Preserving Rural Life: The Summer Ritual of the Midwestern County Fair

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s county fair time! Whether in Ohio or California, the celebration of agriculture, farming and rural life — augmented by rock bands and fireworks –are celebrated in the county fair which, from coast to coast, is synonymous with “summer.”

My father Vernon P. Johnson painted a suite of watercolors of the Knox County (Ohio) Fair, a continuing source of memory and nostalgia for us Boomers now living all over the world, and I’ve devoted an entire chapter to that iconic experience, where we dressed up in our finery, paraded our cars and congregated in the Grandstand for the horse races in the annual ritual matching agriculture and entertainment.

Now, living next door to a suburban fairgrounds in the San Francisco area, I watch fireworks for five consecutive nights around July 4 and remember the pigs, corn, fruit pies and harness races of those mid-century summers of my youth.

Today’s displays might include “agricultural science” or “organic farming” and the music ranges from Reggae to Motown to Rock, but wherever we live, we are reconnecting to the land, whether we recognize it or not. On the same landscape where the next-door fair is held each year, the Sunday organic farmers market congregates weekly year-round. When I purchase my olive tapenade and artisan cheeses, I see in my mind’s eye the agricultural purveyors of my youth who brought fresh brown eggs to market and displayed their 4-H projects, homespun crafts and, according to a news clip, “the most and finest exhibits of horses, cattle, mules, ponies, swine, sheep and poultry, in addition to numerous other exhibits.”

After the July 4 fireworks finished and the crowds hit the freeways from the fairgrounds next door this year, I was awakened at 2 am as the workers dismantled the equipment and moved on to the next venue. The noise was annoying but the spectacle disappeared in almost an instant. I already miss the presence of that annual mid-summer ritual.

About The Artist's Eye

Writer, consultant and author of The Artist's Eye: Vernon P. Johnson's Watercolors of 1950s Small Town America
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2 Responses to Preserving Rural Life: The Summer Ritual of the Midwestern County Fair

  1. Helen Henthorn, MVHS Class of '65 says:

    I am so glad you’ve included this section on the Knox County Fair. I currently live in a small California town where the fair is THE annual event. Although it’s similar in many ways to small fairs found everywhere, it has never lived up to the fond memories from my childhood in Mount Vernon. Your father’s painting of the entryway to the fairgrounds is just as I remember it…brings tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for helping make it possible for us to peer into our past!

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