Country Bragging Rights

Musings of A Simple Country Man

By Hobie Morris

(Brookfield, NY – Sept. 2012) The Fairs, both state and county, were planned to follow harvest when Late autumn haze was on the hills…. -Down On The Farm

Peter Glazebrook lives in Harrogate, England. For over 30 years Peter has enjoyed gardening in a very big way! In 2011 he grew a world record onion that weighed a few ounces shy of 18 pounds. With a circumference of 30 inches it took Peter’s two strong arms to hold this monster up over his head.

Glazebrook also holds records for the heaviest potatoes, parsnips and longest beet roots.

While my lovely wife Lois comes from a proud South Dakota farming background our three decade gardening effort has been “small potatoes” and even smaller onions in comparison to Mr. Glazebrook’s remarkable “green thumb” achievements.

This year due to highly unusual weather conditions that thoroughly confused Mother Nature, we began harvesting our raised bed organic soil garden several weeks earlier than usual. Thankfully our garlic, shallot, potato and onion crops were not affected by a late summer extremely hot and dry spell. Hand watering kept other items growing. Unlike most gardeners we depend upon our garden to provide highly nutritious food during the long winter months.

Having a bountiful home grown garden is not as common or necessary as it once was. Gardening takes considerable time, plenty of physical effort and several months of almost daily commitment. In the spring amateur gardeners begin with great enthusiasm and excitement. By harvest time, however, the only visible “crop” is a thriving patch of tall, healthy weeds!

In Prov. 20:4 the Bible says “A sluggard does not plow in season, so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing.”

As a city kid growing up during World War II, my family had a large Victory Garden in our back lot. As part of the war effort Americans were encouraged to help by growing food for their tables. All across America millions of people “pitched in” to help win the war. In 1945, “with the war won and a period of prosperity beginning, many Americans stored away their garden tools, most never to be used again.

Recently my beautiful wife Lois and I were picking peas in our garden. Our two cats lazily lounged in the shade snoozing away in the afternoon heat. Occasionally in the distance we heard the nightly roar of engines. It was tractor pulling time at the popular Madison County/Brookfield Fair, some four miles east of our location. We listened for a minute and then went back to work. The cats stretched and yawned and went back to sleep.

Not too many local people remember that several years ago, Lois, while still a college German professor won a blue ribbon at the Fair. She was crowned the Madison County Hand Milking Champion! She milked a Holstein in record time beating several very surprised veteran farm wives.

Our local County Fair has been around a long time—163 years to be exact (not 173 as is usually mentioned). In the 70 years this simple country man has attended it, the Fair has changed significantly as has America during the same period.

Until around World War II it was still a time honored place for displaying the impressive accomplishments of the still numerous farm families living throughout this region. Produce, horses, cows, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs etc. were trucked in or in some cases, herded in along the numerous country roads coming into Brookfield. Farm wives brought in canned goods, numerous baked delights, quilts and more items than can possibly be listed. Town and Village people also contributed countless items too.

While Fairs always had wonderful entertainment, honoring the proud farming community was the main attraction. This was reflected in the Fair dates. While varying from year to year it almost always took place around harvest time—when the field and garden crops were their largest and freshest. This was also the time when small back yard gardens were at their peak too.

In the post World War II era, however, dramatic changes swept all across America. Among them were the continuing decline in the number of farms and farmers. The lure of a better life in thriving urban centers sparked the latent dreams of many young ruralists. The economy was booming and better paying jobs plentiful. Many men and women who had served in the Armed Forces all around the globe wanted a more exciting life than the hard life on the farm. As a result of these great demographic changes Rural America lost much of its historic influence and importance.

The County Fairs that had championed the amazing productivity and vitality of the farming community became a casualty of this rapidly changing America. Reflecting this change and to meet the needs and expectations of a different clientele, County Fairs became more of an entertainment occasion sprinkled with a dash of old time agriculture.

This change was reflected in when Fairs were held. In the “old days” Fairs were rarely scheduled before Labor Day. The Madison County Fair, for example, was normally held in August, September and even into early October. (In 1888 it took place in October, but had to be postponed a week because of frigid temperatures, high winds and occasional snow flurries).

In 1943 this then simple country “boy”‘ was temporarily “lost” from his parents. The huge Labor Day crowd was estimated at over 25,000 people! The Premium Book for that year showed just how important area agriculture still was. (The boy found his way to where his Father had parked their 1941 green Ford. Passersby heard crying from the back seat and asked if he was the missing boy).

But what does this have to do with “Country Bragging Rights?” Where we live in Brookfield the land is conservatively about half rock, with most of the balance hard pan clay-shale with a very thin layer of semi fertile top soil. The incredible thing about this is that in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries amazing size produce was grown in this same area!

An “unofficial” community contest called “bragging rights” created a lot of competitive good-natured ribbing. If you grew something extra special you naturally wanted to do a little bragging. Family usually came first and then friends and neighbors hanging around the local store. Then yon took it to where it really counted—the home town newspaper. If it caught the editor’s fancy everybody would read about your success in next week’s edition.

If you harvested at the right time you’d be sorely tempted to enter it in the local fall fair. If you happened to win the coveted blue ribbon you could justly be regarded as “king of the mountain” with plenty of bragging time until next year’s fair.

Sadly today there isn’t much to really brag about in the agricultural section of most area county fairs. Some of course do better than others but all are collectively a far cry from old time fairs when agriculture was still king. A small sampling of local “bragging rights” will probably amaze today’s weekend gardeners and even the few remaining local farmers.

In 1909, for example, Fred Gustin raised on his 17 by 40 foot plot 21 bushels of carrots, one of which weighed four pounds. The same year Al Cook raised a turnip that was over 12 inches in diameter and weighed 20 pounds. The next year Ray Clark grew a cabbage 40 inch around and tipped the scales at 18 pounds.

In the western part of the township Jared F. York grew a four-and-a-half pound potato and Walton Denison had a single potato hill that had 29 good sized tubers. On five-sixth of an acre Will Chesbro husked 104 bushels of corn!

Another story (unverified), a local farmer had a field of corn grow so rapidly one warm evening that it pulled itself up by its roots and the whole field committed suicide to the farmer’s great loss.

And who says you can’t make money farming? A farmer in Milo, Maine dug up a potato containing a gold watch.

Taking your prize to the local fair was an exciting occasion. And if you were fortunate to win a large blue ribbon you were really in Seventh Heaven! The competition, however, proved very keen!

At their 45th fair (1893), for instance, there were over 2,000 entries. In 1915, Dept. J “Farm Produce” contained 193 different classes. It was said”…it was the largest and best ever seen at the Brookfield Fair [as it was commonly known] and eclipsed the show of a large per cent of the town and county fairs of Central New York.”

In 1893 (the same year as the Chicago World Fair) a local newspaper observed “…the exhibit of agricultural products was immense and a Brookfield section…inserted in the agricultural building at Chicago would not suffer by comparison….” (Many other fairs had similar testimonies to what the Brookfield soil could produce).

While we obviously can’t turn back the “hands of time,” we can hope that these glory years will in some fashion return in the 21st century. For the time being, however, we’ll only hear the faintest echoes of these “bragging right” years that made community life so much fun, and at times highly competitive!

But then, these are only the musings of a simple country man who still holds out hope that people will continue the trend to grow their own food and buy locally. Maybe the “old time Fair” is slowly rising ala a Phoenix!

Hobie Morris is a Brookfield resident and simple country man.

 

 

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