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American Impressions, Chapter 35: Iowa
State Fair

It is dusk at the Iowa State Fair, that lingering dusk of northern states where the air chills faster than the light fades and the prairie breeze gusts just enough to keep the flags atop the grandstand happy. I’m sitting on the rim of a flowerbed in the middle of Grand Avenue, the fairgrounds’ main thoroughfare. It’s like sitting on a rock in the middle of a river flowing as steadily down-river as up with Iowans. They never collide, those heartlanders allegedly more at ease with horizons than crowds. They just eddy out into promontories of beer tents and food stands and the Mighty Bluegrass Shows’ amusement rides. They swirl in sudden congregations and make strategy to live up to the fair’s theme (“Knock Yourself Out”). They beach themselves in pairs on each other’s shoulders, forming oblivious bubbles everyone respects. Bursting them would be a crime.

Primal screams spill from behind the 90-year-old brick walls of the grandstand, where Tim McGraw is singing of the pretty sights of summer nights and, out of sync with his surroundings, how nobody ever said life was gonna be fair. Tonight, it is, extremely so. It is the perfect summer night, connected by sounds and smells and lights to all the perfect summer nights before it. I can see “the flashing into life of new banks of lights, seeming to burn up like some intricate fireworks, filling up the great picture, the gaudy booths, the gemmed buildings,” as Phil Stong described it all in “State Fair,” his 1932 novel set in this very place. “A coronet of light shot around the octagonal edge of the Exhibition Building, and the Fair Grounds had formally entered the evening.” Very little has changed in 67 years. An American fair is every bit a feast of nostalgia, summer’s last blast of familiar fun before harvest and winter’s rapid return.

Aside from a horse show and a dairy goat sale, the day’s—the fair’s—main events are just about over on this 10 th day. Best-of-fair ribbons are fluttering all over the many barns for biggest hog (Rumplestilskin, at 1,097 pounds), most handsome llama (no prize for most arrogant llama pose yet; all the entrants would tie for first), best Loala (brand new miniature cattle breed), biggest bull, as in cattle, although the nation’s leading Republican contenders for the presidency invaded the fair on the first weekend, hoping to collect a few straws for their poll. Their biggest kindness was to leave no trace when they left, letting the fair’s more authentic manure smells reclaim the air.

From where I sit on the flowerbed, the ambient smell of beer is more powerful than that of the half-dozen livestock barns. I’m surprised to realize that I prefer the smell of manure and hay, those inseparable companions. At least I did in the three days that I spent here, Iowa’s fair being one of the oldest and largest agriculture shows in the world. Most states have their fair, and most fairs look alike, even here, with the same traveling shows, the same musical acts, the same heart-stopping food. But don’t let the trappings of familiarity prevent you from discovering what sets Iowa’s fair apart. Its sesquicentennial age and distant contributions to popular culture aside, it is where the nation’s essential commodities are shown off raw by the men and women who raise and grow them. It also is where every outsider’s agricultural illiteracy is shown. Mine was, and I kept going back for more, barn after barn, detouring into whatever interrupted along the way.

I’m kicking myself for missing the husband-calling contest (which reportedly featured the word “butt” more prominently than “honey”), the ladies’ nail-driving contest, the beard-growing contest. A fair is a world, and Iowa’s is a universe. No empty spaces here.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest inventory of a minor odyssey through the fairgrounds as I tried to make the half-mile distance between my gate and the Butter Cow Lady: The first thing I see is the Amana Meteorite, a 74-pound black chunk of outerspace that fell near Dubuque, or rather missed Dubuque, in 1875. We’re invited to touch it through a round hole in its plastic casing. It feels like an immigrant stone from outerspace, Iowa-accented with smoothness. Nearby, a flathead catfish, which we’re not invited to touch, is waddling between other Missouri River captives and trying to bottom-feed on decorative pebbles. A bass with a mouth as big as Chris Matthews of CNBC, is giving the catfish an earful. Outside the building, Jim Campidilli of the West Bend Co. is giving a school of white hair an earful on the Lustre Craft kitchen knives. “This is made in Arkansas,” Campidilli says. “It’s the sharpest thing to come out of Arkansas in a long time. I don’t know what that means.” Neither do his students.

