I am now in possession of the Official 2022 Premium Book of the 181st Champaign County Fair. In other words, my sister dropped off my copy of this year’s Fair Book a couple weeks ago – and we have been comparing notes ever since. Thumbing through the Fair Book in mid-summer has been a ritual for as long as I can remember, related to another tradition from our father’s childhood. Because tiny budgets and morning/evening milking chores precluded family vacations, the Scotts spent every day at the county fair – picnic under the trees included. The arrival of the Fair Book each year was second only to the Sears Christmas catalog for creating excitement and anticipation!
By its very nature, the Fair Book must serve many functions for many people. The compact publication (8½” x 6” x ½“), almost devoid of pictures but full of ads – and print that seems to my Boomer eyes tinier each year – is basically a book of rules with pages and pages of state-mandated regulations. Health and safety issues for people and animals at such a public event are of utmost concern; hence, the Fair Book contains scores of guidelines and requirements.
Because the fair is one huge conglomeration of county-wide competitions, there are also parameters to be stipulated in the name of fairness and level playing field. A perusal of this year’s book tells me I may not run my demolition derby car with homemade bumpers; if my grand champion pie for the auction is made with lard, I will receive a $5 donation from the Pork Council; my entry for the open class rabbit show must consist of three animals each no older than 69 days. All good to know!
As titled, the Fair Book is a premium list. Balancing funds collected for entrance fees with prize money paid to exhibitors, however, is to merely scratch the surface of a multifaceted financial operation. Equally complicated is the schedule of events. What a gigantic job it is to ensure that entertainers, competitors, judges, and audience members show up for slated activities at the proper time and location – be it the grandstand, the show ring, the activities buildings, the racetrack, or any number of arenas. This essential information appears printed between the covers of the all-purpose Fair Book.
To be perfectly honest, however, I pay scant attention to the nitty-gritty of schedules or regulations during my first pass through the new Fair Book. Oh, I might glance at the premium for a first-place showing in the Needlework
Department or check on the ever-smaller 4-H style review. But mostly, I look at all my favorite sections.
I pore over the categories in the Needlework Department with their individual items – maybe a new article has been added or an old one discontinued. In the Quilt Department I wonder which of her several creations my sister will choose to exhibit. I read through the Crafts and Hobbies Department, although I do not possess the skills to enter any handmade cards, gift-wrapped packages, or scrapbook pages.
And despite a total absence of culinary DNA, I linger over the lists of baked items in memory of my mother: she won so many prizes over the years with the quick breads, yeast breads, and cloverleaf rolls that emerged warm and yummy from her oven. My interest in the Fair Book is reminiscent of hers.
Although my thumbs have never been green, I then head to the Horticulture Department to check out what I consider the classic of county-fair competitions: the biggest pumpkin, the tallest stalk of corn, and the like. Finally, I give in to my fascination of theme titles for the Floriculture Department flower arrangements: Somewhere Over the Rainbow – featuring a crescent shape; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids – limited to miniatures, not exceeding 5 inches.
But I thoroughly enjoyed a Fair Book lollapalooza this week! My sister loaned me a selection of the Fair Books she has been saving since 1986. For years, she has carried on Mother’s passion for publicly sharing her many talents, mostly sewing and quilting but occasionally entering a few baked goods. The Fair Books in her collection resemble the ones Mother consulted, complete with notations, checkmarks, and turned-down corners.
Strolling down memory lane helped me realize another function of the Fair Book – as a historical document of sorts. Some 35 years ago, ceramics were all the rage in the Crafts and Hobbies Department, with nary a scrapbook page listed. At the same time, just four quilt items were included in the Needlework Department; today quilters compete in their own department choosing from among more than twenty separate items.
As in daily life, trends come and go. For a while the Culinary Department offered a carry-in Decorated Cake Day and under yeast breads included bread-from-a-machine. Such terms as repurposed, trash-to-treasure, original design, and adapted design have begun to appear with increasing frequency. And my sister is still deciding what to enter in the Cake Mix Bake-Off!
Historically, we hobbled through a couple of difficult years, at times noted in the Fair Book: “Due to Covid-19 pandemic this show is cancelled for 2020.”
Eventually, however, this line appeared: “We are overjoyed to be planning a full fair.”
All in all, it seems to me that the good old Fair Book may be as much of a tradition as any we celebrate on the fairgrounds come early August!
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.