Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Fair and the Olympics

This year the Olympics and the Hamilton County Fair coincide, just as they did in 1984. That was the year of the Los Angeles Olympics. It was also a big fair for me. I won two Best of Show rosettes (one for crewel, one for huck towel embroidery) after not having won any since 1973. I felt like a champion myself. I'd also won a number of other ribbons for various things. I was quite pleased with myself.

Me, a lot younger and a lot thinner, but deliriously happy with my prizes.

Also, Mom won the pie contest for the second straight year. That silver bowl sits on a shelf in the kitchen every year during fair season, along with the brass tray she got for her first win and a second silver bowl she won for the fruit pie division a few years later. (In 1985, the fair expanded the pie contest to three categories.) Mom also won a slew of ribbons in 1984 in canning and baking, including Best of Show in preserves.

The promotional photo the fair sent out the following year of Mom and her prize-winning pie.

However, I do have a lingering regret from that fair: I was at the fairgrounds the Friday evening Mary Lou Retton got the women's all-around gold medal in gymnastics.

Two good friends and I had a tradition at the time of attending the fair on Friday night so they could see my entries as well as the rest of the attractions. Our visit included a thorough tour of the livestock barns, and I have a distinct memory of seeing portable televisions set up in the "housing" areas along several animal pens, each one tuned to the Olympic games and Mary Lou Retton. I saw her accepting applause for one of her feats, but I'm not sure which one. I don't remember if I knew at that point that she was winning the gold medal.

I wouldn't have traded that night at the fair for anything, especially considering the changes in the fair and the fact that my friends and I stopped attending together almost two decades ago. It always nagged at me, though, that I missed such a historical night at our home Olympics. Whenever the gymnastics are broadcast, I think of that August evening in the dusty livestock barns and of a small TV sitting on a hay bale with a grainy, possibly black-and-white image of Mary Lou Retton.

 What I missed the evening of August 3, 1984.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

An Opening Day Unlike Any Other

Grandma at the 1959 Carthage Fair
Opening day of the Hamilton County Fair became extremely important once I started competing in 1969 and increased as other members of my family participated, especially my mother. It was important to get over to the fairgrounds and see how our entries had done. Over the years, it became a tradition, a ritual, kind of like Christmas Eve. Sometimes those opening days were celebratory, with prizes to relish, sometimes dour because of disappointments and frustrations. Even when we all had stopped competing at the fair, we still went on opening day if possible. It was tradition.

The opening day of 1991 was unlike any other. That day, July 31, my maternal grandmother, Grandma Martha, passed away of complications of breast cancer.

It wasn't sudden. In fact, Mom and I had thought Grandma was in her last hours the previous Sunday evening--so much so that we stayed overnight, keeping company with the hospice nurse. Come morning, though, Grandma was still hanging on. By Tuesday evening, Grandma was in the hospice center of the local hospital. Mom and I went to see her. She'd been unable to talk all weekend. She stared into the distance, trance-like, occasionally reaching her hands toward someone or something. The hospice literature had said to expect such behavior.

That Tuesday evening, though, she wasn't moving at all. Before we left, I spent a few seconds alone with her. I told her this had to stop, it was time for her to move on. I was going to kiss her good-bye just as I had always kissed her good-bye, I would think of her every day for the rest of my life, and I would take good care of Mom. I kissed her, and departed.

Next morning Mom phoned me early. Grandma had passed within the previous hour. I felt almost relieved. Mom said she'd been talking, a kind of praying, to family members who had passed before: "Come and get her." My aunt had taken over funeral preparations, so there wasn't anything for us to do except deal with our grief. I went on to work.

I don't know if we even discussed still going to the fair, but I was going. If ever I needed a tradition rooted in family, it was then. The truth was, Grandma hadn't been fond of the fair, but she had accompanied us often in the early years of my childhood, and later when my sister was a baby. All those memories were tumbled together, and I had to dip into them. Later Mom must have phoned me at work and said she still wanted to meet at the fairgrounds.