A crowd has gathered on Grand Avenue. People are staring at an old red carriage drawn by eight Clydesdales. Two men in green pants, white shirts and green caps are holding the reins. A Dalmatian sits next to them, constantly snouting an imaginary beach-ball. Nothing happens. The crowd, and an apparent plot, thicken. I get closer. I’ve seen this before. The dull, creepy taste of a television beer commercial foams up in front of us, live. A ‘50s-style jingle breaks the silence, and the poor Clydesdales begin to clip-clop to the rhythm, the green-capped rein-men waving Miss America-style to the applauding crowd. I preferred Campidilli’s bad Clinton jokes, but quickly after the Clydesdales’ passing, a group called Tap Des Moines takes to the pavement and taps to “Bad Boy Bad Boy,” that other old standard, and all is well with the fair’s world again.

And then I see the sign: “Filet mignon. French fries. Salad. Texas toast. $5.75,” not including lemonade priced as if OPEC was a lemon cartel. The place is jammed. As I eat my cutely nicknamed piece of shank, Ray and Diane Langill, who live just over the hill but make the fair their second home every summer, join me and tell me about everything I mustn’t miss, from the Michelangelo of Chainsaws to the Butter Cow Lady’s 2,000-pound Last Supper. They give me a brief tour of the grounds, from their veterans’ perspective, all the way to Brian Ruth’s forest of chainsawed little foxes and deer and eagles, sculpted from old trees felled on the fairgrounds by a recently cataclysmic storm, as storms tend to be in Iowa.

We say goodbye, and I finally make it to the Agriculture Building, where a weed exhibit is frighteningly poetic. Here’s horsenettle, bitter nightshade, hairy galinsoga, redroot pigweed, witchgrass, Virginia creeper, prostrate pigweed, devil’s beggarticks. It all looks curly-green to me, menacing only by name. I learn that the name “dandelion” comes from the French, for “dent de lion” (lion’s tooth), and upstairs, alongside glassed-in beehives, a beekeeper tells me that drones copulating with the queen bee on her once-in-a-lifetime night (or day) on the town explode moments after the deed. The Agriculture Building is all but pastoral. Even Jesus, in his coat of butter, is trying to prepare his 12 disciples for his Passion and death, in the glass window next to the great, fat, yellow Butter Cow.

I retreat in the shade of Norma Duffield Lyon’s quiet voice. She is the Butter Cow Lady. Now 70, she’s been sculpting the 600-pound cow for 40 years, continuing a fair tradition almost as old as the century. It is sponsored by Iowa’s dairy farmers. The Last Supper is her 40 th anniversary commemoration. She’s done Elvis, Garth Brooks and “American Gothic” in the past, and is thinking of doing Harley-Davidson’s newest model in 2003, year of Harley’s centenary.

”It’s pretty much like clay, but you have to be in a cool place so the butter hardens in 20 minutes,” she says between two autographs of a book written last year about her. She learned it all with “a little bit of sculpture training” and a correspondence course, earning enough fame along the way to land on David Letterman’s show in the mid-1980s. She and her husband, Joe, reared nine children and run a 240-cow dairy farm 75 miles northeast of Des Moines. A stroke in May 1997 didn’t keep her from wrapping up rehab and the Butter Cow in time for that year’s fair.

”When I had the stroke, I gave myself four days to make the cow,” she says. “It took about that to make Elvis, maybe a little longer because of the microphone.” And next year’s extra exhibit? “I haven’t decided yet. My husband says I’m only going to make the cow. I told him I was going to make whatever I felt like making.”

