Harvest of Leisure in the Heartland

Fairs brim with everything from pea fowl to pie eating

AMERICA'S state and county fairs are beckoning.

With Labor Day signaling lights out for summer vacations, families coast to coast this weekend turn to the last rites of the season: tractor pulls and demolition derbies, pie-eating contests and bag races.

While parents sidestep livestock pens and dole out the dollars - four bucks for gourmet lemonade, $5 for Belgian waffles - kids roll along with as much delight as a prize hog in mud.

''I love this place,'' says Iva Mae Hawkes, a visitor to America's oldest state fair in Michigan, opened in 1849.

With four kids in tow, she waits outside of a ''Miracle of Life'' exhibit, where crowds watch cows give birth. ''Where else can you see a prize heifer, watch a great music show, and reconnect with the agricultural roots that made this country great?'' she asks.

Some 150 million will visit 3,238 fairs this year, spending an average $4 per entry, still less than the price of a movie. Led by Texas with 3.3 million visitors in 1994, attendance has been steadily rising for a decade. This year's slight drop reflects dramatic heat waves that swept through a number of states.

''Weather is the biggest 'if' in the fair world,'' says Lewis Miller, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. An early August heat wave in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, kept people away by the ferris wheel-full. ''Fairs have not been entirely destroyed, but it's been a struggle to keep the numbers up.''

In state fairs running this week - from Minnesota to Oregon, New York to Alaska - the traditional smells of cotton candy and caramel apples also mingle with the look and feel of change.

Following the 100-year trend that has seen Americans move off the farm - the population has shifted from 97 percent rural in 1895 to 97 percent urban this year - the emphasis of fairs has changed dramatically.

''Whereas in the old days everyone was interested mostly in who had the best hog, horse, or calf, the major interest of fairs now is education,'' Mr. Miller says. ''Organizers are looking at the urban person as someone to communicate with and enlighten on the food production he takes for granted.''

At the poultry, waterfowl, and rabbits building here, for instance, the main exhibit explains to fair-goers ''How A Chick Hatches.'' Incubators, diagrams, and photographs chart the route from fertilized egg to baby chick. One exhibit showcases 18 kinds of eggs from partridge to quail to emu.

But that means less room for bird cages. Superintendent George Carpenter says the 2,700 ducks, geese, pheasant, and pea fowl on display are about one-third of those available 25 years ago.

That's not driven exclusively by the quest to educate, though. ''We've lost a lot of our old exhibitors,'' he says. ''Some of those that are left feel like not enough people attend to make it worth their while.''

You wouldn't know it from looking at the crowds crushing into the ''Miracle of Life Exhibit'' across the green. In perhaps the Michigan fair's greatest attraction, spectators will witness close to 100 animal births including, hogs, cows, and ducks. Videos, printed material, and interpreters help children with questions about animal nutrition, diet, and feed.

''State fairs are the last great way for the public to find out about the whole American food-production system,'' says Kay Johnson, education director of the Animal Industry Foundation in Arlington, Va. ''With more and more families leaving the farm, this is really their one opportunity to see the process behind the food they buy.''

But if organizers are looking to enlighten the public, fairgoers themselves may be drawn more by flash than farm life.

''The big-three attractions to state fairs these days are rides, games, and food,'' says Tom Powell, associate publisher of Amusement Business Magazine, in Nashville.

The last couple of years have seen increases in computer games instead of standard thrill rides and bungee-jumping attractions instead of giant slides.

Take the Michigan midway's ''High Striker,'' for instance. Brawny farmers who once brandished oak sledgehammers for a satisfying whack and a cigar, have given over to bicep-challenged urbanites who slap a hydraulic gauge with a laminated acrylic mallet. A computer registers the impact digitally, lighting a calibrated sign.

Lines to the 20-foot-high Tilt-a-whirl ride have shifted to the 120-foot ''Ejector Seat,'' where riders pay $40 to rocket from 0 to 70 m.p.h. straight up.

More signs of modernity: The crowds who once thronged the historic-register coliseum for horse shows are more interested in this year's marquee singers: Chuck Berry and Little Richard; or Tanya Tucker at the outdoor grandstand.

Whatever attracts visitors, overall attendance is rising slowly and will continue a modest increase for the foreseeable future, according to the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. Now a multibillion dollar business, fairs are a mix of music, midway, and animals that will always appeal.

''The components resonate across the ages,'' says John Hartman, professor of sociology at Kansas's Witchita State University. ''It's entertainment that takes us back to our roots.''

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