Saturday, September 03, 2011

Guest Blog: Ray Goes to the Elk County Fair

My old buddy Ray Beimel took a trip to the Elk County Fair and sent this report. Ray is a photographer in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, my home town. Thanks, Ray!

    In the past I have written stories about the Centre County Grange Fair, the Clearfield County Fair, the Tioga County Fair, and the Crawford County Fair as well as a host of other festivals and jubilees. This year finally got around to going to the one closest to home, the Elk County Fair. So here's the deal with.
    I hadn't been to the fair since sometime in the late 80's. Approaching the gate I noticed that the County Commissioners were taking the money. I joked with Commissioner Freeburg about his finally finding a job he was totally qualified for. Gotta love the informality up here in the north woods. I would guess the Allegheny County commissioners take themselve more seriously.
    Once inside, I discovered that the grounds committee had two choices, dust or mud. They opted for mud. And there's the long view of the whole thing at night. It looks bigger after dark.

 My first stop was at Cousin Harold's pizza place. He is reputed to make the best tasting pizza in the county. I had never tasted it so it was time to find out. Yep, the reputation is deserved. Sure, dough is dough, pepperoni is pepperoni, mozzarella is mozzarella. But his sauce is something else again and makes his pizza the winner. That's Harold in the red shirt with his wife Sarah Jane. The blond customer is not identified. I got my pizza for the Beimel discount. I was grateful. I would be more grateful if I got the Beimel discount on my car insurance policy with his son's Allstate agency.
     Not having been there for so many years, I took a walk around the whole thing just to see what was going on. Elk County is not big farming country but the Farm Bureau people told me there are 340 farms registered here. There were a few livestock exhibits. Can you see what's wrong with this picture?
     The animals in the pens are sheep. That might explain why this is not a big farming county. Of course, the hilly land and the short growing season might have something to do with it too. Walking a little further revealed the pigs. I wonder if this is what the phrase "hog heaven" means?
     I saw this cute scene in the horse barn. Assuming from the boots that the girl was a rider, one word came to mind, "chafing."

    Wandering through the rest of the horse barn, I saw this sign at one of the stalls.
     A little later I spotted one of my countless third cousins wearing a shirt with a big hole in it. I teased him asking, "Is business so bad you can't afford a whole T shirt?" He replied, "I just got bit by a horse." I submit the following evidence. There are witnesses if you don't believe.
     I think goats are cool and this little guy reinforced that notion. I know he only paid attention to me because he thought I had food but attention is attention and is not to be ignored. I didn't say anything to the goat about it but the ear tag is not a good look.
     Like any fair, there is the midway where the carnies work at "separating the locals from their shekels." If there were footnotes, it would be noted that line is from "Bored of the Rings" published by the Harvard Lampoon. What does one do when one wins the huge prize. My thought would be to soak it in kerosene and light it for the bonfire before the big football game.
     I have often spoken of my liking for fresh cut french fries. So after the pizza I searched out the fries booth. What a great disappointment. The serving was huge but they were largely tasteless. I suspect bad potatoes and cheap oil or some such combination. I suspect they were fried in Brylcreem. (And if you get that reference, you are old enough to have voted for Jimmy Carter.) I ate a few and tossed the rest. I would have given them to the goat but I liked him and didn't want to upset his digestion.
     There weren't a lot of folks wandering around. It was a perfectly nice night and I wondered where they all were. Below is the answer. Two words, demolition derby.
 If you were hoping for dramatic action shots of the demolition derby here, you will be disappointed. Not having unlimited access to the event as I have come to expect, I chose to not attend.
    Part of the entertainment was an Elvis impersonator. But given the size of the crowd, he was either bad at it or we are not Elvis fans here.
    More entertaining was the roaming farmer comedian. He had a little tractor pulling two wagons. On one was a well trained Border Collie and in the other was a 4 week old pig. When not engaged in the comedy act, the dog stared at the pig and drooled. A little kid asked Farmer John about that and he said "the dog just likes to look at the pig." My thought was that the dog had bacon on his mind. 

