Rediscovering magic at the county fair

Being back at the Lac Qui Parle County Fair immediately transported me to the days of my youth as I recalled wristband day, the Zipper ride, carnival games, mini donuts, the children’s barnyard petting zoo, the flea market lady, and crowds of teenagers smoking fake, light-up cigarettes. Absent for more than a decade, my last visit to the county fair was as a sophomore in high school, riding the Ferris wheel with a boy, feeling just like Fern in Charlotte’s Web.

Rediscovering the Magic of the County FairReturning to the fair now, as a 30 year old, I witnessed a different place. Rather, I witnessed the same place, but I noticed completely different things. Magnus Nilsson, the celebrated Swedish chef and photographer who returned to his hometown to run a world famous restaurant, said about his experience, “It’s still exactly the same place. It’s just that I see it differently.”

Rediscovering the Magic of the County FairSo much looked and smelled the same: the buildings, the grandstand, the 4-H tent, the livestock. But for the first time, I took in deeper layers of beauty. I saw the multi-colored tin siding and its stripes of red and blue and green and white and yellow that I never noticed as a kid. I noticed the font on the livestock buildings. The green grass against the red schoolhouse caught my eye along with the yellow splashes of color on the fry bread food truck and the purple and pink of the midway rides.

Rediscovering the Magic of the County FairThough it dubs itself the “Little Minnesota State Fair,” the Lac Qui Parle County Fair is nowhere close in size to the Minnesota State Fair. But for a fair in rural southwestern Minnesota, in a town of about 1,500 people, in one of the least populated counties in the state, it’s quite spectacular to see the crowds of people filling the midway. I saw all kinds of people: people I haven’t seen in years, old classmates with their children, country neighbors, and friends.

As I looked out at this constant stream of people, I couldn’t help but notice the camaraderie abounding. Everybody was somebody, everybody was a part of something at the fair, everybody was equal, everybody was part of the story. Rather than differences, the focus was on the uniting force of something bigger. In a time that feels constantly divided, where one can’t even look left or right without political opinions being shared and disputed, this basic human experience seemed like a tiny bit of magic.

It’s not that I don’t agree with discourse. I support all efforts to bridge this gap so prevalent in daily life. It’s just that so often it feels overwhelming to do anything about it. Some days I’d rather ignore the differences, pretend they don’t exist, and continue my regular routine imagining life the way I’d like, crafting a unity narrative that is solely an illusion. But I can’t do that. I must engage with those around me to further a sense of hope that so often seems diminishing.

Rediscovering the Magic of the County FairBeginners 

But we have only begun
to love the earth.

We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
—we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

[Beginners, Denise Levertov]

Though Levertov is referring more to our relationship to the land than the human experience, I think the words work for many interpretations. As she says, “We have only begun to know the power that is in us if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.” Flower metaphors aside, as I walked around the county fair, I couldn’t help but feel that so much is in bud. We’re only just beginning this quest to live side by side, to engage in life together, to understand differences and listen to reason, and compromise. What better place to start than the county fair, a true cross-section of prairie life, of humanity?

The fair created a feeling of camaraderie in me, one I haven’t felt so completely since being back on the prairie. It gave me a new sense of hope. As the patrons of the fair browsed the livestock buildings, chatted in line for spicy bacon cheeseburger fried bread, watched musical performers, and toured the art building, there was a tangible sense of shared community. No matter affiliation, no matter political views, no matter socio-economic class, everybody was just somebody enjoying the magic of the county fair.

Rediscovering the magic of the county fairFor the first time in my life, I submitted preserves: pickled onions, dandelion jelly, Chinese plum sauce, and vanilla plum jam. It’s not so simple – one has to read the rules and regulations in the paper, fill out the paperwork, prepare the labels correctly, identify the canning method and time, and physically bring them to the fair on entry day. I enjoyed learning this process (thanks to the help of my sweet neighbor) and found real delight in seeing the blue ribbon stickers on a few of my jars, as well as a piece of pottery. After participating in the home arts competition, I further understand what skill and expertise is demonstrated by the many regulars who submit items to be judged each year. I merely dipped my toes in the water, but they are the real champion canners.

Rediscovering the Magic of the County FairIn addition to the usual events, I attended a poetry reading at the old schoolhouse building to celebrate the work of local high school students. We heard a few of their “Where I’m From” poems shared aloud at this event, alongside work from a few other local artists. As I heard these poems, I couldn’t believe the emotion, poise, and imagery that shone through line after line. It became clear that this project helped students appreciate the relevance of poetry as they found a sense of pride in their surroundings. As we sat there, adults squeezed into the tiny school desks with the lights of the Ferris wheel through the window, the musk of antique paper and old chalk, and the low hum of the demolition derby above the chatter, we were part of the magic. [Poets Lauren Carlson & Saara Myrene Raappana, Podcast creators Brendan & Andy Stermer, and I were the other contributors. I read my essay on rural life that was published here.]

As the poet, novelist, environmental activist, and farmer Wendell Berry says, “what we need is here.” It is here at the county fair, among the rides and the corndogs, among the preserved jellies and pickled cucumbers, among the sheep and giant rabbits. It is here in this place that may seem commonplace but is full of so much shared existence. It is here amidst the magic of the neon lights in the sky at dusk. It is here, growing. After all, so much is in bud.

Rediscovering the Magic of the County Fair


Photos taken by me at the LQP County Fair in Madison, MN as well as the Swift County Fair in Appleton, MN.

Beginners by Denise Levertov is from Selected Poems published by New Directions Books in 2002.

My name is Elisabeth Fondell. I quit my corporate retail job in May of 2016 and have been on a self-appointed sabbatical ever since. In the pursuit of reclaiming my life, I’ve spent this sabbatical filling my days with travel to illuminating places, thought provoking words, poems, pottery, and the pursuit of wholeness.
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  • What a joy to read your words! I met your parents on Fri. at Malena’s. We talked about you being back in Mn. My sister and I live (occasionally) in our late Mother’s home In Milan, you inspire me at age 74 to take advantage of the gifts of our heritage and home.

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