This would have been the 170th year of the largest county fair in my region. Traditionally held mid-October on the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, it attracts over 50,000 people every year – except this one, when it was cancelled like everything else. It originally took place near a tavern in 1850 and featured only cattle and horses. Now it has its own permanent fairgrounds and features the usual fair fare – midway, exhibit halls, livestock barns, grandstand shows and more junk food than you could possibly eat.
My ancestors immigrated in 1846 and I like to think of them attending those early years. My dad remembers the fair being a highlight of his Depression childhood when he would be given the princely sum of 25 cents to spend as he wished. Back then everyone went to the fair, and they still do.
It was our tradition growing up to attend the fair on Thanksgiving Monday, (we had our big turkey dinner on Sunday), in order to catch the noon parade. After a tour of the exhibition halls and a walk through the midway my dad would spend the rest of the afternoon in the cattle barns watching the judging of the livestock while we womenfolk would head for the much more interesting horse competitions.
We would meet up at 5 pm when they would be awarding the prize for the last show of the day – the 4H Beef Cattle Grand Champion, with the winner headed straight to the abattoir. (This is probably TMI for all the vegans out there, but it’s a fact of rural life, you eat/sell what you raise.)
So imagine my surprise to come across this ceramic creature when I was buying fall bulbs at a city nursery.
Sure it made a nice fall display, sitting there on that bale of straw, but at $198 I can’t imagine anyone who would buy it? Farmers aren’t known to be too sentimental about their livestock. Now if it was a horse maybe….
This cute little fella reminded me of my short-lived 4H calf. For those of you who are city folks, 4H (their motto is head, heart, hands and health) started out as a rural Boy-Scout-type organization, fostering life skills in youth ages 7-21, learning by doing etc. Although they have branched out into other programs, they are still going strong in many rural areas. According to last years Fair Exhibit Prize Booklet we have a local 4-H sheep club, a 4-H beef club, a horse club, baking club, quilting club and one for the younger set age 7-9 called Clover Buds.
We never belonged to 4H growing up in the sixties, as life was busy with school, chores and my brothers had baseball and hockey, but my sister joined the 4-H cooking club one year when she was 12. They met on Saturday mornings at a neighbors farm to prepare a dish, but she was to try out the weekly recipes at home. She was teased so mercilessly by my siblings, over such delicacies as Welsh Rarebit and Blueberry Buckle, that one night at supper she burst into tears and declared, “You guys never want to try anything!” And it was true, we weren’t very adventurous. (I can be absolved as I was always a picky eater who had zero interest in cooking.) The Purity cookbook states that Welch Rarebit is a cheese sauce and egg on toast concoction, but it might have been the dry mustard/cayenne pepper/Worcester sauce we objected to. The Blueberry buckle wasn’t too bad, more cake-like, but we were pie people. Then there was the long blue calico dress that had to be sewn for Pioneer Days, which involved many tears and much work, and was tossed aside after a few hours wear. So that was the end of 4-H until one summer afternoon when we were bored to tears, the way kids used to get when there wasn’t a constant source of entertainment streaming at them 24/7.
While my brothers helped with the chores when they got older, I wasn’t out in the barn that much – there was nothing to do there. Sometimes there would be a new batch of kittens, and if my cousins were over, we might jump in the hay mow which we weren’t supposed to as the middle section had rotten floorboards under the bales. My dad had Holstein milking cows then and I remember the pails of milk being lined up in the hallway, but you had to stay out of the way and you definitely couldn’t go near the milking stanchions or you might get kicked by a cow. Occasionally, we would take the dog for a walk back the lane-way to get the cows for milking, but mostly they came up on their own, like clockwork. Here I am with Sally Ann, the oldest and head cow, and the only one with a name.
So we decided one bored afternoon that we would train our own 4-H calves and parade them around the barnyard on a rope, like they did at the fair. Here’s a photo of mine.
What surprises me about this picture is my outfit – I’m wearing a cute white eyelet top that surely was not part of my regular play clothes. And my hair, a towhead after a summer of sun. Now cows aren’t the brightest of animals to begin with, and the poor little thing was not very obedient, so the 4-H calf was abandoned after a few short hours. Judging from the size of my brother in the background, (my mother is supervising and taking the picture) I’m likely seven years old, much too young for a 4H calf anyway, although I don’t recall my older siblings lasted any longer with theirs.
Although not obvious in the picture, the calf had a big ugly goiter on its neck. I wish I could say that’s what first inspired my interest in pursuing a medical career, but I just found it yucky. Besides, it was really a horse I wanted anyway.
I don’t know what happened to my 4-H calf – it was gone in a few weeks. It’s unlikely you could treat a hypothyroid calf back then, and you certainly couldn’t sell it for veal. (My mother served veal exactly once, as we all refused to eat it on principle.) Although I took a veterinary medicine course in 4th year (an easy elective we called Barnyard) I’ve never dispensed any thyroid for animals, large or small, although I’ve seen some strange meds (Ventolin inhaler for a horse?) as we had a veterinarian’s office close by. Most likely the calf went on to the Big Barnyard in the sky.
My dad eventually sold his milking herd and switched to cash cropping and beef cattle, as they were less work than milking twice a day. A milk quota is worth a million plus now, and the majority of dairy farms are mechanized and large scale. Those small family farms hardly exist anymore, it’s a way of life which has mostly disappeared.
So, when I visit the nursery for plants next spring, I expect to see that ceramic calf on sale for a substantially reduced price, and I hope to be able to attend the fall fair again next year.
PS. I should add that our animals were treated humanely, with grazing in the fields, and no antibiotics or growth hormones. We also had free range chickens for eggs long before it was popular. I guess you say we were organic before organic was cool.
PS. No matter where you may sit on the vegetarian/carnivore spectrum the decision to eat red meat or not is a personal choice. In the early 80’s my brother married a vegetarian (or a herbivore as my young niece delightfully described her, they must have been studying dinosaurs) which was not that common back then when 10 oz. porterhouse steaks were a fixture on restaurant menus, but nothing was ever said by my dad who raised beef cattle and my mother just added a few extra dishes to the holiday table…mac and cheese for Thanksgiving, deviled eggs for Easter and rice….yea bring it on! Not that my new SIL expected anything, but you know, to be hospitable. I know I lucked out in the parent department as my folks were nice easy-going people who were always willing to set an extra place at the table….but I wonder if people generally were just more tolerant to differing viewpoints back then? Now it seems like you can’t even give a dinner party without a long list of someone’s dietary restrictions and an accompanying lecture on why they are right!