Biggest sign that it's county fair time in the Midwest?
The 4-H families have decamped to the fairgrounds and set up camps in the livestock barns.
"We always try to pack lunch and bring coolers," Megan Johnson said Thursday as she watched the Hallsville Go-Getters 4-H Club ready ten steers for showing at the Boone County Fair in Columbia, Mo.
"We have our chairs," she said, "and the kids have a deck of cards and games to keep themselves busy when they're not picking up cow poop."
Welcome to the county fair, where cattle barns become beauty parlors, princesses wear flip-flops and snow cones vie with blue-ribbon strudel for attention.
Boone County's fair began July 22 and runs through July 30. George Harris, the fair's general manager, said the 100-plus degree days have hurt attendance.
"We're down 20 percent," he said. "The heat's killing me."
The weather is always a wildcard for state and county fairs in the Midwest, said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions. But the fairs in the South and Southwest, which occur in the early half of the year, along with those in California, are reporting significant attendance increases, he said.
The Florida State Fair, which was in February, saw a 35 percent bump, Tucker said. The Pima County Fair in Arizona in April was up 19 percent and two county fairs in California, in Alameda and San Diego counties, set attendance records, he said.
"Since 9/11 people go to the local events. When you toss the recession on that, people stay closer to home. They appreciate things in their community that are institutions and fairs are volunteer-based non-profit celebrations," Tucker said.
The Boone County Fair, the first fair held in the Louisiana Territory in 1835, was filled with slices of Americana and agriculture, eager 4-H kids with their wares and city folks going to the carnival on a hot summer night. Pickles were available in Mason jars with blue ribbons or on a stick at the concession stand for $1.25. Fresh kettle corn was not selling on the 105-degree day, but the free, cold water at the Culligan stand was popular.
The roller coaster was parked downwind of the Poultry and Rabbit Barn, hams were on display at the "Ham Show," and girls in cutoffs and cowboy boots lined up for funnel cakes.
Daniela Hoyos, 13, was hanging out in the 4-H Pavilion with her friends. She was beaming about her first-place purple ribbon for sewing a dress. She said she loves being part of 4-H.
"I like, like, making new things and I like the outcome," she said, pointing to the yellow dress with tiny blue flowers. "We have trips and stuff and we meet a lot of new people."
For a list of state and county fairs in your area, go to fairsandexpos.com and click on "find a fair" on the bottom right corner of the page.