State Fair

Farm Forum

He cowered motionless in a dark corner of his cage. I’m not sure if I even saw him.

I had never heard of a gorilla so I had no idea what a gorilla was supposed to look like. And to this day I can’t say if I actually saw him.

But looking into that dark, grungy cage trying to find what my dad pointed to and told me was a gorilla is my first South Dakota State Fair memory

Our family rode in our used Model T that hot 1930s day from our home in Wessington Springs to Huron and the fair.

Lunch was sandwiches layered in a bucket with a damp towel tucked around it, and our drinking water swayed like a pudgy, grasshopper-stained metronome, sloshing in a square canvas water bag hanging from the car’s front bumper.

Theoretically, the air movement as we drove caused water that seeped through to the canvas surface to evaporate and cool the water. I never thought that theory worked worth a darn with that good-tasting Springs’ water.

It was a thrilling day at the fair, and that’s where I think I saw my first gorilla.

While my dad took me to meet the gorilla, my mother and sisters were touring the garden produce hall, which wasn’t up to usual standards because not much grew in those dust bowl days.

I have a feeling no gorilla will be cowering in the shadows at the South Dakota State Fair when it starts later this month.

The event isn’t what it once was. It’s a miracle it has survived all these years. Politicians still vote to subsidize it with tax money, although to their credit the amount has been reduced each year.

Annually we read of the State Fair Board’s plans to change the event’s time or format, reduce or raise admission costs, or to bring in an over-the-hill, big name artist to boost attendance.

But attendance isn’t what it was when a gorilla was the big family attraction. Now the draw is comedians, trucks with big tires or guitar twangers.

The State Fair started nearly 130 years ago and got a boost in 1905 with a gift of 85 acres from the railroad. Today it’s a state fair in name only. Fairs in Sioux Falls, Rapid City and elsewhere easily outdraw the Huron event.

The fair was once a salute to agriculture. Farm and ranch families displayed produce and livestock and were recognized for skill and husbandries hard work.

They heard about new farming techniques. They came to enjoy a respite after a summer under the sun, to socialize with their kind, and to show that monster gorilla to their kids.

Maybe we should bring back the gorilla. I might just drive over to finally get a good look at this old acquaintance that was scrunched in the shadows when we first met 75 years ago.

Write the author at