A county fair offers pie – and a window on the rural-urban divide

Against a patriotic backdrop, Colorado fairgoers learn a thing or two about roping, rabbits, and responsibility. Also on display: America's cultural split. 

Doug Struck
Katie Jo Knez (r.) and her friend McKenzie Schneider work late at night at the Moffat County (Colo.) Fair to make sure Katie Jo's pigs are fed. Folks in this rural county of 12,000 say they feel little connection with the great urban beehives.

Everybody gets a ribbon at the Moffat County Fair. That is fitting: The cows and sheep have been groomed to a lustrous shine, the pigs trained to follow commands, the quilts meticulously assembled, and the apple pies taste-tested to perfection.

But it is America’s Divide that is on quiet display.

“We are different,” says Katrina Springer, the president of the fair, after recording the winners of the best salsa sauce competition. “This is our way of life.”

Editorials and politicians struggle to explain the polarization of this country. On the East and West fringes of America, and the scattered blazes of urban areas in between, each news flash from the White House is parsed and plumbed for meaning.

Better, perhaps, to stop to watch at this small country fair tucked in the northwest corner of Colorado. This is Trump country. And coal country. It’s a place where ranchers and miners and wheat farmers with hard hands keep to harder politics.

None of that’s on the agenda of the two-week fair, a homey event with no carnival rides, but a rodeo on Friday night and three metal barns for exhibits. Folks in the sagebrush hills of this rural county of 12,000 say they feel little connection with the great urban beehives. Their evidence for that is at the fair, in scenes that have nothing to do with politics.

A duck? No, ‘a project’

Cheyenne Gensler, 15, waits quietly, with her duck tucked under her arm, for the small animal judging to begin. Soon a rooster arrives, then a chicken. Two rabbits, three dogs. With number 107 pinned to the back of her shirt, Cheyenne strokes the duck as the judge asks her stern questions.

“They give you 10 minutes to talk about your project. They want to see how much you know and they want to see how you move with the animals,” she explains afterward. A project? “Well, it’s simpler to call it a project rather than a duck, so you don’t get too attached. Because sometimes they do have to go in the end.”

The tall girl with wavy blonde hair talks to a stranger directly, confidently. Her mother watches, but does not answer for her. The parents here would never say their kids are better than others. But they will say that their children are raised with different … well, expectations, that they are suspicious other kids don’t get.

“Showing an animal teaches them to have responsibility,” Kia Fedinec, Cheyenne’s mother, says earlier, sitting on aluminum bleachers to watch her daughter compete. “City kids that have no responsibility for doing something like that don’t have the opportunity of these country kids.”

Responsibility is a word used a lot here. As many as 400 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and other students entered the fair. Many of them brought livestock – ranging from tiny rabbits to huge steers – that would be sold on the last day of the fair. They had spent months caring for the animals, feeding, bedding, bathing, grooming them morning and night. They had carefully recorded the debts incurred for feed and care. They were in debt at their young age, and at the end, they hoped to make a profit from the sale.

“It’s not always about the blue ribbon,” says Ms. Springer, running the 99th year of the fair. “Sometime things don’t work out. Animals die. They learn about the cycle of life.

“Look at these kids,” she adds. “They learn when someone is talking to them, they look at the person. They shake his hand. They say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no sir.’ I’m not saying kids in the East don’t have these things. I’m just saying there’s a lot of opportunity here to learn family values.”

Tough questions ... about a rabbit

Over in the small animal barn, Joel Ross, a high school senior, says the judges asked tough questions about his rabbit, called a Californian breed. What color eye should most Californians have? (brown) What color fur does a rabbit with blue eyes have? (white).

What is it bred for? (meat. “It’s my favorite after elk meat.”) 

After seven years of competing with rabbits, poultry, and lambs, Joel is at the top of his game. His rabbit won best in show. He says he does it for fun. “It gives you something to work toward all year.”

After college, will he return to this rural area? Joel is not sure. “I really want to work in the church. That’s where my happy place is,” he says. But even if that takes him to a city, he says, “always in my heart I’ll love Craig.”

