The Highland County Fair is about promoting youth and agriculture, but it takes general admission ticket sales to pay the bills, a fair official told me last week.
Over the years I have come to realize that is an accurate statement. But I did not always see it that way.
When I was kid growing up in Hillsboro’s city limits, not affiliated with 4-H and with few friends living on a farm raising livestock, I thought the fair was all about rides, games and hanging out with friends — with the amount of time spent on each of those pursuits fluctuating with age.
Back in those days, kids involved in the fair got the week off from school, while town kids like me were required to attend school like any other week. Somehow, that did not seem fair. But, I was not aware of how much time 4-H kids put into their animals and projects each summer while I was playing ball in the backyard, or how much school work they had to make up after the fair.
On the other hand, while kids with projects at the fair are busy, it’s not an all work and no play type of thing. For instance, I did not realize how much fun kids staying at the fair had running around all hours of the evening and into the night — until I met my wife. She has told me stories (at least the ones she wants me to hear), and you can bet they found plenty of time for fun, mischief and maybe a little romance.
I suppose that in a large way, fair week is a sort of reward for 4-H kids for all the time and energy they have poured into their projects. But I had no clue about all that during more formative years.
It began to come into a focus a bit when I was a senior in high school and took a “foods” class. As part of the class, we were required to do a demonstration at the fair. When the teacher first mentioned the assignment, I thought it sounded like an easy way to get out of class for a while. But when my demonstration partner showed absolutely no interest in preparing for the project, and then I had to carry out the demonstration pretty much on my own in front of other people, I suddenly found myself wishing I was back in class rather than on a stage at the fair.
The picture became much more clear when I was a young reporter covering the fair. I started to see just how much work kids put into their projects, and when I first covered a livestock sale at the fair, I could not believe the piles of money local businesses and individuals shelled out to support the 4-H kids and their projects.
If there was any fuzziness left in the picture whatsoever, it came into perfect focus a few years ago when my wife convinced a grandson we are raising into joining 4-H and taking on rabbits as his project. After my father-in-law made us some nice rabbit cages, and then when three cuddly, little bunny rabbits arrived at our home, it looked like raising rabbits was going to be a piece of cake.
But again, I did not figure things correctly.
What I did not figure on was daily morning and evening — let’s just call them discussions — with the grandson when it was time for him to feed and water the rabbits, and he did not want to. I did not figure on nasty winter days when the grandson was elsewhere and my wife or I (mostly her since I kept reminding her the rabbits were her idea) had to feed the rabbits. I did not figure that a couple years later, when the cages became a bit worn and the grandson did not take care of them like he should, that I would be chasing rabbits all over my yard. That’s not much fun when you’re not as nimble as you once were.
I did not figure on the mess in our garage (otherwise know as my man cave) from rabbit feed, straw and muddy footwear. I did not figure on the many tools and water bottles I’d find in my yard, usually when mowing, that the grandson “forgot” when he was trying to mend cages or feed and water the rabbits.
I did not figure on the many trips to the store for feed or straw, to 4-H meetings, or to the fair a couple times a day to feed and water the rabbits, not to mention loading the rabbits in a small, clean passenger car to transport them to and from the fair.
And we were only raising rabbits. I can only imagine how much work goes into raising a steer, feeder calf, barrow or any of the larger animals.
For some, the fair is still mostly about rides, sweet treats, and socializing. And that is fine. Not everyone is interested in 4-H, and the fair officials are well aware of that.
But if you look past those facades, what the fair is really about is teaching kids the value of hard work and all the other life lessons that come through participation in 4-H. It’s about all the parents who see the value of those lessons, and all the 4-H advisors, OSU Extension educators, auctioneers, FFA advisors and countless others who work tirelessly to make the fair happen. It’s about the businesses and community members who spend their hard-earned dollars to show our children there is a reward if they are willing to work for it.
More than that though, the fair is about a community coming together to support its youth and their future. In a world that too often seems turned upside down, the Highland County Fair tips the scales back in the proper direction.
So, here’s a tip of my hat to each and every one of you that make it possible.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2522.