Fair FolksWritten by Liz LeSatz
Barkhurst family emphasizes life lessons in showing
The sound of blow dryers, clippers and spray cans fills the dairy barn as the second annual Kristi Barkhurst Memorial Beef Fitting Contest takes place. Contestants hustle around their steer while a large crowd of spectators looks on.
It is evident that one couple watches more intently than most. Only the occasional person approaching to visit breaks their gaze from the activity. For this husband and wife the competition is about much more than prizes and bragging rights, because for Tammy and Les Barkhurst the competition is about keeping Kristi’s memory alive.
Tammy says her daughter would have been thrilled by the contest. Kristi had a passion for helping children fit cattle and it concerned her when parents would fit rather than letting the children do it. After Kristi passed away, former Wyoming State Fair Director Barney Cosner conceived the idea of a beef fitting contest in Kristi’s honor.
“This contest would make her extremely happy,” says Tammy. “It makes losing Kristi seem like it wasn’t in vain.”
Even one of Kristi’s cousins fit in the contest this year and the impact of the competition goes beyond memorializing Kristi.
“It’s teaching children, ‘Wow, I can fit a steer. I don’t need mom or dad hovering over me,’” says Tammy.
Tammy and Les’ involvement with the Wyoming State Fair didn’t begin, nor will it end, with the beef fitting contest. Their lives have always included state fair, beginning as children competing in the show ring.
“It’s in all the Barkhursts’ blood,” says Tammy. “It’s always part of our summer.”
Tammy and Les met at Laramie County Community College where they judged livestock on the same team. After marriage and starting a family, their passion for 4-H, FFA and fair continued in their children, Byron and Kristi. The kids became the fifth generation to live and work on the 125-year-old Saratoga Valley Barkhurst Ranch and they also became the next generation to carry on a tradition of showing steers at fair.
As their kids’ involvement grew, Tammy and Les continued their own involvement as Carbon County fair leaders as well as coming to Douglas each year. With busy lives on the ranch, the journey to the Wyoming State Fair became a much anticipated break.
“We could do it as a family and although it was a lot of work, this was our play time,” says Tammy, laughing. “Fair was our vacation.”
For the Barkhurst family, exhibiting at fair wasn’t ever about winning. Instead the emphasis rested on the values and lessons taught.
“It is an investment in building the character of a child,” says Les. “It’s cheaper than jails and rehabilitations.”
That investment, as Tammy and Les describe, pays off in multiple ways. A fair project instills a sense of value to a child and they learn so many life skills, says Tammy. Youth learn decision-making, the responsibility of working with animals, gracious winning and losing, budgeting, record keeping and perseverance.
“There are so many people that use the kids to get the champion steer,” says Tammy. “Les has always said, ‘We have the steer to raise the children, not vice versa.’ It wasn’t whether you won or lost, it was if you gave 100 percent that year.”
Tammy and Les say they both learned all these lessons growing up as exhibitors and were eager to help instill them in their own children. Now their five grandchildren are the next generation of Barkhurst fair enthusiasts and will reap the benefits Tammy and Les see from involvement with fair.
“I think it was immensely valuable not only to our children, but to all children,” says Tammy. “That’s why Les and I have been leaders for 20-some years.”
That love for fair eventually saw Tammy becoming a Wyoming State Fair Advisory Board member in 2001.
“When my children got out [of 4-H and FFA] and I was appointed to the board I was excited because I got to come back,” says Tammy.
As a representative for Carbon, Albany and Sweetwater counties, she says she has learned a lot during her tenure on the board. Over the past eight years her selfless service has helped lead and guide the state fair. Tammy was elected chair in 2003 and led until 2007 - one of the toughest times the board endured due to the tail-docking controversy.
“I’ve taken a lot of butt chewings,” laughs Tammy. “But I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s what we want to teach children. It’s about the humanity of it and the care of the lambs. PETA is breathing down our necks enough without adding any problems to it.”
“It’s about the life skills we’re teaching, it’s not about the end result and being champion at all costs,” she adds.
The advisory board takes a lot of heat for various issues during fair and throughout the year, but Tammy says helping with issues and promoting the state fair is part of the job. Board members also dedicate a lot of personal time to serve the state fair. Aside from two meetings per year, the members volunteer a full week during fair and are on call 24/7. Although it can be a sacrifice, Tammy remains humble and says she serves year after year because she believes in the youth being helped through 4-H and FFA.
“It’s about tradition,” she says. “Wyoming is one of few state fairs that is still very youth-oriented. We want to keep that youth tradition at the forefront.”
She also says she gives most for the credit of state fair’s success to the Wyoming State Fair staff.
“They put in the hours and the hard work,” she says. “The advisory board members come and go, but the staff have their hearts and souls in it.”
The Barkhurst family has kept up their service to fair even through the most trying time of their lives. After the Barkhurst family lost Kristi in 2006 from a horse-riding accident, their lives changed dramatically. They’ve spent the last two years trying to wrap their minds around the reality of losing their daughter while trying to pick up the pieces and carry on.
Not only did they lose a beloved member of the family, Tammy says they lost a vital part of the ranch’s operation. Kristi loved working with the cattle and her loss has caused the Barkhursts to minimize the show cattle and bull sectors of their operation.
“After we lost Kristi our hearts just weren’t in it,” says Tammy. “We’ve been maintaining the last two years and been getting our ground.”
Nonetheless, Tammy and Les’ hearts are still in fair. Tammy has one more year on the advisory board and they will continue to stay in the state fair action beyond that.
“We’ll always be involved whether it’s as a spectator for our grandkids or other kids from our area,” says Tammy. “We love being here.”
Their involvement will also always include the memorial to a daughter lost too early in life.
“Being here is bittersweet because she absolutely adored being at state fair,” says Tammy.
But although the pain of Kristi’s absence is difficult, the Barkhursts wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.