Rodeo flair 

The fair has brought in a professional rodeo, ramping up for a really big show at next year’s centennial. Miss Rodeo America and Miss Rodeo Wyoming are all spangled up in red-white-and-blue. The announcer calls them “these pretty ladies,” but the two women lean forward to race their steeds at breakneck speed around the arena, and then help corral steers during the competition. Like the others running the rodeo, they are completely in charge in the saddle.

Throughout the calf-roping, bronco-riding and steer wrestling, Doug Mathis, the rodeo public address announcer, keeps it light and folksy. When the VFW color guard marches into the arena, he switches gears. He launches his dramatic voice to read stories of two soldiers killed in World War II and a pilot killed in Vietnam, as the patriotic music swells theatrically behind him.

For 15 minutes, the crowd in the bleachers stands, many with their hats on their hearts. Even the kids stop playing to stand still. Nobody seems to think the interruption is hokey or contrived. Nobody ignores it.

Swathed in the flag

After the rodeo Friday evening comes Jake Gill, a country singer. His themes too, are swathed in the flag. “We got guts, guns and Jesus,” he croons. “Thank the Lord Almighty you’re in the USA.”

Children, some in diapers and cowboy hats, dance in the dusty arena track before him, as he sings about booze and heartbreak and how wonderful the country is.

“Nobody watches their kids too closely,” confides one mother, “because everybody here watches them.”

Tyler Erickson, a rope-slim young man under a white cowboy hat, came from Wheatland, Wyo., to compete in the bareback bronco riding championship. He stayed on his whipping horse for the required eight seconds, winning third place and a few hundred dollars, enough to repay his $61 entrance fee with some left over.

He travels around the country, doing five or six rodeos a week. “It’s the last nomadic lifestyle in the world,” says Mr. Erickson, who sleeps in the back of his car while on the road. “Every morning I get down on one knee and thank the Lord for being able to do this, and thank the Lord for being able to live in this country.”

Cheerful chores

It’s late Friday night, but the barns still are busy with kids ignoring the rodeo and the concert. Katie Jo Knez, an 11-year-old, is hauling a very full pail of hog feed. She clambers up on the fence and pours the feed down a tube for Charlotte, at 222 pounds, and Tiny, at 188 pounds – her pigs.

There’s no adult in sight. Nothing unusual about that; there’s nothing unusual about Katie’s evening chores, although this evening a friend, McKenzie Schneider, is keeping her company. Katie does it twice a day, every day.

Wouldn’t she rather be doing something else? “It’s actually really fun,” Katie says of her chores, shrugging.

Fair lessons

Saturday is the last of the fair, when businesses chip in to bid up the prices of the animals. As the auction nears Saturday night, Payton Voloshin, 16, is vacuuming Yankee. Her 1,341-pound steer must look perfect. “We spend more for hair products for the cattle than for our family,” says a bemused Sue Voloshin, her mother.

Yankee had earned the grand champion award of the fair, and will bring top dollar. Payton’s older sister Katia, a sophomore studying agricultural business in college, helps push and tug the animal into the straw show ring, with the auctioneer perched on a dais above. The man begins his high-speed spiel, pushing bids up and up. Payton stands stoically with her steer as the numbers roll by.

The auctioneer’s hammer slams down at $8 a pound. That will – after Payton pays feed and expenses – be a nice chunk for her college fund, says her mother. But parting with her steer will be difficult, Mrs. Voloshin acknowledges. 

“They really get attached. They spend every night together and Payton has shown Yankee in Arizona, Denver, and Utah. But these are ranch kids. That’s what we do for a living. They understand what it’s about.”

“There will be a lot of tears shed tonight,” by youngsters parted with their animals, agrees Charlynne Wondra, who helped organize the event, and grew up in Craig. But it is part of the learning process that is fundamental to fairs like this, she says. 

“These kids are not going to be the ones who feel entitled. They are working their butts off. They make their money just as I do. They will be our next leaders.”

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