When I was a kid, long ago and far away (in 70s-era Pleasant Valley) my brother and sister and I looked forward to the Fair in the way that many children of a forgotten past must have anticipated the coming of a traveling circus.
From the beginning of summer- nay, from as far away as those waning days of the school year when we slumped in our desks drowsing, the County Fair loomed ahead on the other end of summer like a kind of shimmering mirage at the end of a long, hot road. I’ve made mention before of how my parents always behaved as though instead of being only eight miles or so outside of town we lived somewhere on the lonesome frontier of yore and civilization and was many a hard-fought mile away, a journey which not only entailed loading up a wagon and team of oxen with all our worldly possessions but which also almost certainly would involve perilous encounters with everything from bears to unfriendly Indians to plagues of grasshoppers. Maybe it was the oil embargo of those days and the fact that gas prices were spinning wildly out of control up to such dizzying heights as 79 cents a gallon, or perhaps it was just the spirit of the times that made my folks pretend as if we were squatters in a sod hut breaking the prairie with our bare hands- my dad, friends and readers, was a faithful subscriber to a screamingly funny magazine called Mother Earth News and my mom had discovered the Foxfire Book, a how-to manual for wanna-be hippies, under which influence she often attempted to make us swallow things like vinegar and hogwort and eye of newt. At any rate, our revels in town were severely limited to Mom’s bimonthly pilgrimages to Boerne to buy a sack of flour and a dress-length of calico, or catching rides to the pool from unwary neighbors.
So we made do in Pleasant Valley. There was a group of us urchins who ran around together, every one of us barefoot from the day school let out to the day they made us go back- except for church and VBS times- our feet inevitably growing as tough and impermeable as shoe leather so that we could tear across a field of sticker-burrs, stepping on snakes and scorpions and pointy rocks with not so much as a flinch. Seriously, once I actually DID step on a scorpion, and thought it was a sticker-burr- true story. I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with scorpions, and that one was by far the least painful- much, MUCH less than the time I sat on one in a lawn chair while wearing shorts. Now where was I? Oh yeah, our intrepid band of waifs in Pleasant Valley- we got up in the mornings, got on our bikes and were gone for the day- remember being a kid when your bike was your WHEELS? You thought that bike could take you anywhere, your friend might come up to you and go ‘Man I’m bored, you wanna go to Australia?’ and you would go, ‘K, lemme get my bike.’ That was us. We spent whole days at a stock tank owned by someone of whom we knew nothing save for the fact that he wasn’t us. One summer we spent every waking hour building a raft in which to set sail on the high seas of the tank, which when launched (with about twenty-three hands on deck) immediately sank, to which emergency our friend Jimmy responded by trying to rescue all us girls by means of forced artificial respiration and what I believe might be called chest compression, for which troubles we swiftly beat him up. But still, we were starved for some real fun, the kind you could only get at the Fair.
The very first fair in the United States was a soon-to-become annual sheep-shearing held in rural Virginia in 1803, so it’s hard to imagine that the local kids way back then were as excited by the prospect as we Pleasant Valley rugrats were in our heyday, but who knows, children back when life was simpler liked a lot of weird things, like pig bladders and dolls made out of corn cobs, and were a lot more isolated than even we were. The first official county fair, the Berkshire County Livestock Fair, was held in 1811 in western Massachusetts and organized by a chap named Elkanah Watson who was called the father of American agricultural fairs, and I take my hat off to that guy. What a great idea! That first fair consisted of fourteen farmers parading their animals to the fairground for speeches, picnics and socializing. It had all the elements of every fair to follow: exhibits, competitive judging with prizes awarded, and social events like dances, dinners and speeches about improving agriculture and new techniques. In fact, improving agriculture was the main point of fairs in a brand-new America where 97% of the general populace lived in rural communities and most people were involved in one way or another with farming. “Women’s work” such as sewing, baking and preserving- was also judged and awarded. County fairs were the venues for all kinds of innovations in both farming and homemaking, hosting the debut of such new technology as steel plows, gas-driven tractors, cream separators and electric lights. Farmers who experimented with new breeds and methods were publicly recognized and honored for doing so, which encouraged others to do the same. The whole idea of the county fair caught like a wildfire, and by the end of the Civil War there were over 1,300 all around the country.
