BREAK THE SKIN at the Richland County Fair

My special correspondent in Southeastern Illinois offers up a report from this year’s Richland County Fair in Olney.

The traditional foods are back: funnel cakes, lemon shake-ups, corn dogs, cotton candy, salt water taffy, pork burgers, etc. My correspondent reports that the 4-H Club’s lemon shakeups were the best from all the stands offering that drink

Olney is the “Home of the White Squirrels,” due to the albino squirrels that have been there since around 1900. There are a couple of different stories about the origin of the first pair of these squirrels, and one of those stories involves my ancestor, George W. Ridgley, who owned a farm six miles southeast of Sumner. I’ve written about George and his connection to the Martin family in my memoir, Turning Bones. At any rate, the story goes that George found a white squirrel and a cream-colored one in the woods on his farm. With the help of a neighbor, John Robinson, he captured the squirrels and was able to raise several litters in an eight by six-feet cage before bringing a pair to Olney to sell to Jasper Banks, who owned a saloon. Mr. Banks kept the squirrels on display in “JAP’s Place,” until the state legislature made it illegal to confine wild animals. At that point, Mr. Banks released the squirrels near his home at 802 Silver Street, and hence the colony began.

The reason I offer this information about the white squirrels in Olney is to help you better understand the new fair food that my special correspondent reports: The White Squirrel Tail. Yum-yum! This is a Zero candy bar on a stick, dipped in funnel cake batter, deep fried, and sprinkled with powered sugar. Other foods that I don’t recall from my childhood days spent at the fair include fried green beans and walleye sandwiches.

The special event of the fair last night was the tractor pull, a time-honored tradition that I recall from my childhood. For those of you who’ve never witnessed such a thing, it involves people seeing whose tractor can pull the most weight the farthest. I remember watching this event from the grandstand with my father. I remember the dust and the noise as the tractors pulled the sleds stacked with weights. I also remember when the county fair featured harness horse racing. Some relatives on my mother’s side of the family owned and trained harness horses, and we’d watch them race at a specific gait. The horses were either trotters or pacers, and if they broke their gait during the race they were disqualified. They were harnessed to two-wheeled carts called sulkies. If you’re interested in a terrific short story that features a trotting horse, a sulky, and an incompetent family, try “The Neighbor” by Russell Banks.

Each fair has a queen, and said royalty gets her picture taken a number of times for the local newspaper. She gets her picture taken with the winners of the tractor pull, the demolition derby, the talent show, the livestock exhibits. 4-H kids who have raised animals “show” them, and judges pick winners in a variety of classes. You can open the paper in the weeks to come and see these kids and the fair queen smiling alongside cows and hogs and sheep and the like. A representative from the local supermarket who’s purchased the winning entry is also in these pics. Yep, the animal’s prize for being “Best in Class” is a trip to the butcher, and the kid who raised that animal is grinning to beat the band. My correspondent reports that this year the stock barns held some excellent Angus cattle, some very cute rabbits with floppy ears, a white calf (hmm, maybe next year’s White Calf Tails?), a duck who was very vocal, and also a group of chickens. At one point, my correspondent’s nearly six-year old companion called out, “Mom,” and all the chickens started clucking.

For the nearly six-year-old, the highlight of the fair was, of course, the rides, but she wasn’t overly impressed with the kiddie ferris wheel. It bored her so that she almost fell asleep. She preferred the big kid swings, the giant slide, the fun house, and a ride that let her drive a firetruck. I remember being partial to the merry-go-round when I was that age. Then, when I got a little older, I tried out the more exciting rides like The Scrambler, the ride where you spin in cars and have the illusion that you’ll crash into other spinning cars. I remember riding this when I was a kid and the cushion of the seat slipping off from the force of the car being pushed out and spun and pulled back. For some reason, I didn’t get sick that time, which was my usual response to such rides. Maybe it was because I was too worried about the cushion.

My special correspondent also reports that the fair brought out a number of people who were heavily tattooed. I remember when the only tattoos I ever saw were on the arms of men who had been in the Navy. My cousin had a tattoo of a mermaid that he could make dance. Nowadays, though, ink belongs to the anyone with the money and the nerve to walk into a tat parlor and make a request.

It strikes me that Laney and Delilah and Rose and Tweet and Lester from my novel, Break the Skin, would have fit in quite nicely on that midway. After all, Olney is the model for Mt. Gilead in that novel. I like to think of Delilah taking aim at Rose on the bumper cars, Tweet trying his hand at the ring toss, Lester trying to win Laney a stuffed animal by throwing darts at balloons, and Laney taking it all in with her big eyes, taking in the magic of the fair, where, as my special correspondent reports, “a good time was had by all.”



  1. Byron Edgington on July 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Lee: The memories of county fairs past are thick as hot fudge on the midway. The smells, the lights, the barker’s barking, hustlers hustling, all were critical to the fair’s success, and any fair would be less without them. Though it seemed like the greasy, salty, caloric food was the reason to go, the real attraction was the people. When archeologists sift through the rubble of ‘us’ years and years hence, they need look no further than the accumulated tiers of county fairgrounds to discover who and what we were. And they’ll be amazed. I’m guessing the funnel cakes will still be edible, too!

  2. Lee Martin on July 23, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Byron, I think some of those “interesting” people cheated me out of my hard-earned money, a time or two or three!

    • Byron Edgington on July 25, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      I always thought those milk bottles were weighted!

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