I have attended the South Dakota State Fair nearly every year since approximately the end of the Jurassic Era.
My first Fair experience happened when I was a tyke. Dad and Mom piled all eight of their children into our 1959 Ford station wagon and pointed it toward Huron, an hour from our dairy farm. I’d heard so many wondrous things about the Fair that my excitement levels were stratospheric. This probably contributed my carsickness.
Halfway through our pilgrimage I began to feel really awful. We’re talking the type of awful often associated with the word “projectile.” I informed my parents of my dire situation and they wisely pulled over at a small roadside café in Iroquois.
A kindly waitress learned of my situation and gave me a packet of saltine crackers, saying that nothing settles the stomach like saltines. She also gave me a brown paper bag to hold against my tummy, telling me that the brown paper would magically alleviate the nausea. But the best part was that she told my parents that the only surefire cure for carsickness was to let the sufferer ride in the front seat.
For the rest of our journey, I lounged in the front seat between my parents. I felt like a king, ignoring the whines of “no fair!” drifting up from the peasants in the nether regions of the car.
Attending the Fair always seemed like a fitting end to summer. It was a bacchanal of loud music, gaudy sights and rich food, all whipped together by gut-churning carnival rides. The over-the-top raucousness of it was enough to make one actually look forward to the regimented quiet of the classroom.
One September I went to the Fair with my Grandpa and Grandma Nelson. I was 14 and in possession of a newly-minted learner’s permit. I didn’t have to be asked twice when Grandpa requested that I drive them to Huron.
Piloting Grandpa’s 1963 Falcon out to the Fair made me feel like a real adult. I was especially pleased when I managed to avoid stalling its engine at stop signs and shifted its “three on the tree” transmission without making anyone feel like they were on a carnival ride.
Our first stop at the Fair was a building where such things as quilts and canned goods were on display. Grandma studied each entry, trying to absorb every possible homemaking tip even though it was highly unlikely that she had missed any such tips during her lifetime of homemaking. While Grandma dawdled by the preserves, Grandpa champed at the bit. He wanted to see the horses.
We were soon strolling the alleys of the horse barn. Grandpa loved workhorses, especially Belgians. We paused by a pair of Belgians and Grandpa patted one affectionately on its nose, murmuring something in Norwegian to the colossal beast. The horse, seeming to understand, nickered quietly to Grandpa.
I think Grandpa believed he’d made a mistake when he gave up workhorses and purchased his Super “C” Farmall. I, on the other hand, couldn’t understand his attraction to those humungous hay burners with their heads the size of a canoe and rumps that were wider than the hood of Grandpa’s Falcon. I thought that the best horsepower was the kind that came from a tractor. And the more horsepower, the better.
Grandpa treated Grandma and me to exotic Fair food – probably something along the lines of battered, deep-fried frozen cotton candy on a stick – and an iced lemonade. Grandpa glanced at his pocket watch and announced that we had best get moving. The Main Event was about to start.
The Main Event, for Grandpa, was a draft horse pulling contest. We went to the grandstand and sat on its dusty, sun-baked seats. Teams of ginormous workhorses populated the infield: Percherons, Clydesdales and, of course, Belgians. Many teams sported harnesses that were bedecked with silver studs and flashy buckles. The horses seemed to realize that they were wearing their Sunday best.
Each team took a turn pulling a weighted sled on the dirt track. The mammoth steeds would prance and snort with nervous energy as they were backed up to the sled. It looked as though they wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.
But the teams would surge forward the instant the doubletree’s hook clinked into the sled’s chain. Dirt flew from hooves the size of headstones; powerful muscles coiled and rippled beneath shimmering horsehide. The most successful teams, I noticed, pulled together like a single organism. It was awe-inspiring.
I was glad that Grandpa had given me that new State Fair experience. And I didn’t even miss my traditional stomach-roiling ride on the Scrambler.