With all this going on it was natural that Kendall County, obviously farming country, would get in on the action and throw a fair of our own. Boerne, the Big Town around these parts, functioned as a happening hub of commerce and industry where denizens of neighboring bergs would come to pick up supplies and do business, so it only stands to reason that it should also be the home of the fair. Also, of course, it was the county seat. The first Kendall County Fair was held in 1906 at and around the Metropolitan Opera House here in town- once located on the southeast corner of Main Street and what is now San Antonio Street. Now, the Metropolitan Opera House sounds like a fine place; the type of swanky music hall where Jenny Lind would perform; but in reality the Opera House was a lot more down-home than the name would lead one to believe. This place was basically a hall where folks went to hear speeches and lectures and public readings, to catch a play or a medicine or magic show, or to listen to the Village Band and the Gesang Verein (singing society)- the kind of good clean fun that entertained the masses in the mythical days before radio or TV. They would even sometimes clear the place out and roller skate on its wooden floors. At that first fair the Opera House held all the “women’s fancy work”; their articles of sewing, knitting, tatting, quilting, as well as the baked goodies and home-grown veggies, fresh or put up in jars. As the SA Express put it, they also “displayed all the arts that little girls learned at their mother’s knees,” and for their various efforts participants were awarded prizes for all kinds of things, from “the highest loaf of bread to the best-turned stitch.” The kids could compete in the fair with youth corn and calf and canning clubs which would prove to be the earliest versions of the modern day 4-H Club. There was a baby contest, too, with prizes of $5 and $2.50 for the first and second best-looking babies in the county.
The livestock to be judged were quartered in the Plaza caddy-corner from the Opera House where all the farmers, ranchers and their families could stroll among the pens on the square and check out what their neighbors were up to in the way of horse, cow, pig and goat flesh. “The pride of the livestock exhibit,” again quoteth the Express, “were jacks and mules from all over the county,” but it also included horses, cattle and pigs, chickens and turkeys and calves and piglets and all that kind of stuff, and everyone roamed back and forth between the Opera House and the Square goggling at the sights.
The Fair was held at the Opera House and its environs for a few years, and for a brief time after that in a small building around the corner from the Opera House, with the livestock still kept at the Square. Somewhere in there a parade was added to the festivities, and by the time it made its debut the Fair had already become THE social event of the year in Kendall County.
In 1913, the Fair entered the big leagues. In March of that year a mass meeting took place with the intention of forming a Kendall County Fair Association and by July the corporate charter was granted and a Board of Directors appointed. The directors included County Vocational Ag teachers, the Kendall County Agricultural Agent, the County Home Demonstration Agent, and a Lady Manager of the Women’s Department, among others. The first president of the KCFA was local businessman H.O. Adler and the first Lady’s Manager was Miss Martha Fabra. That year also marked the dedication of the brand new fairgrounds. The Herff family donated 40 acres from their property (which once stretched from Sheep Dip Crossing all the way to Sisterdale.) The SA Express enthused that the site was “just about topographically perfect for such a purpose…the ground is adjacent to the SA&AP Railroad and all trains stop at one of the gates of the Fair.” Fairgrounds all over the US usually shared a lot of the same features: a grandstand and an oval racetrack (the purpose of which was supposedly to perform “trials of speed” but were actually used for horse races with a lot of illegal betting going on), a Women’s Building (sometimes called a Floral Hall) and an exhibition hall, with other smaller things clustered around, like cook tents and lemonade stands. That first year at the Herff Park fairgrounds there was only the lone exhibit building and the livestock were kept penned out in the open, unsheltered, which, after all, was pretty much how they were used to spending their time anyway. The Fair Association and volunteers all over the county got to work right away and by 1914 the Old Dance Hall, the Old Exhibit Hall and livestock barns were built, along with “a deep well, race course, pens for hogs, sheep, goats and cattle and barns for horses…attractive ladies rest room, [and] a modern log cabin erected by the Woodsmen of the World for use as the KCFA headquarters,” according to the Comfort News. And of course, the Beer Garden. In a county full of Germans, you weren’t gonna have a Fair without a lotta beer. Even without all those niceties, though, that first year at the Fair’s permanent home was a bumper year, with 1,000 people attending on the first day, Friday, and an attendance of over 5,000 on Saturday. Fredericksburg, Kerrville, Comfort and many other surrounding towns sent “large delegations and numerous representatives” to our Fair and, gushed the Express, “visitors in large numbers gathered here from countryside, town and city to renew friendships and acquaintance to enjoy the entertainment, inspect the splendid exhibits and put aside the cares of life for one day.”
