National Geographic : 1997 Oct
N A BRILLIANTLY SUNNY DAY in August several dozen Future Farmers of America and 4-H'ers struggled, one by one, to get their lambs and steers and hogs to walk in a circle at the swine barn of the Kitsap County Fair in Bremerton, Washington. An auctioneer perched atop a platform made from bales of hay was selling off the animals by the pound. A hog had just sold for top dollar to Safeway when Matt Muzzy, a skinny 12 year-old with cropped blond hair, yanked his lamb, Butthead, into the arena. "Now, who's going to help this young man out?" the auctioneer asked from his lofty perch. "He needs the money so he can go to the National Boy Scout Jamboree in Virginia next summer and get a badge." And the auction began. Speaking at 78 rpm, the auctioneer launched into an allit erative litany of numbers. His voice grew tenser, his breath shorter as the numbers pushed upward. And then his voice hesi tated, briefly, at $6.50 per pound. The auctioneer scanned the group of people crowded around until, finally, from the corner of his eye he saw a hand furtively rise from the back of some rickety bleach ers. "Sold!" the auctioneer cried. I caught up with Matt outside the sheep barn. He was breathless; his cheeks were flush. The throaty protests of the animals were joined by the crowd noises drifting over from the midway. The breeze rolling in off Puget Sound carried the edgy sweet smell of fair food all jumbled up with the rich odors of the barnyard. I asked Matt if he was happy the way things had turned out. He smiled, a glint ing semicircle of orthodontia. "You bet!" he said. "Last year I only got $3.11 a pound." But wasn't he going to be a little sad to see his lamb go? Matt rolled his eyes. "It's hard to get attached to a lamb called Butt head," he said and, giving me an "Are you done?" look, sprinted off toward the lights and music of the midway. Fair time: That moment between sum mer and fall when young 4-H'ers sell off their lambs, when proud farmers bring in their fattest pumpkins or prettiest ears of corn and let them be judged against the efforts of their neighbors, when kids across the country lose themselves in the fantasy world of the carnival. America's first county fair was orga nized in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1811 by a gentleman farmer named Elkanah Watson. Concerned that Americans were falling behind Europeans in farming and A century ago a paradingbrass band and 83 yoke of oxen opened the Tunbridge World's Fair. These days stock showing, pony pulling, midway glitter,and big-name grandstandactsfill this quiet Vermont valley with bumper-to-bumper crowds. Blending community traditionswith entertainmentspectacles, countyfairs thrive across the United States.