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All Is Fair

How often have I met non-Kentuckians who say, “Kentucky? That’s sure in the middle of nowhere.”

I beg to differ. Kentucky is in the middle of everywhere.
We have been a crossroads for music, food, art, sports, education, religion, politics, farming, and urban lifestyles. You’ll find proof at the Kentucky State Fair 2002 as the Commonwealth gathers to share a bond August 15-25.

Highlights include a world-class championship horse show, national concert stars, farm machinery inside and fun machinery outside on the Midway and Thrillway. Poultry, Border collies, rabbits, pig races, tropical and native fish, dairy goats, and beef cattle offer excellent sights for children. Culinary arts, 4-H Club and cheerleading, pipe smoking and wine making show: there’s something for everyone.

The Kentucky State Fair is a grand old girl, approaching her centennial in 2004. She debuted in 1902 in the Churchill Downs infield, and a couple of off-years delayed the 100th celebration. That first year got off to a bang, literally, as the promoters staged a locomotive crash for entertainment. Somehow a tractor pull doesn’t seem to top that.

My memories of county and state fairs with my family mostly involve food and motion that produced much drama, and a mess.
We’d go into the barns where I’d stroke the coarse black and white hide and examine the wet, rubbery noses at the bovine stalls.
Then there were the rides–the only REAL reason for a fair. Your parents wouldn’t let you ride around with that teenage boy in his new Mustang but they’d give you money to hand over to a total stranger who sends you hurling about in a metal cage. Go figure. I’d grin and holler ’til the velocity of the ride unlatched my sandals and sucked the coins from my purse. NASA couldn’t have done better at making my summer complete.

The tall soft swirls of pineapple ice cream cones left chilly white rings around our mouths. Dad was the consummate cone man who tried to teach us the subtleties of speed and neatness. We were slightly impressed, but mostly went home with sticky paws and stained shirts.

The worst ride of the fair? The one home in the family Ford.

Last year photographer Jim Battles and I arrived as the gates opened at 7 a.m. The exhibit halls open at 9 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. We were prepared with newsprint guides of the entire fairgrounds and exhibition facility–charts that would’ve served Marco Polo well. Even if we couldn’t figure out the map or schedules, we could take advantage of the many convenient information stands. We get coffee, load film, and head for the East Hall building.

The scary news? There is more than 1 million square feet to cover indoors. The good news is that it’s air-conditioned. Anyone from Kentucky knows this is key in getting folks to stick around and not to each other.

Jim and I come to the livestock exhibit. The sweet smell of hay, sawdust, and manure lingers in the humid August air. The bucolic perfume of summertime at the fair keeps images of interstates, airports, and smog far away. No one could agree more than a young man named Jared whose job is basically a cow barber.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything outside this building,” he says while motioning to the surrounding stalls with his buzzing clipper. “Me and the city just don’t get along.”

“She’s A Lady,” from Sunset View Farms in Auburn, gets a shampoo and blow-dry style, eyes closed in her hour of vanity as Jared fluffs her top locks into a bovine bouffant.

It’s a place where different worlds meet. The Hollywood dressing room effect of moisturizers, brushes, and shampoos fills the stalls. Cowboy tunes wail from radios propped up on the rail fences. The gamut runs from apple-cheeked 4-H Club girls in overalls to older gents in bolo ties with a pouch of Red Man in their sports jackets.

In the sheep section, Max, a 7-month-old Morrit, gets ready for his first show. His pen mates are Maggy, Oreo, and June Bug. We met 16-year-old Jesse Dean of Harrodsburg as he ran a brisk business with his shears. He has a Dorset lamb who is not too happy to be the center of this young groomer’s attention.

“She?s about ready to run,” he says, referring to his squirming customer. “But this is her first fair,” Jesse continues in a steady, soft voice, uncommon in today’s louder teenage circles.

Under another roof oink several ZIP codes of pork royalty. The judges watch the pigs for three key things: hips, bones, and head. One gentleman has just groomed an amazingly large sow. He nudges her along. “Now, get out there and smile!” he encourages.

Taking a break for a barbecue dinner with icy soft drinks and a cone of soft swirl, we get our second wind. And a few pounds. But we know we’ll walk them off before dusk. We’ve got a lot more ground to cover in the West Hall.

