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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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'You see life': My tour of the Dane County Fair
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Brynn Laframbois with her rabbit, Billy.
Brynn Laframbois with her rabbit, Billy.
Credit:Nora Hertel

Trapped in the cow barn, I waited with other fairgoers and animal handlers as a long-awaited storm put a damper on the first night of the Dane County Fair. But I didn't hear any complaints. With the side doors closed to the elements, the cattle continued to rest, and chew on hay. I watched the lights on the rides on the midway flash through sheets of rain.

Because of the weather, the Dane County Fair closed early on Wednesday, its opening day. But Thursday started right on time at 7 a.m. People enter the grounds as early as 5 a.m. to care for their animals, and some stay until 11 at night. Others choose to sleep on site, on cots sidled next to beds of hay or in trailers lining the back of the parking lot.

I expected excessive heat when visiting the first two days of the fair, but the storm brought cooler air. "We still have our misting stations set up there for the warm weather we had two days ago. We can probably shut those off now for a while," said Janet Keller with a laugh. She serves as communications and public relations manager for the fair and works much of the year with the World Dairy Expo.

At nine, Keller showed her first cow at the Dane County Fair, but she came in last. Three years later she won a showmanship award with a yearling named Elsie.

"I was basically in 4-H as many years as I could be, and also in FFA [Future Farmers of America] as many years I could be," said Keller. "I'm 53 years old, and I still have friends that I [met] here at the Dane County Fair." She runs into these friends as she bustles about the fair. Some of them, she said, have children and grandchildren showing dairy cows.

From my meeting with Keller I headed back to the barns, guided by sounds and smells. Kari Evert sat on a bale of hay while her daughter tended to a row of dairy cows. Like Keller, Evert began showing animals at the Dane County Fair when she was nine. In the last 10 years her children, now 15 and 18, took over as the competitors. 

"They just threw on a halter and started training calves," she said, next to four-month-old Cabernet. "If they want to train them, they should get the credit showing them."

Next door, rabbits, hens, roosters, and ducks share a barn, and I knew it by the quacks and cock-a-doodle-doos. On Saturday the males will compete in a crowing contest, a rare occasion to encourage a rooster's yell.

A duck in the corner named Little Dude with feathers of grey, brown and white caught my eye. He fluttered around his cage making a mess of his hay. His cage cautioned, "I bite."  He earned a second place ribbon. Little Dude's tidy neighbor held the blue ribbon. Daisy tucked her beak in her white feathers, and watched me with a beady black eye.

In the other corner of the poultry barn floppy-eared rabbits of all sizes and colors lined up. A petting rabbit named Marvin sprawled on a 4-H table with Brynn Laframbois. Laframbois, who's about to turn nine, introduced me to Billy, her rabbit. She felt ready to show him to the judges.

"I think he's going to do a good job, because he did a good job at the Stoughton Fair," said Laframbois.

I moved then through the bleats of sheep and goats to the grunts and squeals of swine. The pig barn smell was sharp, but the beefy animals wagged their tails and approached me at the cage nose first. Snickers' nose, like an elephant trunk, felt cool and bristly and wet. When he saw I had nothing for him, he returned to snuffing and snorting through his sawdust finding an occasional morsel to eat.

The barns and exhibition halls show over 10,357 projects from around the county. But not all the attractions and characters at the fair come from Dane County. The west side of the grounds holds the local projects animal barns and such crafts as photography, cake decorating and woodcraft. The east side boasts the Ferris wheel, musical entertainment and the "Globe of Death."

The Flores family travels around the country with a 14-foot sphere, in which they ride motorcycles. Before beginning the thrill show, the couple secured their 18 months-old-daughter, Ziana, into a stroller. While Ricardo performed, his wife, Arcelia, kept one eye on the child. Arcelia is the eighth generation of a flying trapeze family; she performed on the Olympic rings as well as the in the globe. Ricardo comes from a family of circus performers too, he is part of the ninth generation. Their other kids, ages 14 and 9, often join them in the act. Ricardo joined this motorcycle act 25 years ago. And while he hasn't had an accident in a few years, he confessed to me, "I'm about due."

The midway, run in units by a corporation, does not expect any accidents. Unmistakable with the towering rides, lights, and thumping pop songs, the traveling team consists of 70 to 90 workers managed by Patrick Hadley. His wife and three boys travel with him; the kids get home schooled and learn the lessons of life on the road.

"I was raised in this business," said Hadley. "It's a great place to raise kids."

I noticed families and teenagers with their arms wrapped around each other at the midway. People scream on the rides, like some of the animals in the barns. Dane County folk and travelers converge here. Hadley likes that his children witness the peace, conflict and diversity apparent at the fair: "You see life."

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