Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fair Farewell

I've been a county fair junkie for as long as I can remember. State fairs too. Ever since I was a little kid I've loved the sounds, the smells, the displays, the food, the animals.... everything. When we moved here thirteen years ago, though, is when my love of fairs turned serious. It didn't get off to an auspicious start, however. The first time I went to the Lassen County Fair my reaction was something along the lines of "Are you fucking kidding me?"

It was a two bit, barely limping along affair that was fresh out of a financial scandal. Nothing much to see. The exhibit halls looked more like a rummage sale than displays. Hardly anyone bothered attending. There was no quality performers. Hardly anything to do. Really pitiful. The situation was so bad that they hired someone from out of the area to be a fair director. Susanville is notorious for it's nepotism and good ol' boy framework, although I didn't know that at the time, so this was a rather drastic step for them to take. It worked though and the next year the fair was starting to come back to life, spiffed up and entertaining. Of course, this annoyed the good ol' boys, who promptly fired the director and sent him packing. Which was really horrible as he'd moved his entire family to our community and settled in. Sigh.

The next decade was a series of different directors and managers, a whole string of people and groups in charge of the various projects and buildings. I got involved first with one group, then another, then another. Through it all, I managed to keep out of the center of the politics, passed up official titles, instead concentrating on working from the outskirts in. I spent the week beforehand setting it up, the week of the fair working it, and through it all entering things in the assorted exhibit buildings. It was a multi-threaded connection, working with the local quilt group to set up the craft building, the fair boosters and garden groups in charge of the ag building, the arts council in charge of the art building, 4-H with the kids, and so on. I turned down paying jobs and relished the freedom to work without the buck stopping anywhere near me.

But then a few years ago the annual and expected ups and downs, the waves of staff turnover, hit an unexpected rhythm and virtually all the people that I knew or who knew me disappeared in one full swoop. As the next year's organizing got under way I went out of my way both as an individual and as a representative of several groups who were active in the fair, to let the new staff know that I/we were still interested in participating. Can't get much better than having happy, experienced, and free volunteers to make the work go quickly and smoothly, right?

Well, you'd think so. But then again, this is a small town and if you aren't familiar with small towns that let me tell you, small town politics is a huge pastime! I won't go into the whole story because it will just make me upset all over again. Too, it made me so mad at the time that I've blocked a lot of it out. The gist of it - repeated phone calls and notes and in person offers of help were ignored. Finally, in the last days before the fair was to open, as a voice for a particular group of volunteers (who, for the last decade had done the great majority of work to put the main exhibit hall together), I went down to the fairgrounds to see what had happened and why we had been so unceremoniously ignored and displaced.

I was met with a ..... well, let's not sugar coat this, shall we. Some BITCH comes up to me yelling and screaming (at me and other people standing around) about how come we hadn't shown up and why weren't we helping and no one knew what was going on and so on. I explained that we had phoned, we had left messages, we had attended meetings and that no one had given us any information. She all but called me a liar. The only thing that stopped me from turning around and walking out right then was the looks of panic and embarrassment on the faces of the rest of the people in the room. I called the other experienced volunteers but everyone else was so offended that they wouldn't come help at the last minute. I did my best to give the harried, browbeaten people that were apparently this woman's flunkies some guidance. I mean, they didn't even know where the supplies were kept or how the display racks were put together or who to ask for a key. I did the best I could, people thanked me profusely (and secretly), and I left.

Just for the record, I'm not trying to say that I was critical to the success of the fair - if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else playing my roles. And there were hundreds of other people working equally hard putting together other parts of the fair that I didn't know the slightest thing about. My expertise was small but it was still valuable. It was the collective love of the fair by everyone, most of us volunteers, that had turned a dying tradition into a popular summer event.

The next year nothing improved and I made the decision to wash my hands of it. Let it go. It helped that the last couple of years we've been traveling or I've missed the entry deadline. Last year I was able to get to one day at the fair and was sad to see that the exhibit halls were back to the way I'd first seen them long ago, poorly displayed and in one case, practically empty. Other groups that had longstanding traditions of being in charge of certain parts of the fair were notably absent.

This year, I thought, maybe I could make a fresh beginning. Let bygones be bygones. Start from scratch. So I went to the fair office and picked up a premium book. It looked encouraging, all glossy paged and thick. I got home and started to browse through it and discovered that all the classes now have fees. Everything - from a rose to a potato to a photo to a quilt - $1 an entry.

Now larger exhibits and contests have always had entry fees and that's fine. There are substantial financial rewards for winning, plus the animals are auctioned off and the kids get money for that. The barns and such have to be maintained. Professional or group entries get free advertising in exchange for their entry fees. But the little folks, they don't get much. Long ago they had 50 cent entry fees but no one was entering anything. So they reduced the premiums paid for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place ribbon winners to $5, $4, and $3 respectively. That worked and more people entered. After a few years they reduced that to $4, $3, and $2 and they reduced children's premiums to $3, $2, and $1. It didn't really matter since it cost nothing to enter.