Throughout that hall a sea of household gadgets and home improvement displays laps at your footsteps and fingertips. Booths from nearly every county in the Bluegrass State promote information on self-improvement, home improvement, finding yourself, and losing yourself. That last one would be for any of the state parks, always good spots for “getting lost” outside of the rat race. Keep going and you’ll see antiques and new inventions, firearms and flowers, the history of Kentucky and the Kentucky of the future.

All these exist side by side in a building with exhibits so diverse you should get a college degree when you exit–you and about 650,000 of your friends who’ll pass through the fair this year.

The best exhibit for me is the pressure-cooking demo. An efficient woman chopped vegetables and carved meat to drop into the most state-of-the-art pressure cooker. The pssssst and whistle of my mom’s old Presto used to fascinate and scare me. “Don’t touch it, there’s the power of a jet engine under there!” we kids were always told. Tall tales of potatoes embedded in kitchen ceilings, lost eyes, and burned hands revolved around the pressure cooker. But there was no better, more tender roast or half-runner green beans that came out of one on Sunday afternoon. But at today’s demonstration, the woman barks that this cooker “cannot explode.”

No matter our age, we’re all drawn to the bright, colorful Midway. Its electric hum and glow is the neon heart of any fair. This strip hasn’t really changed much over the decades. With men on the moon and e-mail part of our everyday lives, the games, rides, and foods of the Midway somehow still provide an old-fashioned appeal. It’s a timeless din of roller coasters, lemonade, funnel cakes, haunted houses, shoot-and-toss competitions, and always the bellows and chants of the vendors.

Toddlers dip chubby hands into a pool, bobbing with rubber ducks for the prize marked on the bottom. Grandparents stroll in twos, getting a kick out of all the chaos. Food on a stick makes an easy, mobile snack. Buttery corn on the cob, gooey candied apples, or mustard-covered corndogs only require a daring appetite and possibly some Rolaids. But, hey, this is once a year. Don’t forget the Windex-blue cotton candy. And it should only take a few days for your child to get rid of his green snow cone tongue.

The Kentucky State Fair is unique with this particular avenue, with its traditional Midway connected to a nationally recognized amusement park. Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom and Cumberland Valley Shows team up to create something a little different, called the Thrillway. Go to to check out Thrillway ride ticket deals through local Kroger locations, statewide and in southern Indiana.

But on to other parts of the fair.

Touchstone Energy® mascots Buzz and Sparky reel in the customers. While moms and dads scan over information about energy conservation and home comfort, the kids warm up to the very cool characters in cloth. Jim and I chat briefly with our co-op cousins and head to the last adventure of the day, the cheerleading competition.

This contest can only serve to remind anyone over 30 that we are no longer made of rubber. Wow. Cheerleading truly is a sport. Such energy, yelling, whooping, fierce competition, and tears of joy. And those are the mothers.

After polishing off our last chunk of peanut butter fudge, Jim and I feel the effects of a full day. We spy an empty information booth and pull up the folding metal chairs for what seems the best sit-down we’ve ever had. We forgot we were resting beneath a sign that said INFORMATION so we were kindly surprised when so many people, lost or otherwise, came to chat us up.

One story from a policeman was good. An elderly woman came up to him and asked, “Have you seen my husband?” He pushed his cap up and decided to try helping. “Can you describe him?” he asked. “There are thousands of people here today, ma’am.” She went on to paint the picture of her mate: medium height, balding, button-down shirt, and shorts with sandals. Of course she’s describing about a quarter of the fair attendees in one fell swoop. I think they found each other. After all, they did the first time they met.

Fair Centennial
The 100th Kentucky State Fair takes place in 2004. To recognize the event, curator Stephanie Darst is looking for memorabilia that can be loaned or donated for an exhibit that year. She’s collecting photographs, premiums/giveaways, programs/ brochures, advertisements, awards, ribbons, postcards, exhibits, and even memories to help tell the story.

So if you have anything classic, vintage, humorous, or historic, mail it to Stephanie Darst at KY State Fair, P.O. Box 37130, Louisville, KY 40233-7130, e-mail to
, or call Dan Smalldone at (502) 367-5186.

Going to the fair
Fair admission is $7 for adults, $3 for children and senior citizens. Parking is $3. Complete information can be found at the official Web site

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