Blue Ribbon Memories

Posted August 2nd, 2012 by Candice

The highlight of my summers growing up was going to the Prince William County Fair.  For weeks we planned what we’d wear (one year’s fair outfit included red-and-blue dyed squaw boots from Memco that turned my feet beet red and indigo), what we’d do first, and what we’d enter in the exhibits.  Mama entered her sewing, canning, and vegetables from our garden.  In 1964, my eleventh summer, I decided to enter something, too.   

I’ve always loved county fair—the crunch of straw underfoot, the rich warm smells of farm animals, the heightened excitement that makes everyone feel like a kid.  So when my friend Donna invited me to go with her family to the Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair, I was thrilled.  2012 marks the fair’s 274th, the oldest in Virginia and possibly the United States.  It’s not as big as the Prince William fair, but it had all the corndogs, cows, cotton candy, and carousel rides you could want.    

We went nearly every day to visit the animals and check on that day’s judging events.  In the summer of ’64, our dreams were pinned on winning ribbons. 

 First stop, the rabbit and poultry barn.  Boys with buzzcuts gawked at mop-headed chickens.  Ducklings lay in a fuzzy heap, fast asleep, though one black duck fixed me with a beady eye.  In the adjacent cage, baby turkeys paced like junkies in rehab.  (My mother had an expression for restless people:  “He’s tracking like a turkey.”)  Two roosters vying for the title of Foghorn Leghorn crowed continuously, exhausting the lop-eared rabbits that sprawled frog-legged on their cage floors, flat as flounders.

We visited my favorite place first, the rabbit and poultry barn.   I itched to pet the cute Bantam hens and admired the Best in Show rosette on the cage door of a Flemish Giant buck the size of a coffee table.   If only we could win one of those ribbons!

Next we toured the Arts and Crafts show in a building too large for what it promised.  Dust motes seemed to shimmer with ghosts of industrious fair-goers in years past—bustling housewives who entered the best of their baking and farmers who weighed their vine-ripened watermelons with pride.  Here, vegetables were represented by a few tomatoes and baked goods seemed limited to trendy cupcakes and cookies.   

The Home Arts building bulged with towering seven-layer cakes, brilliant displays of roses and zinnias, watermelons that bowed the plank shelving, and rows of canned jellies and jams that glowed like rare gems.  Calico aprons were pegged on a line.  Racks were draped with pieced quilts and crocheted tablecloths, different as snowflakes.

I lingered by four card tables, each set for a themed dinner with a matching floral arrangement.  The first three prize-winners displayed sleek modern vases spouting ornamental grasses and a few blooming stems.  The fourth table wore an old-fashioned lace tablecloth with paper birthday plates and napkins and a plain glass vase with pink roses.  The “pity” fourth place ribbon pricked me like a thorn. 

Mama and I scanned the shelves.  Her canned peaches had failed to place.  The winner’s perfect scalloped halves cascaded inside the Mason jar like dahlia petals, but I bet my mother’s peaches tasted sweeter.  Mama’s lima beans, grown from seed, arduously dusted and hoed, looked sad on their paper plate.  She got second.  If only the judge had sat down to a bowl of her succotash!  Her pattypan squash took third place.  We walked over to the sewing area.  The green velvet dress she had stitched for me on her old Singer earned another third place.  The prize-winning entries—complicated suits and evening gowns—were beyond my mother’s skills, but that green velvet dress made me feel like a Russian princess.  Two white ribbons, one red.  But no blue.

Outside, we strolled down the midway, eating corndogs and watching an acrobatic act.  I remembered when the sideshow was the entertainment, that, and “hoochie-coochie” dancers.  The four of us rode the Ferris wheel.  The breeze felt heavenly as our gondola gently rocked.  I remembered the two-seater cars with the bar across laps and how the operator would pause each car at the top to hear girls scream.  We went around and around, then settled back to earth softly as a raindrop.

Mama warned me to stay close, that gypsies might kidnap me.  If only they would!  I’d live in a yellow and red wagon and ride rides and eat cotton candy every single day.  My stepfather braved the Merry-mixer with me, turning a little greener on each spin.  

We were late getting to the Home Arts building.  The last category had been judged.  And it was mine.

As we passed the Arts and Crafts building on our way out, I glimpsed my eleven-year-old self, standing nervously in front of the entry desk the first day of fair week.  The man had looked at my drawing curiously.

