Fun and guilt at the Tri-County Fair
July 25, 2018
During the loose hay years, we kids would get a respite of four days, and that was the tri-county fair in Deer Lodge. It was the high point of our summer.
We were in 4-H, so we always had a project, and the custom was to take it to the fair to be judged. Our father ran a farm flock of about 100 ewes, so it was usual to have a lamb which we had tamed and fattened and groomed. Some took cattle and others took horses, but we stuck with sheep.
The fair always occurred about the middle of August, and it was a welcome respite from the monotony and heat of raking hay. Three or four days in the big city was a wonderful experience.
Around the first of the month we'd each catch a lamb we picked out and put it in a small pen to start getting it ready. It's natural to become attached to an animal after spending an hour or two every day with it. It bothered me to see it so confined, but that's the way it was.
It was always on a Thursday that we loaded our projects into the old horse trailer and headed for Deer Lodge at 40 mph, which is as fast as our father ever drove.
The judging was on Friday. There were different categories of livestock. My first year I took a fat lamb – one that had been fed up to slaughter weight. The other types were breeding stock of various ages.
After the judging was over and we had been presented our ribbons, we were free to enjoy the fair and the city. Our only responsibility was to make sure our sheep were fed and watered and their pens clean. The rest of the days were ours.
We all had taken a “draw” on our haying wages, so we had ten or twenty dollars to spend. That lasted only a day or so, and then we were broke. There were a lot of temptations at the fair.
The high point of the weekend was the rodeo on Saturday night. All of us country kids had our hero cowboys – the big-name professionals who rode rough stock for a living. There were the famous Casey Tibbs, plus Deb Copenhaver, Johnny Reynolds from Melrose, and others. We all had our favorites.
At the horse races during the days we always stood at the fence, betting amongst ourselves. It was ten cents on the horse that caught our eye. Fifty or sixty cents were pretty good winnings when a hot dog was 25 cents and a soft drink only a dime.
We kids were on our own for those days. It was too far to drive back to Helmville every night, so we stayed with our maternal grandmother or friends of the family.
The carnival was the attraction and took most of our money. In the evenings, I would join friends from town, and we'd wander the grounds in the hope of meeting up with some girls to hang out with. The groups of girls at the affair were there for the same thing, but it never really worked out. If you have a girl to entertain it takes a lot of money, and we were all broke by the second day, so our amorous relationships lasted about 15 minutes.
I felt sorry for my sheep, locked in a small pen with nothing to do but eat, then lie down and wait to eat again. I was anxious to get him home and turned out with the others.
The greatest disappointment I suffered was when I was told that I had to sell my sheep for slaughter at the last evening of the fair. It was standard protocol they said. Those who had brought breeding stock were able to take their animals home to rejoin the herd, but mine was to be sent to the slaughterhouse.
So the night came and they lined us up, each with our sheep. One at a time we took our animal into the lights and it was auctioned off, usually to a local business that bought the sheep for advertisement purposes.
I was very attached to my sheep, and cried during the entire process, knowing that I had betrayed an innocent trust. I still remember thrusting it into the pen with the others and walking away. The next years I took only breeding stock to the fair so I wouldn't have to go through that crisis of conscience.
A few weeks later they sent me a check for $40, and that eased the sad memory. But I could never do it again.
I think it would be harder for me today than it was when I was a naive child of 11.