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It’s frightening, says a former executive director of the Texas Association of Fairs & Events, to think about how separated mainstream culture is from agriculture. As the state’s population becomes more urban, many people don’t understand, or consider, how food is grown and gets to the table.
We’re losing our agricultural roots. And that, says Penny Reeh, who directed the fair association from 2002 until May, is why county fairs, big and small, are so important. The blue ribbons on canned goods represent more than local pride: Vegetables like okra, green beans and peas come from exhibitors’ gardens.
The corn, potatoes, peppers, watermelons, pumpkins, grains and seeds in ag exhibits come from farmers’ fields. And the livestock being shown and judged, from poultry to cattle, will be sold and enter the food chain.
“Those Chicken McNuggets and junior burgers have to come from somewhere,” says Eddie Smith, a former president of the Walker County Fair Association in Huntsville.
This, dear urbanites, is how Texas grows. And this, says Reeh (pronounced RAY), president and CEO of the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce, is how it goes: County fairs bridge the gap between city and country while retaining local flavor and reflecting regional culture. The association counts a handful of big-city fairs, including the largest of them all—the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, which runs through October 23—among its approximate 120 members.
But most of the members are county fairs, each offering its own unique slice of rural life. And fall is the peak county fair season, so now’s the perfect time to go.
Reeh sees county fairs as an iconic brand that immediately brings to mind nostalgic images: fair queens and princesses, carnival rides, rodeos, magicians, home-sewn clothing, children’s petting barnyards, quilts, pies and cakes.
The challenge going forward, Reeh says, is to preserve the traditional county fair elements while offering entertainment for diverse crowds. Reeh’s doing her part to uphold tradition: She grew up showing steers and hogs at the Gillespie County Fair in Fredericksburg and now is emcee of the county fair’s parade, following in the footsteps of her father, who handled that job for 30 years.
“The fair product has endured, sustained and entertained generations of Texas families and will continue to do so,” Reeh says. “The way the story is told must change, but the tale remains just as compelling today as it was to our ancestors.”
Camille Wheeler, associate editor