.”
“Overall, people have been really polite today,” parking assistant Tracey Miller said. “Maybe because it’s not so hot. People aren’t so cranky.”
Best snippet of conversation
Two teen-aged boys talking:
Friend 1: “Dude, she’s all the way up here.” (Raising hand to indicate some girl’s great height.) “She is not 12.”
Friend 2: “You’re just short.”
Going to the frogs
Frogs jump when and where they want. Sometimes they can be coaxed, often not.
Such is the spectacle of the frog-jumping contest.
Over the years, human handlers at the fair have stomped, spit, yelled and clapped to get frogs to make winning hops.
“Nothing works all the time,” said Kim Troyer, who’s run the event for nearly seven years. “This morning we figured out that when the frogs saw shadows, that kind of made a few of them jump a little more. We had tried wetting down the pad here thinking that would help, but then we figured out if they start on a drier spot and maybe try to jump to a cooler spot, that sometimes works, too. But we haven’t figured out what the key is to get them jumped no matter what.”
That was the Elkhart County 4-H Fair Wednesday. Correction: That was part of the Elkhart County 4-H Fair Wednesday. It’s a big fair, and a good one.
See for yourself.
By SCOTT WEISSER
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