We worked all year toward one goal — showing our prize steers and lambs at Bangor State Fair.
In the 1970s as a teen, I was a member of Penobscot County 4-H Beef Club. My first bull calf came from the baby beef auction at Fryeburg Fair in the fall. He was a shorthorn I named Rasputin, but I called him Razzy.
The goal was to raise a prime beef steer — a castrated bull calf — that would bring a good price at market. It was a simple way to learn up close and personal the basic principles of farming.
I fed and watered Razzy, groomed him, exercised him to tame him and build muscle, and was responsible for his daily care. I had to keep a log of how much I fed him and when, and when I did maintenance for his living space. The log was attached to the outside of Razzy’s pen in the barn.
The 4-H club members were subject to periodic inspection from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service, which was in charge of our 4-H program. Our leader was Merton Libby, a longtime and well-loved Extension agent who had a passion for 4-H and the kids who participated.
After he passed, an award was established in his name and given to the 4-Her each year in recognition of his or her hard work and how well the person upheld the standards Merton had set for us. I was fortunate to receive it one year.
As it would get closer to fair time, I washed and groomed Razzy more often, and eventually clipped his hair at his neck, brisket, and tail, trimmed his hooves more carefully, and practiced posing him, getting ready for those few moments when in our 4-H whites we would show off our year’s work to a judge in the show ring at Bangor State Fair.
In the early 1970s at the fairgrounds, the barns were along the Buck Street fence, where the horse barns and equipment are now for the raceway. When the city expanded horse racing and the midway, it built the barns where they exist today.
In 4-H, we not only showed off our actual animals, we also had showmanship competitions in which we demonstrated our skills at handling the steers that weighed around 1,000 pounds; and judging competitions in which we acted as judges and had to justify our choices between the animals shown to us based on their structure and muscling.
I also showed market lambs, which were born on our farm in early spring and market ready by fair time. They had to be accustomed to being handled, and their wool coats had to be washed and dried and evened up before being shown, but they were not the same level of work as the steers.
Our animals were auctioned off toward the end of the fair — a very emotional event for me each year — but I then had money to put in the bank toward next year’s animals and some toward college. I also had to submit an accounting of my project’s finances at the end of each year.
And even though I swore each year I could never go through the emotional turmoil of selling my animals again, I was ready by fall to purchase another bull calf and to start afresh.
We learned so many important life lessons through the 4-H program, from practical finances to dealing with loss. We learned responsibility to another living thing that depended on us, and to other human beings. We learned the value of hard work and personal accomplishment. We learned how to be good losers and gracious winners. We learned where some of our food comes from and how we could influence its quality.
We learned it’s OK to love something for a short while; even knowing we would have to let it go.
As a 4-H member, the annual fair was part of my job. We were there for setup and breakdown. We always had someone from the club in the barns where our animals were. We arrived early in the morning and went home in the evening.
We kept our barn area clean, washed our animals to keep them clean and ready for showing, and helped maintain the shavings or sawdust used under the show tents. Some 4-H members stayed at the fairgrounds overnight.
During the day, we were available to explain to visitors how the 4-H program worked and why we had chosen the breed or the specific animal we had. We answered questions about farming and our aspirations.
We were ambassadors for the farming way of life and its future. We were proud of our animals, our heritage and our families.
People enjoyed visiting our barns, and appreciated the agricultural nature of the event. Some came from farms; others from the city. The midway, which is how we referred to the carnival rides and doughboy stands, was a sideshow.
Now it is reversed. With dwindling dairy and beef farms in this area, the agricultural part of the fair has become the side show and the primary attraction for visitors has become the carnival.
There’s still 4-H, but there are no longer multiple show tents for large animals; or huge displays of stitchery, canned goods, jellies, jams and baked foods. The displays used to be set up in Bangor Auditorium; now the displays are so diminished in number, they can fit in a much smaller space.
The fair that was begun to show off Maine’s best agricultural efforts is becoming just another entertainment venue. It saddens me to see that trend.
I don’t attend the fair every year. Before my husband Jim died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010, we would try to go and visit the livestock barns and talk to people there; watch special demonstrations, and just wander around. He and I would sit under the Bingo tent for a few rounds, laughing at how we had become some of the old people we used to make fun of when we saw them sitting under the Bingo tent.
The rides and games these days don’t interest me much, but I do go support the 4-H when I am able, visit the barns and remember more robust farming days. The smells of animal waste, hay and straw that wrinkles the noses of most visitors kindles a kind of peace in my soul, and stirs some very special memories.
I like to talk to the farm families, especially the 4-H kids — some of whom are grandchildren of the kids I used to know and show with at the fair. I cannot help but wonder if their grandchildren will have the same opportunities.