Times change, but county fair is 'still the place to see everyone'

A year ago, Ann Walker's 1,300-pound steer was just a calf - well-bred, but unbroken. Months of hard work - training, feeding, and grooming the animal - are now on the line for Ms. Walker as she leads the steer into the show ring.

With five other entrants, she circles the ring once with her charge, lines up in the center, circles again, lines up again.

The judge, most interested in the steer's hindquarters where the meat is, gives each animal a long look and a quick jab or two to check its muscle pattern. Walker, aware that she herself is also being judged on showmanship, keeps a constant eye on the judge for his next instruction, while prodding the animal to keep its hooves in line and its head up.

A few last pokes and pats at the steer, and a quick handshake for Walker, signal that her animal is the junior-class grand champion market-beef heavyweight.

After a long day of cattle judging at the Muscatine County Fair, Jerry Lehman still has considerable praise for his selection. ''It looks like we have all blues here today, ladies and gentlemen. But this first one I've picked out is exceptional. I like his muscle pattern; I like the volume out through his rump. He holds himself long out through his back; the meat is very complete. He has correctness; he has hardly any cover, and I like his finish.''

This annual rite of summer has taken place for the past 132 years here in southeastern Iowa. The five-day fair, which ended Aug. 12, included some 2,000 junior 4-H exhibits and 5,000 open-class exhibits. Attendance has held steady at between 20,000 and 30,000 for close to 30 years.

For the spectator, the most-popular livestock event remains cattle, but pig, sheep, poultry, and rabbit events are also well-attended. For the exhibitor, on the other hand, the cost of purchasing and fattening show cattle has pushed many out of the competition.

Bill Furlong, a farmer from nearby Letts, raises commercial steers but hasn't shown cattle since his 4-H days. Looking back on those years, Mr. Furlong says, ''When I used to show, there were 300 (participants). Now there are only about 50.''

The switch has been to sheep, something of a surprise in an area not known for sheep. Furlong explains: ''The kids can't afford cattle, and pigs aren't glamorous enough for them, so they've settled on sheep.''

Other traditional fair events, such as baking, canning, sewing, and arts and crafts continue to thrive. In a state that prides itself on hosting the nation's first political caucuses every four years, there is even a ''political table setting'' competition. Bell Hinkhouse, who has been coming to the fair for over 60 years, is the only entrant in this class not to receive a ribbon. All competitions are taken seriously and Ms. Hinkhouse's dry sense of humor seems to have been lost on the judges. Her entry, titled ''Ah - Politics,'' featured a red tablecloth, red and white mums, a paper plate, styrofoam cup, and blue napkins that read ''Vote to outlaw winter.''

Hinkhouse's fondest memories of the fair are as a child in the 1920s. ''My parents would give me 15 cents to spend. That meant one soda, one balloon, and one merry-go-round ride. ... My mother's favorite was the fair of 1890. The hit of the show was crates of fresh fruit, and something no one had ever seen before - bananas.''

In the years since, Hinkhouse has seen many changes at the fair. The evening entertainment has switched from harness racing and circus acts to stock-car racing and country-and-western stars. The wooden horses are gone from the merry-go-round, and in place of the tractor pull is a demolition derby.

But in a rural and often isolated area, the fair continues to serve an important social function as an annual gathering place for the community. As Hinkhouse says, ''It's still the place to see everyone.''

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