In “The Bridges of Madison County,” that phenomenally successful, phenomenally bad novel of 1992 set on an Iowa farm, Francesca Somethingorother volunteers to be abandoned by her husband, Richard, and two children so they can show off their prized steer at the Illinois State Fair. Readers are supposed to feel pity for Francesca and be angry at a husband who would leave his beautiful, Italian-shaped and -accented wife alone on a farmstead, for the sake of a steer. Walking through the livestock barns at the Iowa State Fair, I could understand why a steer—and the jovial community of farmers that sets up house around the barns for 11 days—would be more interesting than mawkish Francesca.

It is a singular world of breeders, ranchers, geneticists, big and small farmers doing what fair-goers have been doing since before the Roman Empire—bringing their commodities to market, showing off, hoping for good sales and maybe a few ribbons along the way, the fair’s equivalent of free advertising. This isn’t about petting furry hogs and cooing to cows named Daisy. It’s about weight, muscle tone, breeding potential. It is about preparing the animals for slaughter and endless suppers for the rest of us illiterates.

In the sheep barn, Kathy Krafka Harkema, the former director of the Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Division, interprets what she calls “a beauty pageant” for me. Families bring their bleating Suffolk sheep in pairs, line them up, leg by leg, a slap here, a bark there, and wait for the judge to decide which are best disciplined, which have the straightest torsos, which are the most “clean-fronted” and stylish. “They’ve been fitted for show,” Harkema says. “It’s no different than a woman going to the beauty parlor. They’ve got their wool perfectly put into place.” But, she adds, “the ultimate for this breed is the carcass,” with the typical female fetching anywhere from $500 to $15,000. “It’s purely subjective, just like people who spend more on cars, on homes. It’s all in what you want to invest.”

I visit Sparky, the next-to-biggest boar, his whole 1,032 pounds sprawled and snoring on the sawdust. A grown man calls out to Sparky’s eminent indifference, “Sparky! Sparky!” A trio of roosters crow three times as I walk by. The Last Supper is not far back. I wonder if I’ve disavowed anyone lately, but draw a blank. In the cattle barn, I chat with Renee and Andy Mai, 19 and 17, respectively, about Buddy, the fair’s biggest bull, a 2,980-pound Charolais, gentle as a lamb (“Semen Available,” a sign says, specially priced during the fair at $10 a straw). Renee and Andy talk of their plans to leave the family’s 600-acre farm, as most young people do. It’s not worth it anymore, they say, and at least one parent—sometimes both—has to have a job off the farm to make ends meet. And 600 acres is considered a small farm anymore in a field where only the big and the corporate survive. Farming in the Midwest’s granary, like dairy farming in Vermont, like fishing in Alaska and New England, is no longer a family value.

The land will always be there, generous and fertile, worked by bigger machines and fewer hands. But it isn’t likely that the fairgrounds’ barns will be as jammed with as much livestock from as many families for too many years in the future. Look no further than Renee and Andy Mai, who already see themselves as spectators instead of participants at future fairs.

Jim Tibbles is 50. He’s been to the fair every year since he was 6, except in 1984, when he was moving. I could see his store of memories: a hangar for 43 years of fairs, a room for everything else. His wife, Ruth, has been to the fair for the 18 years she’s been married. She’s a convert, a fanatic. It’s the Tibbles’ vacation, although they also volunteer their time to fair operations several hours a day. Ruth Tibbles abandons her information booth to her husband and instructs me to follow her “up to the campground”—as requisite an attraction, I’d been told, as the fair’s most important events.

We walk by the usual oil crackles and fumes of the usual courtships of angioplasty at the heart of every fair, resisting. If torpedoes were calories, fairgoers would be damning them with every bite. As we ride the tram up to the campground—a John Deere tractor pulling us wagoneers at 4 miles an hour—Tibbles fills me in on its lore. Once a year, its 160 acres of hilly greens become a city of 3,000 trailers knitted together in grids of white metal spiked with television antennas, satellite dishes, flagpoles, makeshift porch lights lighting up makeshift porches. Grass disappears. Where it isn’t eclipsed by trailers, it is covered up with mats of plastic green. Campers reserve their allotment of a few square feet months in advance, paying $200 for 14 days of hook-ups to electricity and a sewer line, returning to the same claustrophobic spots within whiskers of the same neighbors year after year, decade after decade.

