The rural life

“Are you ready for the fair?”

For the first few weeks of October, that is the ubiquitous greeting around our town. People elsewhere may be talking about tweeting or politics or the annual pennant race, but the buzz here is all about one thing: the Washington Parish Free Fair.

Franklinton’s claim to fame, the four-day-long event is known as North America’s Largest Free County Fair. What makes it the largest are the tens of thousands of visitors who flock from far and wide to enjoy the fair’s big-name entertainment, stroll through its authentic pioneer village, thrill to its whirling midway rides, admire its prizewinning livestock and render it virtually impossible for locals to drive to the grocery store and back home on the same day.

The free fair is called “free” because it costs nothing to enter the fairgrounds. Thanks to a massive and well-coordinated volunteer effort, most of the major attractions, performances and exhibits are free, too. Of course, the free stuff is rarely what appeals to your younger patrons –– the ones who get a three-day vacation from school during fair week and don’t plan to spend it watching some old dudes making cane syrup. For local parents, who have to finance four full days of bumper cars, cotton candy and Whack-A-Mole, the free fair is just another word for nothing left to lose.

Here’s a taste of life in the home of North America’s Largest Free Fair.

A few weeks before the fair:
Harvey and I attend a meeting to sign up for a shift at the school’s fair booth. A major fundraiser for our children’s private school, the booth sells chicken dinners and short-order fare. The level of parental participation is impressive. A $150-per-person fine for anyone who fails to show up helps.

One week before the fair: As usual, I’ve waited right up until the deadline to think about entering the fair’s annual photography contest. This is not because I have any real skill behind the lens but because, like every other member of the camera-wielding “mamarazzi,” I can’t resist the urge to inflict cute pictures of my children onto the public. Still, I’m not as shameless as a few mamarazzi, who beat the three-entry rule by submitting extra photos (or paintings or crafts) under their husbands’ or relatives’ names –– even under their kids’. There’s nothing like the fair to bring out the child prodigies.

Wednesday morning, Opening Day:
A great parade loaded with marching bands, beauty queens, floats and 4-H’ers signals the official start of fair week. We’re lucky enough to have a friend who lives near the parade route and invites us to her parade-watching party every year.

Afterward, we walk directly to the fairgrounds for lunch and, after surveying the choices, usually wind up at our school’s booth. Inevitably, we order the nap-inducing quarter-chicken barbecue dinner, which effectively destroys any and all desire to haul two children out to the packed, sweltering midway to stand in long lines for overpriced three-minute rides. Sadly, our sons do not share this sentiment.

When Andy, our oldest, was a toddler, he was so timid I had to peel him off my legs at birthday parties to force him to participate. Therefore, it’s been something of a shocker to discover there’s a daredevil lurking in there. At 9, he’s already conquered several midway rides that are too insane for me to even consider. One year at the fair, he somehow talked me –– a person who is afraid of heights –– into boarding Pharaoh’s Fury, a ship that swings higher and higher while making terrifying whooshing sounds until it is basically perpendicular to the ground. I am not too proud to admit that the people watching us from the ground that day saw a grown woman with her eyes squeezed shut, screaming like a banshee and hiding her face in a 6-year-old boy’s chest.

After a few hours, Harvey and I start herding the boys toward the exits. Knowing we have three more days of the fair to go, we sensibly try not to overdo it the first day. Again, we are alone in this opinion. As far as our sons are concerned, less is simply less. No matter that we’ve just spent hours riding rides and our entire 401(k) trying to win a 33-cent stuffed animal, the boys always seem to leave the fairgrounds sulking and muttering under their breath that they never get to do anything. From what I can tell, that’s a widespread fair tradition, too.

Thursday, Day 2: Today is the Better Baby Contest –– a long-running staple of fair week. When Andy was a baby, I refused to enter him in the competition on moral grounds. If you asked me, baby beauty contests were just plain wrong –– not to mention that I would get seriously offended if, by some fluke, mine didn’t win.

By the time our sunny, dimpled, cotton-topped, blue-eyed second child came along, however, I apparently had achieved some higher enlightenment regarding the baby contest. Either that, or I figured Matthew was a deadlock cinch. I dressed him in a navy jumper and red high-top sneakers and paraded him around the stage of the local primary school. The good news is Matthew did, in fact, take the blue ribbon. The bad news is I’ll now spend the rest of my life trying to explain to Andy that his little brother was not actually a “better” baby than he was. Andy just had the misfortune of having a better mother.

Friday, Day 3: On Friday mornings, we cruise through Old McDonald’s Farm, a popular petting zoo with animals including bunnies and llamas. The petting zoo is a valuable educational experience for children from all walks of life. It also gives parents the perfect opportunity to address their children’s natural curiosity about such things as “Where do baby chickens come from?” and “When can we go back to the midway?”

On Friday afternoons, I usually help our neighbor, artist Sara Nelson, sell her collectible Christmas ornaments at Mile Branch. Mile Branch is a very cool pioneer re-enactment village in the middle of the fairgrounds. Sara designs and hand-paints a new ornament featuring a different historical log cabin each year. Friends take turns manning her booth on the porch of an 1800s cabin throughout the week. This mainly entails sitting in the shade, people-watching, listening to the strains of bluegrass, enjoying the aroma of wood fires and munching on roasted peanuts. Later, Sara thanks her volunteers by cooking us a gourmet meal in her artfully decorated home. Is she kidding? Working at Mile Branch is the only rest I get the whole week. I should be cooking dinner for her.

Saturday, the Final Day:  Biggest crowds of the week. Because our family has now done and seen nearly everything at the Washington Parish Fair at least once, it makes no sense to show up there today. But that’s never stopped us before.

We check out the free children’s entertainment at the playground and then hit the midway one last time before heading over to the RV park to watch the LSU game at a friend’s campsite. From year to year, the routine doesn’t vary much.

By the next October, we’re always ready to do it all again, no matter how many times we’ve done it all before.

Editor’s Note:  “Rural Life” by Melissa Bienvenu recently won first place in the Column category at the Press Club of New Orleans’ annual awards ceremony.

Previously, articles by Melissa Bienvenu have also won gold and silver awards from the International Regional Magazine Association. We at Louisiana Life congratulate Melissa Bienvenu and are very proud of her.