That last bit really is what the Fair was all about. From the time Kendall County was settled through 1906 when they had the first Fair and all the way up to the 50s and even the 60s, all the folks who lived scattered all over the countryside were pretty well isolated- oh, there were all the little communities, the little churches and shopping trips to town and visits with the family, but up until the last fifty years or so it wasn’t just as easy as hopping into the car and running into town for a sno-cone, especially before cars were invented. Even when there were cars the country people often couldn’t afford one, nor the luxury of gas for getting about the county. All the people living on their outlying farms looked forward to social events like the Fair with an eagerness we can hardly imagine now, we 21st century people who can’t go out into the backyard without our phones, for whom a conversation with someone in India, say, or Antarctica, is only a mouse click and webcam away. In those days the Fair was about hearing the latest innovations in farming and in learning the newest technology while checking out the latest farm equipment, it’s true, but it was so much more. By far the most anticipated and important aspect was the opportunity to meet with friends you rarely got to see, to wander the cavernous exhibit hall checking out the fancy work, the flower arrangements or the enormous cucumber one of your neighbors had grown. To sit under a tent and listen to music and toss back some fresh lemonade, and to dance on the wooden floors of the Old Dance Hall. It was a time out of time for the hard-working farmers and their wives, and for the kids- a time of wonder and magic. Strolling down the midway, with its games and rides and the barkers beckoning you into the freak show tents, the simple rural folk of Boerne garnered rare thrills, mystical moments that only existed one weekend out of the whole year. Ah, man, the magic of that midway when I was a kid! In the week or so before the Fair started, my mother, if tempted off the old homestead and into the Big City by any chance, would watch the influx of carnies with a wary eye, warning us kids not to wander away from the pool or wherever we might have the good fortune to be visiting lest the carnies should snatch us- like any of ‘em would want us! On the other hand, maybe she was worried we would run away and join up- an idea which certainly crossed our minds. My brother and sister and I spent many an hour discussing the amazing paradise that life would become if we hit the road with the carnival, and encountering the carnival folk in droves all over town right before the Fair we studied them, fascinated by these free-spirits who were living the dream. And the midway at night- oh, those hot summer nights of the Fair, the flashing lights from the rides and the canned music, the barkers hollering you over, “Hey blondie!” the name they always called at my sister and I, (way back when we were natural blondes), the taste of a hot funnel cake and the smell of cotton candy, roaming the midway with your friends.
And then there was the Kendall County Queen’s Contest. In the way back, the Queen’s Contest was very formal, the contestants in beautiful gowns and the queen herself donning her elaborate train like those of the Fiesta Court. The queen was always “attended by visiting royalty,” as the Boerne Star put it: such stars as Miss Fiesta de San Jacinto and the Queen of the Peach Festival in Fredericksburg. Jonnie Jo of the House of Reynolds was a contestant one year, as was Patricia of the House of Schmidt, and, although they weren’t using that phrasing anymore, in 1981, Marjorie of the House of Hagy. Oh yeah, readers, many moons and many pounds ago this reporter succumbed to the pressure of her peers and found herself competing for the highest office in the county, and was sadly denied her chance to reign. I coulda been a contender.
And so the Fair endures, and the Beer Garden and the Old Dance Hall endures, but the Old Exhibit Hall was burned down by arsonists in 1984- seventy years old, and with all its permanent exhibits as well as all the Berges Fest records along with it. Also up in smoke went a particularly horrifying yet strangely compelling creature who used to haunt my childhood dreams- a stuffed two-headed calf, born at some ancient time to a surely puzzled farmer and who lived but for a few weeks on earth, but forever in the hot little brains of every Boerne child for generations. I never did go into the freak shows on the midway, the ones where the barkers enticed the curious with promises of mysterious wonders inside- I could’ve, certainly, even though my folks strictly forbid it, because my folks strictly forbid several things that I did on a regular basis, but I knew my limitations, and was pretty sure that if I were to encounter the Elephant Man or the Bearded Lady in there a complete emotional breakdown was sure to follow. As it turns out, I discovered on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day when we were all back in school and from friends who had been suckered in, all I’d missed were a couple of dusty old gallon-jars containing pig fetuses they were trying to pass off as mermaids, or some damn thing. Still, I’m glad I didn’t give in- just the thought of jarred pig fetuses is making me shaky right now as I write.
But yes, the Fair endures, and Kendall County-ites as well as large delegations of out-of-towners still wander through the exhibit halls gawking at the quilts and the preserves and the floral arrangements, and folks still indulge in a couple of off-the-record bets around the trials of speed at the race track. They still sit under the tent in the dusty heat and toss back lemonade, still prop up at the beer garden haling people with whom they went to old Boerne High School. Girls still dream of wearing a fairy-tale gown and being crowned the queen of the county and kids still run alongside the parade route and somebody’s mother will still warn em to stay away from the freak shows and somebody will sneak in anyway, a kid will puke on the Tilt-A-Whirl and an accountant will recall how he used to dream of running away with the carnival. And a kid’ll still stroll along the midway with a herd of her friends, in the heat and the canned music with funnel-cake-dust bearding her chin, and know that for a fact this is the best night of her life.