“We don’t have a youth category for a picture like this,” he said.  “I’ll have to put it in the adult category.  What’s the title of it?”

“‘House on Haunted Hill,’” I said faintly, realizing my smeary pencil drawing on mimeograph paper stood no chance against grown-up artists.

 “Should be called ‘Haunted House on a Hill,’” the man said, laughing at his own joke.

 All that week I passed by my entry.  It looked small and insignificant beside framed oil paintings and beautiful watercolors.  Now, after the judging, I walked up to it again and stared incredulously at the blue ribbon hanging beside it.  Mama proudly watched me collect my prize money, a check for one dollar and twenty-five cents.  My first earnings as an artist.

Mama entered in the fair every year, sometimes taking second or third, but never first.  When she died, I found her ribbons from 1964 pressed in her mother’s Bible.  Mine was there, too, no longer first-place blue but a faded purple.  

My mother’s ribbons are still as bright as hope.   

11 Responses to “Blue Ribbon Memories”

  1. Donna says:

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. Not the sobbing sorrowful tears, but those sweet tears that trickle down your cheek because your realize that that you are truly blessed to be in the moment. I spend days with my Mama every week, and sometimes I forget that she deserves a blue ribbon. I wish I could have tasted your Mama’s home cooking.

    That your first encouragement as an artist should have come from a blue ribbon at the fair seems fitting as you are a country girl at heart.

    • Candice says:

      I wish you could have tasted my mother’s home cooking, too, but I also wish I could have eaten at Parker’s Crab Shore. One of those fisherman’s platter would taste good right about now!

      Opportunities were few and far between back then, as you know. I suspect my ribbon came from a judge who realized I was a kid haplessly stuck in the wrong age group, but was kind enough to recognize my pluck. I did consider pulling my entry so I wouldn’t compete with grown-ups, but went ahead anyway.

  2. gosh. you do have a silver tongue don’t you candace? such sweet memories, vividly described, beautifully shared. we almost went to the fred. fair but corn made it impossible this year…i know it was fun and i would give $5 for a candy apple just now!

    • Candice says:

      I don’t think I have a silver tongue–just a story to tell. This post took me an entire day to write!

      I know you are in the throes of corn season and am sorry you missed our fair. Of all the junk that was there, I didn’t see any candy apples!

  3. Sheilah Egan says:

    Thank you for transporting me to other times. I was not a country girl but my mother was and I watched her can and sew and plant vegetables. I have done a bit of those things myself–but my sweet pickled peaches never taste as good as my Grandmomma’s did. Now I have the joy of watching our grown daughters do those same things (on a smaller scale most of the time). Two of our daughters grow lots of vegetables and one has chickens for fresh eggs. And the bonus is that the grand children are growing up seeing the same things I watched my mother and grandmother doing in the summer kitchen (out on the back porch). Don’t suppose that I ever thought about seeing the cycle repeating. Thanks, Candice for the lovely, poignant walk down memory lane.

    • Candice says:

      Sheilah, I am impressed that your daughters are going back to the “old ways.” Raising chickens is not easy. Canning is hard, even in the air-conditioned kitchen. And vegetable gardening is tough–always weather-controlled. But, as you said, your grandchildren will benefit. They’ll know where a beet come from and the taste of fresh eggs versus those trucked in from pathetic chickens. Glad you stopped by . . . you’re always as welcome as the flowers of May!

  4. Sister Patricia says:

    Mama should have entered her fudge and her chocolate chip cookies, that we would fight over, and eat most of them up before they had a chance to cool.
    Back then when women slaved over a stove to enter their best goodies, they should have all gotten a blue ribbon for standing in a hot steaming kitchen for days making the entry. Bet most of the judges were men!!!

    • Candice says:

      The judges WERE men and a lot of the criteria was based on appearances. Mama’s food tasted wonderful, but her cookies wouldn’t be uniform or whatever, and that knocked off points. It was a good lesson for me, in fairness.

      I’d give anything to wrestle you for some of Mama’s chocolate chip cookie dough, even though I know you’d win.

  5. Melissa G says:

    Your Mama was a winner, no matter what place she came in a categorical competition. She made the effort and that’s what makes her a winner. Still, coming second or third place is still pretty good.
    I like your drawing. You definitely had a talent there.

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