     Like all baby pigs, this one was way too cute and he merits a close-up.
     The dog had quite a repertoire of tricks including the difficult over the shoulder tennis ball catch when Farmer John made a bad throw. He stuck the landing, by the way.
     In addition to roving about with his tractor and wagons, he gave periodic shows at a stage set up near the petting zoo. It was educational and funny, teaching kids where some of their food comes from in an entertaining way. Among other things, he milked a goat and the dog would drink it out of midair.
     He picked a girl out of the audience to milk the goat and she soaked her sister in the front row with goat milk. A chick fight would have broken out if not for the intervention of a mother. He did some cute stuff with the pig too, totally neglecting to use words like ham, chops, bacon, and sausage. The dog was really good, Farmer John gave a good presentation, but the pig got all the "aaahhhhhsss."
    Adjacent to the Barnyard Express stage was the petting zoo. In this case, all farm animals. I saw this little bit of interspecies affection. I resisted the urge to go and whisper in the girl's ear, "veal parmesan." This being the 21st Century, large containers of hand sanitizer were everywhere.  Thinking back to my farming ancestors, I wonder how often great grandfather Hoffman washed his hands during a day at work on the farm. He was Heinrich Hoffmann until the Kaiser ruined all that and thus became Henry Hoffman.
     It was getting dark and now I was seeing a lot of people from St. Marys. I wonder why they weren't around when the sun was up. But then I remembered those two words, demolition derby. So there was much talking to do. I chatted with the guys from the Elk County Farm Bureau and tried to get an answer to the question, "How many full time farmers are there in Elk County anymore?" They must have had some time in DC as they retorted "that depends on what you mean by full time." No matter how I phrased the question, I could not get an answer. I suspect the answer is probably 10 and the other 330 are lunch bucket farmers or wannabe farmers or big time gardeners. I suspect that having 4 head of beef cattle would qualify you as a farmer. They were selling ice cream cones and funnel cake. My antipathy to anything made from fried white flour dough is well known so I had a single scoop of Moose Tracks, renamed for the fair, Elk Tracks. It was interesting to watch Big Ernie wielding the scoop. It looked tiny in his massive farmer hand. But it was only a buck. To get the same thing at Two Scoops would cost a buck seventy five and a cute girl would do the scooping with the same device looking huge in her small hand. Go to a tourist trap and the same thing would cost three bucks served up by a bored college kid.
    Speaking of bored, it was not a really busy night and the carnies had little to do. At least this one had a comfortable place to not work.
     I talked to one of the young lady carnies. She was not all the forthcoming about the job and so on. Later, I saw her running the rat wheel booth. If I understand it right, you put your money on a color, she spins the wheel and drops the rat. The color whose hole the rat enters wins. I would laugh at the foolishness of such a thing then I thought about bankers lending money to people who couldn't possibly pay it back. Who was the bigger gambler? Of course, a rathole bettor could not apply to the government to bail him out of his foolishness unlike certain large financial institutions that could be named.
     At night fairs and carnivals take on a certain otherworldly splendor of bright lights and strange sights. I offer two examples.

    I had to stop to watch the bump cars, my all time favorite carnival ride. The mayhem was minor but I was thinking of what fun it would be to have the canoe trip gang out there at once. The mind boggles.

      My last stop was in the exhibit shed. It looks like everybody gets a ribbon for canned goods. My question is how do the judges know that the stuff in the jars is any good if they don't taste it. Same could be said about the hay and oats for that matter.

    And that's my story about going to the fair. There were things I couldn't put into a photograph that were quite pleasant like a long bout of chaffering with the Vietnam Veterans selling me tear off tickets that never win. And of course, Cousin Walter regaled me with tales of his 16 foot high tomato plant with pictures on his cell phone to prove it. I ran into old neighbors, new neighbors, strange looking girls who said "that's a pretty big camera you got there" and other folks. I am never quite sure if that last phrase is a comment on my Nikon D300 or if it is a euphemism for something else.
    Take care, be safe, may you always buy sheep and sell deer,    Ray

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