Rural America’s Last Hurrah, County Fairs, National Geographic

County fairs—a celebration of harvest, skills, productivity, and survival—are reality shows for city dwellers, and an annual last hurrah for rural Americans before they buckle down for the long winter.

In 1811, a gentleman farmer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts organized the first American county fair. Livestock was shown for prizes, spinning and weaving machines were displayed, a band played, and a rural community gathered together. Since then, county fairs have been an annual tradition, full of charm, excitement and the competitive spirit, from New England to Southern California, and from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest.

Today, less than 2% of families work the land. And while the late summer celebrations of rural accomplishment have survived and, in many places, flourish, they …

Rural America’s Last Hurrah, County Fairs, National Geographic

County fairs—a celebration of harvest, skills, productivity, and survival—are reality shows for city dwellers, and an annual last hurrah for rural Americans before they buckle down for the long winter.

In 1811, a gentleman farmer in Pittsfield, Massachusetts organized the first American county fair. Livestock was shown for prizes, spinning and weaving machines were displayed, a band played, and a rural community gathered together. Since then, county fairs have been an annual tradition, full of charm, excitement and the competitive spirit, from New England to Southern California, and from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest.

Today, less than 2% of families work the land. And while the late summer celebrations of rural accomplishment have survived and, in many places, flourish, they have had to evolve to reflect the surrounding community. Music, carnival rides, demolition derbies, and other kinds of entertainment usually get top billing, but young and old still tend to prized animals, pies are tasted, farm implements admired, clothes are modeled, and visitors are reminded of the many skills required daily in all households in the not too distant past.

No matter how tough the times are, the average American still lives in an era of plenty and modern conveniences. Sewing is a hobby rather than a daily chore. Animal husbandry usually means walking the dog and scooping the kitty litter pan. We buy chicken sandwiches, frozen beef patties, and cartons of milk and eggs rather than tending to animals twice a day, 365 days of the year. And we buy prepared food in grocery stores and restaurants rather than surviving on what we can produce in a hardscrabble plot outside the back door.

Farming will always require hard work and be dependent on the weather, but many chores have gone high tech compared to subsistence practices of the past. Progressive practices — local, organic, greener methods — are actually a revisit of the past, but with much more readily available information and materials. The old and the new are both alluring, and with traditional community support, may be more of a draw for young farmers.

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