Yes, it was excruciating. For not having any fondness for the fair, Grandma was everywhere, as was Grandpa, of course. We went in the little barn full of baby animals, and I remembered my sister looking around at Grandma, thinking she was making those animal sounds just as she did when she read their storybook. I thought of Grandma's pride in the exhibition hall when I'd won my first ribbon. I remembered her down in Grandpa's barn, laughing when my brother and cousin arrived, my brother with a big stuffed snake around his neck that our cousin had won for him. I was in a daze of pain, but hurting was a miniscule price for such treasured memories.

I've never thought my final words to Grandma did the trick. I think she was waiting until she could be truly alone to die on her own terms, with no deathbed scenes. She was private that way about certain things. She tolerated extreme emotion out of me, but much less out of others. During the previous month, she ordered my mother, "Don't you dare cry."

I've always wondered, though, if Grandma--if such things are possible--had held on to die the morning of the fair so we'd always associate her with that shining day in our personal calendar. Surely she knew she'd never be forgotten, but dying on opening day of the fair was one way to guarantee it. It's worked. Although I think of her on July 31, I relate her death more to that first (now usually only) visit to the Hamilton County Fair, even though opening day is now a couple of weeks later.

In those last weeks when Grandma was dying, I kept trying to remember a song from a decade earlier. I didn't know who'd sung it, and the only words I remembered was something about "old Mrs. [someone] died today" and "I'm remembering." I knew it was about a grandmother dying, and it haunted me when it was popular on country radio. I listened to the country station again in July 1991, hoping somehow they'd play it as an oldie. They never did; but thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I tracked down the song just a couple of years ago. This one's for you, Grandma:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

It's Fair Time Again

"Fair time" differs from state to state and from region to region--and even within a state, depending on whether you're focused on a single county fair, the state fair, or a whole series of fairs in your area.

I consider "fair time" just after the 4th of July. That's when I start checking the various calendars to see when our local fairs begin, which run from mid-July to mid-August. As much as I love fairs, I don't get to as many as I used to. My mother and I have this commitment to go to the Hamilton County Fair simply because neither of us has ever missed one (my mother turns 80 in September). In my first post on this blog, "Why a Blog About a Forgotten Fair?", I explain some of my history with that fair and my feelings about its struggles over the last decade.

We usually make it to at least one other fair in the area. Usually it's the Warren County Fair in Lebanon, Ohio. However, thanks to two stormy days in the middle of a drought, we may not make it after all. (It's already sodden outside, and they're predicting severe weather this evening.) However, if it's not unbearably warm next week, we may try to make it to the Butler County Fair in Hamilton, Ohio, another great, active fair.

I personally like Clermont County Fair as well, but it runs at the same time as the Butler County Fair and there's not quite as much to see, although I enjoyed entering needlework a few times a decade ago when I lived in the northern Clermont County section of Loveland. During my most fanatical period of attending fairs, I usually made it to all four local Ohio fairs, plus the Ohio State Fair, the Indiana State Fair, and the Montgomery County Fair in Dayton. As circumstances changed, and as my mother found it all more and more challenging to her stamina, we scaled back.

I guess there will come a day when I won't head out to at least one fair during the summer; but as long as I'm able to get around on my own (hopefully for decades yet), I'll attend a fair, even when I have to go alone. (I used to go to fairs alone a lot in the '80s). I'll gaze at the entries with their ribbons, smell the straw and dust and manure in the barns, pet all the goats and sheep, and probably sit somewhere and think about the fairs of my past, my mother's and my triumphs in competition, and my grandfather in his silver-and-blue jacket driving trotters and pacers around so many county fair racetracks that have all but disappeared in this area.

Memories like those, though, are comforting. And they remind me what a happy life I've had.

Note: The photo above is of a mini quilt hanging my mother made combining ribbons from the Montgomery County Fair and one of her own drawings painted onto fabric. You can read more about it at her blog, Lillian's Cupboard.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Images -- Carthage Fair Over the Years

This isn't one of The Enquirer's gallery images;
it's a photo of my grandfather, Johnny Applegate,
on the old Carthage track. has a glorious photo gallery of images from past Carthage Fairs. Some images are as recent as the 1980s, while others appear to go back to the '30s or '40s, with everything in between. Not only do these images show what the old fair used to look like physically, including the grounds before they were diminished by Cross-County (now Ronald Reagan) Highway construction; they show how popular the fair was, and the kind of enthusiasm shared by crowds in the multitudes. There are several good shots of the old grandstand as well as vintage midway rides and attractions.

