My State Fair: Heartland Hospitality, Carnival Culture, and Family Fun

November 6, 2011
Rather than Rugrats and Blues Clues, I grew up watching those time old classics like "Oklahoma" and "State Fair". Perhaps this explains why my mother was so involved in our county fair. In retrospect, I’m quite glad she took inspiration from those classic Technicolor tales of canning contests and quilting bees.
My mother’s childhood 4-H background, it seems, drove her to share her experiences with her many children. This being my last year at home before entering college and the “real world,” my mother thought to use my special condition as a bargaining point with my homebody father to attend the Nebraska State Fair. He was, of course, reluctant to leave home, but relented once she mentioned it would be a great way to celebrate her birthday.
Besides, who could turn down the plea of a hardworking, inspirational mother and wife? So, after a whirlwind of activity at our own county fair, which included eight pigs and a pop-up camper, we set off for central Nebraska to attend another, much larger, exhibition of country charm and heartland hospitality.
DAY ONE - Waking up at four o’ clock on a Saturday morning isn’t so bad, but being stared at like you’re a circus act is. Coined the “family-mobile” by my oh-so-funny friends, my family’s 1996 Ford passenger van seems to be quite the spectacle. Add six kids, a friend, two adults and a camper and the stares ARE the spectacle. It builds character, I always tell myself as I try to ignore the bulging eyes and gaping mouths.
Deciding to go to the Fair a weekend early was a good idea. Less crowds, right? Wrong. It seems that when the Fair moved from the eastern, urban state-capitol Lincoln to center-state Grand Island—which is, by they way, appropriately surrounded by cornfields—it brought the metropolis population with it. My ever-resourceful mother, however, bought our tickets online ahead of time. We get to cruise through the admission line faster than the efficient two-kid family, for once!
Our first stop, to appease the kids, is the petting zoo. The exotic animals from Africa and Asia actually call a little town in Kansas home. We later go to the “Hedrick’s Pig Racing” event. The little pigs are cute, and fast, and we get to see them race for an Oreo cookie. Two pig caretakers run the event. They wear overalls and talk like your average hick; I can almost see a piece of straw in their mouths. It’s all just for entertainment, of course, but I sure hope they get payed a lot.
Every fair worth its weight in carnival ticket stubs, cotton candy, cattle manure, and all that other good stuff has vendors. Boy did Nebraska’s state fair have vendors. In the 4-H building, after viewing projects from across the state, visitors could walk through rows of GROW Nebraska business booths. GROW Nebraska focuses on helping small Nebraska businesses develop and thrive. These GROW Nebraska businessmen and women sure had plenty of samples to share and were pleasant to chat with. I even meet one woman who gives me a taste of elderberry tea, a must-try, and whose company also sells a gourmet vinegar manufactured in my tiny hometown.
In addition to the wide array of activities available to visitors, the Fair had various shows going on throughout the day. My family and I were entertained by “Street Beat Parkour Percussion,” which featured several young men banging on trashcans. As fascinating as that might sound, the best part of that show was the break dancing. Then there was “Hollywood Stunt Show,” in which a professional stuntman from Pennsylvania and his crew, which featured a native Nebraskan, performed standard jumps and dives from various heights onto a special pad.
You could also watch brave kids take a chance while riding sheep at McLain’s Mutton Busters, view ambitious men test their muscles at Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show, or observe whole families get lost in the Hay Maze. For the history buffs, a local museum had a living history tent complete with 1890s era games, food and a real blacksmith. The tent housed an antique game that required the player to strategically spin a spool-like instrument through a wooden box to knock down pins for points. Yours truly scored 200 points, the highest mark of the weekend.
DAY TWO - Sunday began as pleasant as any, until it began to rain. My family took advantage of the thinning crowds and hit the carnival. Once again, my mother saved the day by pre-ordering our armbands which let us have unlimited carnival fun from 1 to 5:00 pm.
I’m not a theme-park person, and had been dreading the carnival all weekend. To please my mother, however, I bit my lip and tried not to say anything as we entered the carnival gate. I must admit, however, that after the first two rides, I really appreciated that woman more than usual.
My first venture was a mini-roller coaster with my little brother. I upped the intensity with my next choice, a zero gravity type that made me a little dizzy. Throughout the afternoon, I found my way through a fun house in record time, fell in free-fall for long enough on the “Drop Tower,” and hung in midair on various other adventurous, daring rides. I can still feel the adrenaline rush.
Still, I didn’t appreciate the carnival’s ambience. It rained all afternoon, which workers cannot, of course, control. But, they can control their stereos. The Band Perry’s, “If I Die Young,” isn’t exactly comforting background music as you hang suspended by a rusty, rickety metal machine 20 or more feet above the ground.
Perhaps the most memorable part of a fair is the food. From the exhibition hall to the vendor booths, you’re in for some interesting—and shocking—choices. I really realized that there is no limit to fair food as I came upon a “beef sundae.” I bet you’ve heard of fried ice cream. How about fried Oreos? Friend butter? Oh yum.
In the bee culture section, one could purchase anything-honey. Honey taffy, flavored honey sticks, honey bears, etc. My choice? Honey ice cream, the creamiest most flavorful and heavenly stuff you will eat on this earth.
We walked through the livestock barns to finish our short vacation. Because we visited a week early, the only animals on display were sheep, goats, a few bovines and some horses. In one corner of the swine barn we found “Nebraska’s largest pig.” Let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to tangle tails with that beast.
Could I have asked for a better weekend? Maybe less rain, more comfortable shoes, but not really. Spending it with my family was what made it for me, although the carnival, vendors, and honey ice cream may have helped. Even though I may have never been to another state fair, “Our State Fair is the Best State Fair,” rings true with this Nebraskan.

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