The fair’s carefully organized shanty town, with its own grocery store and police station, its contests for prettiest fake yard and most beautiful lighting, is a luxury. People who live most of the year on the sort of acreage where neighbors are imagined, not seen, crave the days of slumming like a booster fix of crowdedness. It is their annual reunion with the human race. The fair is gravy.

We visit Tibbles’ parents, David and June McIntosh, in their home on wheels, a miniature palace of hardwood floors and “living room” couches that become queen-size beds, not counting a bedroom that reminds me of Elvis’ on the Lisa Marie, the King’s private 707. Born in 1929, the year of the Great Crash, David McIntosh had grown up in deep poverty, dropped out of the eighth grade, worked a lifetime of 12-hour days, six or seven days a week, climbing up ladders at a Safeway ice cream plant his whole career, and amassing enough wealth to raise a family and live in retirement’s comforts, without debts. “I’m very proud of that, OK?” McIntosh says. “It’s quite a country, I think.”

David McIntosh’s story, like Trailer City around it, may have had nothing to do with the fair. I prefer to think that it had everything to do with it, like a web of celebrants gilding the fairgrounds, each with his vital link, his private reasons. McIntosh wasn’t going back home to Council Bluffs with any ribbons. He wanted to be a spectator, a celebrant.

The mood was more than affecting. That is why I found myself on that Grand Avenue flowerbed the evening of the third day, hour after hour, reluctant to leave.


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IOWA IN BRIEF

Total area: 56,276 sq. miles (rank: 26)

Population (1997): 2,852,433 (rank: 30)

State capital: Des Moines

Economy: Agriculture, communications, construction, finance.

Nickname & Motto: Hawkeye State; Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.

Entered union: Dec. 28, 1846 (29 th).

Notable facts: As in the rest of the Midwest, Iowa’s farmers are in crisis, as Vice President Al Gore termed it in mid-August, with prices of corn, soybean, hog and other commodities at their lowest levels since just before the Depression in the 1920s (in adjusted dollars). The market is buried in crops. Farmers are still trying to sell last year’s corn and soybean, at prices well below production costs, with worse to come: Iowa hasn’t been hit by drought. The USDA is forecasting the third-biggest corn crop on record, and a record-breaking soybean harvest, which will further depress prices.

Iowa in quotes: “It was a hell of a fair, was the thought which was drifting around Margy’s mind and which would have shocked and offended her if she had heard it put into words. She had crept off quietly in the afternoon and eaten five cents’ worth of cotton candy. Subsequently she had taken a ride on an utterly uninspiring giant swing. Then, with nothing much to do, she strayed off to the Exhibition Building, where she looked at pies without seeing them and wished that Harry were there so that she could quarrel with him.”—From Phil Stong’s “State Fair” (University of Iowa Press, 1996 reissue).

RESOURCES

Books:

* Phil Stong’s “State Fair,” on which three movies and a somewhat unsuccessful Broadway production were based, has been reissued by the University of Iowa Press for $12.95.

* Norma Duffy Lyon’s story, “The Butter Cow Lady,” by Brenda Mickle, is available in paper ($20) or hardback ($40) by calling 1-800-649-0969.

* “Family Reunion: Essays on Iowa,” edited by Thomas J. Morain, is an eclectic look at contemporary Iowan culture through 16 essays by various authors (Iowa State University Press, $24.95).


Web Sites:

* Iowa State Fair: www.iowastatefair.com

* The Butter Cow Lady site (under construction): www.thebuttercowlady.com

* Fairs Net: www.fairsnet.org

* Iowa tourism: www.state.ia.us/tourism/index.html

 

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