At the same time, The Enquirer posts "As County Fair Opens, Some Ask: Time to Move?"  Read it and weigh in.

A Horse With My Name

Back in the 1980s, I had all of my mother's 8mm home movies converted to video cassettes as a birthday gift. The old films, dating back to the late '50s, frequently broke when we tried to watch them. Later my sister transferred the videos to DVDs, so what I'm posting here is a couple generations beyond the original film. I couldn't figure out how to extract the film images from the DVD, so I captured the movie playing on my computer screen and worked with that. Obviously, it's pretty rough.

These scene of Carthage Fairgrounds are the first film my mother ever shot with her new movie camera. The little girl in the hat and coat is me; I've put the year as 1958 on the title, but Mom may wind up correcting me on that. If that's the year, I was four and my brother was two. Grandpa's in the movie, doing all the hard work with the horse, and my dad appears briefly helping lead the horse onto the track (he's the skinny one in the blue shirt and cap).

The horse, oddly enough, is named Nancy Breen. I came first, but the story goes that when Grandpa heard his first grandchild's name, he said, "That would be a good name for a horse." When my parents became part owners of the horse in this movie, the poor animal got my name.

Nancy Breen didn't do well as a racehorse. Years later we visited her in a corral somewhere in Clermont County. I believe she was sold to the Amish eventually, although I'd have to confirm that.

Besides the family history, what I treasure about this snippet of film is the view it offers of Carthage Fairgrounds back in the day. Seeing the grounds today, it's hard to imagine what a lush place it was, full of trees and whitewashed fences and barns. It was beginning to show its age, as you can tell if you look at the barns, especially the roofs. Last time I was at the fairgrounds, just one of these old barns was still standing. The cars visible through the trees behind the barns are driving on Vine Street. Cars going to the right are headed toward Galbraith Road in Hartwell; cars going to the left are headed toward Paddock Road and I-75.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Carthage Fair 1969, Part III -- No Ribbons, But a Trophy

Grandpa's trophy tray
from one of the last harness races
ever held at Carthage Fair.

That first morning at the 1969 Carthage Fair, I waited in a fever of anticipation for the exhibit buildings to open at 10 o'clock. Deep down I knew my entries hadn't won anything, but I was enough of a resolute optimist about such things to believe I might have won. The premium list had said the judging would take place that morning, and I believed it. I thought I might actually be able to stand on the sidelines and see the judges look over the entries and award ribbons, like a scene from "State Fair."

What I didn't know was, despite the claim in the premium list, judging had taken place the day before. Ribbons were already tied to the winning entries when at last I entered the arts and crafts building. Of course, there were no ribbons tied to my wall hanging or the rug. My first reaction was intense disappointment, and I gazed awash in resentment, picking holes in the merits of the winners. ("Well, of course, THAT picture won, it has a frame. That rug won just because it's bigger.")

I probably called Mom from the fairgrounds to give her the results. I remember sympathy and a lack of "I told you so." That day and throughout the fair, I drifted back to the needlework and crafts to stare at my entries; I also began to study the other competitors' work. It was my first exercise in reviewing the competition in a contest and making mental notes of what was better about the winning work compared to mine.

I also drifted around the fairgrounds watching other competitions. I enjoyed seeing the 4-H judgings of horseback riding and cattle showing. I gazed at the awarding of ribbons--big rosettes even for fourth and fifth place--with mixed longing and vicarious pleasure.

At lunch that first day, Grandpa waved off my failure. "Nahhh, you can't win at that fair," Grandpa declared in his cigarette-scoured voice. "Those same old women enter every year. The judges always give them the ribbons." One of Grandpa's younger cronies joined us for lunch the next day, and he agreed that nobody but "those same old women" won ribbons for things like needlework. I had wished I could be comforted by their rationalizations, but it was disconcerting to hear that fate determined county fair winners before a single sampler or afghan had been entered. Also, I didn't believe for a minute it was true.

