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Fairs Follow Long Tradition

Written by Christy Martinez

With themes ranging from “Barn in the USA” to “Dancing with the Steers,” county fair season is officially underway across the U.S., and will eventually give way to state fairs later this summer.
As I write this, the town of Casper is celebrating parade day in conjunction with the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo, the first county fair to be held in the state each summer.

After some research, I found that the first fair in North America was held in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia, while a New England patriot and farmer, Elkana Watson, earned the title of “Father of U.S. Agricultural Fairs” after organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society and creating an event, known as the Cattle Show, in Pittsfield, Mass. in September 1811. The livestock exposition was also a competition, with $70 paid for the best oxen, cattle, swine and sheep.

After that first fair, Watson worked with other communities to organize their own agricultural societies and their respective shows, or fairs. By 1819, it’s said that most counties in New England had their own societies and fairs, and the movement was spreading to other states. By the end of the 19th Century, almost every state and province had one or more ag fairs or exhibitions.

Today over 3,200 fairs are held in North America annually, and I think it’s safe to say that if you were to walk onto the grounds of many of them, you’d find the same elements – livestock barns containing cattle, hogs and sheep, exhibit halls filled with home-grown produce and homemade products and many 4-H and FFA kids working hard to put the finishing touches on their projects.

Many fairs boast exhibits like none other. I grew up attending the Iowa State Fair, and a “must-see” each year is the butter cow, which is just that – a dairy cow sculpted from butter. Just run a Google image search, and you’ll see for yourself.

Unfortunately, this summer the butter cow will be missing its creator of over 50 years, as sculptor Norma Lyon passed away this year at the age of 81. She sculpted her first 600-pound cow for the Iowa State Fair in 1959 while pregnant with her seventh child. The Iowa State Fair has featured a butter cow every year since 1911 as a promotion for the state’s dairy products.

I had the opportunity to meet Norma while in college, on a field trip with a dairy judging course. After we reviewed several pens of Jersey dairy cows, she brought us warm, homemade cookies in the old milking parlor, and we washed them down with fresh Jersey milk, and I still remember that’s the sweetest, smoothest milk I’ve ever tasted.

So, whether you encounter a cow made entirely of butter or something else at Wyoming’s county fairs or the Wyoming State Fair this year, be sure to get out and support your local agriculture industry and the youth who are becoming involved – after all, that’s been the whole point of county, regional and state fairs ever since Elkana Watson first created his event 200 years ago.

In the pages of the Roundup we’re in the midst of our “Summer County Fair Series,” which features information about the ongoing county fairs and their schedules, as well as articles on notable kids and their projects from around the state. Stay tuned for more coverage of fair season in the Cowboy State!

Christy