I realize that the cost of the ribbons and the premium checks have to come from somewhere. I don't know where they came from before, maybe the general county funds, maybe the entrance fees to the fair. Maybe they couldn't afford to keep funding it and needed to come up with the money elsewhere. Fair enough. But $1 an entry? That's insane. Maybe 50 cents an entry. Or maybe a flat fee for entering with a cap of some amount even if you enter more. For example, I might have just ten entries for herbs, another ten for vegetables, a couple dozen in floriculture, fifteen in assorted arts and crafts, three in quilting, six in baked goods. When the kids were participating they'd have at least as many between them as well. So, what's that..... $70 to $140!? I can't afford that on top of fair gate fees and fair food and maybe midway tickets for the kids.

So, a $1 an entry and yet the premiums are still the same low return. I don't actually care about the low premiums. That's not really what entering things in the fair is all about for me. Even in a good year, and I usually had a good year, the premiums I won would barely reimburse me for the expenses involved in entering everything in the fair. And of course it didn't pay for all the time I spent to get ready for the fair or volunteering there. On a great year I might even break even with the costs of GOING to the fair.

No, what bothers me, a lot, is I think it will spell the death knell for participation of any kind in the exhibit halls. I know I won't be participating. It's already a lot of time, planning, effort, and even money to enter things in the fair. Baked goods or agriculture entries means something I grew or made is going to lay about getting stale or moldy. Herbs or flowers I could have enjoyed at home will wilt and be tossed. Photographs have to be blown up and framed, a huge expense. And if that isn't enough, I happen to know that I run the risk of loss. I know all too well that things get lost or stolen, objects get damaged or broken. For all anticipation, I've watched things get misplaced until after the judging is over. Little kids (and even grown ups who should know better) pick things up or grab quilts with sticky fair food fingers. They don't always do a very good job of watching the buildings.

I never participated in the fair because I wanted to win money. I participated in the fair to help fill the shelves and display cases and make the fair successful and fun for everyone and to partake in a little good natured competition with friends and neighbors. I enjoy showing off a brilliant idea for a floral display or the unusual heirloom tomato I grew, or the brilliant colors I selected for that quilt, or the perfect moment I captured in a photograph. I participated with my kids so they could proudly display their popsicle stick frames and poetry and the dragon they made out of vegetables.

William was the last of my family to participate in the fair with me and he finally stopped when he figured out that kids got less premiums than adults did. Not that he was in it for the money either, but it just seemed unfair to him and frankly, it seems unfair to me too. Not that I was terribly annoyed when there were no entry fees, but now the kids pay $1 entry fees the same as the adults, why should their premiums be any less? Do they put less work or effort into their projects? Do we want to give them the message that their efforts are less valuable than ours?

So, if it's going to cost me an exorbitant amount of money on top of everything else I do to participate, it's just not gonna happen for me. And I suspect, particularly this year with the economy being so bad, it's not gonna happen for a lot of other people too. Even in the best years when lots of people were participating, there were maybe a dozen families, including my own, that easily accounted for half the entries in the exhibit halls. I noticed that all of those active families have dropped out over the years and that in itself has reduced the number of items on display. I can only imagine that people with less interest are going to think long and hard before spending money on entry fees to stick a stem of snapdragons in an otherwise empty floral building (no fun to win a blue ribbon when there's no one entered against you), or enter a quilt only to have it folded up and stuck in a basket on the floor where everyone can step on it and no one can enjoy it like they displayed the quilts last year!

Sheesh, I sound bitter, don't I? I guess I still haven't let go of some issues yet. It's sad and hard to watch a tradition that has been such a big part of my life slip away and no longer fit in my life. I'll be going to the fair this year out of morbid curiosity more than anything. Maybe, by making things even more difficult, they're doing me a favor. It makes it easier to let it go.


Blogger Jana said...

I am sad to see an entry fee for the fair this year. I normally enter 4-5 items, so for me it's not too bad. But I see your point when a family enters a large amount. With so few entries as it is, I think the fair is going to lose more entries this year. Last year I didn't enter anything after my items were damaged in 2006.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Jana said...

Thank you for the kind comments about my photos. Rant away, I can relate! Sometimes the going on's in this town make me shake my head in amazement.

I was also sad to see the Tea Room close. My mom used to go there weekly. My daughter and I liked to go too, it was her fun dress up spot!

We probably have bumped into each other here and there. I read that your son plays football at the highschool. He must know my husband, Coach Stanley. Its a small world!!!!

12:11 AM  

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