When other members of the family attended the fair later that week, they tramped up to the arts and crafts building to ooh and ahh over my entries, even though they'd watched me work on them for weeks. They also loyally sniped at the ribbon-winners. I appreciated their support, but I'd already turned inward to examine my defeat and plan my attempt for next year's fair. My disappointment and my ribbon envy had turned pragmatic. I wasn't about to throw in the towel after one fair.

On Saturday morning, Grandma brought me, my brothers, and my two cousins back to the fair. It was a rainy, gloomy day. When, again, we entered the arts and crafts building to look at my entries, now for the last time, I saw that a corner of my embroidered hanging had come loose. It had fallen across the front of the embroidery so you couldn't see the picture. (Since I hadn't provided any means for actually displaying the hanging, the resourceful workers had simply fastened it to a wall with folded masking tape.) It was the final losing image to carry with me throughout the ensuing year.

At the barn, though, when we stopped by to visit Grandpa, he said he had something for me. He brought out the trophy tray he'd won earlier that week, handed it to me, and said it was mine.

"Now, that's going to cause hard feelings with the other grandchildren," Grandma sniffed, but Grandpa said I was the one who had helped him all week. I deserved the tray. Grandma had told me that I was "sweetheart of the week" as far as Grandpa was concerned because of my interest in and participation with the horses every day.

August 9, 1969
The grand climax of this fair has been getting that silver tray. It means more to me than any piece of ribbon. Having Grandpa saying he's giving it to me because I helped with the horse, and knowing I helped almost makes it like I kind of really won it for Huckleberry Boy (Hound Dog). It's now my most prized possession. I've made a vow to myself that if there were ever a depression or something of the sort ever happened that we'd sell everything but our necessities, I'd gladly sell everything in my room, but one thing I'd cling onto is that tray. It's not that it's silver, and a trophy, but it'd represent Grandpa, Carthage Fair, anything I loved, and better times. I love it and every time I see it I'll remember this week.

I knew full well Grandpa didn't value the tray personally. He'd said he'd rather have a blanket. But he hadn't just tossed the tray over to me the day he won it; he'd obviously thought about it. He meant it as a reward. What I didn't know at the time (perhaps Grandpa did) was that we'd seen the final harness racing at Carthage Fair, forever. I'd never have another chance to experience the fair with Grandpa in that way again.

I still have the tray. I used to display it on the overhang in my apartment kitchen, along with some other county and state fair memorabilia. When I moved in with Mom, she added the tray to her fair collection and displays it with a museum's worth of items, including her own trophy bowls and tray for pie baking at the fair.

And always, whenever I see that tray, I think of that week in August of 1969.

I lied to myself in my journal, though. Not about the tray being my most prized possession, or how much Grandpa or the fair or anything else mattered to me. The lie was I did not feel as if I'd personally won that tray. It wasn't my prize. I hadn't won a thing. I absolutely had to win a ribbon of my own. And I had to wait an entire year before I could try again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Carthage Fair 1969, Part II -- The Fair, Grandpa, and Me

Image from a vintage souvenir pennant
from Carthage Fair.


From my journal that summer:

August 5, 1969 
I still can't believe tomorrow is the big day. I'd better go to sleep, because I have to get up at five-thirty.

Somehow I wound up going to the fairgrounds with Grandpa first thing in the morning all three weekdays of the fair. I don't remember exactly how this came about. Possibly I'd been working myself into a frenzy about wanting to get over to the fair as early as possible to check on my entries. Mom, who was in the early weeks of her pregnancy with my sister, probably wanted to wait until afternoon or evening to attend the fair. I don't know if I asked Grandpa about going along, or if Grandma asked him, or if Grandpa came up with the plan himself. Maybe I was supposed to go along on the first day only; and when Grandpa saw my enthusiasm and cooperation, he invited me along all week.

August 6, 1969 
There's positiviely nothing like Carthage Fair early in the morning.

It feels so nice and cool now you can't believe it's going to be hot this afternoon. Maybe it won't be. There's a cool breeze blowing.

It was just getting light when Grandpa drove us into the fairgrounds in his powder-blue pick-up truck. He had tasks to attend to immediately, especially feeding the horses. He also put food out for the crowd of cats that lived in and around the barn.

I had almost no experience with horses of any kind. Sometimes Grandpa had allowed me or my eldest younger brother to sweep, help carry buckets of water or wheel loads of manure to the manure pile when he was mucking out the stalls. I probably did these chores as well at some point that week. What I remember very well was rolling bandages on a contraption Grandpa had made out of an old manual can opener attached to the wall. You simply inserted the end of the bandage under a clip and turned the handle. The bandage rolled up in no time, then you slipped the roll off the spindle.

August 7, 1969
I enjoy walking that horse. You sort of get hypnotized because you look at the ground as you circle, and it looks weird.

What I enjoyed most, and what gave me the most thrilling sense of actually doing something, was walking the horses all by myself. Grandpa showed me how to hold the lead, how fast to walk, and when to stop and water the horse. He was fussy about his horses, and he could be short-tempered around the barn. However, he was very patient with me that week, and he trusted me enough to go off and let me handle the walking chore alone. 

As the morning went on and Grandpa ran out of things for me to do, I was free to wander the fair. At lunchtime, Grandpa and I climbed into the truck and went to either the nearby Country Kitchen or a small old-fashioned restaurant on the main street in Carthage. I think I had liver and onions for the first time at the restaurant. 

I don't think I stayed around the barn while Grandpa was preparing immediately before a race. It was always tense, and I knew I'd probably be in the way. I know I saw the races that week, but they kind of blend together when I look back. For at least one day's races, I watched with other members of my family. My grandmother may have brought my brothers and cousins, and Dad brought Mom.

I don't remember how many horses Grandpa raced that year or how he finished in all of them, but he did win at least one race. Each race took two heats to determine the winner. I was awestruck when Grandpa was presented with a big silver tray down on the track. Back at the barn, though, Grandpa wasn't that thrilled with his trophy. He said he preferred receiving blankets, huge, scratchy thick coverlets lettered with the name of the sponsor of the trophy for that race. Many times I'd watched him drive a horse back to the barns at various fairs, a new trophy blanket fluttering around the horse's legs.

On one or two days that year at Carthage, Grandpa's brother, my Uncle Frank Applegate, visited at the barn during the races. I recall him gazing at the silver tray, etched with the fair name, date, and the race. "That's really nice," he said with approval. No one seemed quite as impressed by the tray as I was, though.

August 8, 1969 
When the Western horses come, they take over everything. Traffic, horse barns, racetrack, etc.

I'll take a harness horse over any other kind of horse any day.

If I can't get by on six dollars today I'm not doing so well. I have four from yesterday and Grandpa just gave me two for walking Huckleberry Boy yesterday.

I wonder why there was a cop in the back of the Country Kitchen?

I made a new friend in the past couple of days in the form of Ole Yeller the cat.

Late Friday afternoon, long after the races were finished and everything was in order around the barn, Grandpa took a walk up on the midway with me. He treated me to something new that year that we had both developed a taste for: the lemonade shake-up, a large cup of cut lemons, sugar, water, and ice shaken together like a cocktail. We sat at the base of one of the tall old trees on the hilltop. Grandpa didn't talk much, and I was comfortable with silence. Nearby the merry-go-round played--on a real mechanical organ, not recorded music--a tune I'd heard often that week. It sounded familiar, but I couldn't identify it. Later, in the fall, I heard the song on the radio. It was "The Old Lamplighter." The original recorded version sounded nothing like the calliope rendition, with its tinkling rhythm, heart-thumping drum and tinny cymbal, yet when I heard it, I got a lump in my throat. Forty-two years later, I can still hear the merry-go-round's playful echoes. I can taste the clear, tart lemonade and smell the smoke from Grandpa's cigarette.