Monday, August 17, 2015

Illinois State Fair II: Cows don't have names or say "moo"

     This is Part 2 of my visit to the Illinois State Fair. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. 
     Pride is a sin, I know. But I'm really, really proud of asking that question about the black sheep.

     SPRINGFIELD — Sheep are not known for their clothing. Usually they are seen sporting nothing more than their own luxurious fleece.
     So here at the Illinois State Fair, I was surprised to find sheep dressed in outfits. Identical getups, fittingly for sheep: blankets and masks, like ovine superheroes from some weird comic book: "Super Sheep Patrol!"
     I had a hunch why — 
protect their coats for judging — but since a reporter's hunches can be spectacularly wrong when diving into unfamiliar areas, I thought I'd better check.
     "Keep 'em clean," confirmed Kati Grimes, of Peterson Sheep Farm in Kewanee. "It takes a long time to clean the wool; a good hour. After all that hard work, we always want to cover 'em up. The legs will get a little dirty, but you can always rinse them off."
     I had never spoken with a sheep farmer before; as we talked, my attention was drawn to a solitary black sheep in a nearby pen.
     "The black sheep . . ." I asked, keeping my face arranged in an expression of serious inquiry. "Do they pose any particular behavior problems?" 

     She smiled. "The black sheep do not behave worse," she said. "They're actually pretty well-behaved."
     Another myth shattered by solid reporting. Pigs, on the other hand, are as advertised: fat and lazy. Getting pigs to stand for a few minutes of judging takes constant flicks of a whip. Most pigs in pens were inert mounds of sleeping flesh, lightly breathing, ears fluttering, extending a hock in dream.
     The fair has two distinct worlds — that of the visitors, here to eat corn dogs and shriek on the carnival rides and, maybe, pop into a livestock barn for a quick look-see. Then there are the farmers, who are here for the competitions, which are not merely points of pride but solid business opportunities — being a permanent champion raises an animal's value for breeding purposes.

      I watched white-shirted 4-H Club members Abe Henkel, 13, his sister Kate, 10, and 17-year-old twins Cameron and Evan Jodlowski display their Toggenburg goats.
     What's it like to raise goats?
     "Hard work," said Abe Henkel.
     They're sure not here for the rides.
     "In all the years I've taken them to the fair, they've never once asked to see the carnival," said the Henkels' uncle, Greg Morris. "They're oblivious to the commercial aspects. They're there for the livestock portion. They're farm kids. They'll always be farm kids."
     And if you're wondering how the farm kids view the city visitors, well, let's say on a sliding scale, somewhere between amusement and contempt, depending on the encounter. For instance, I quickly realized the animals aren't given names, and that asking a farmer for an animal's name is like asking an auto mechanic for the names of his wrenches. But I was so thrilled to find the Illini Dairy Club's Milk-A-Cow stall, in a far corner of the fair, that after I paid my dollar, I asked the young man showing me how to squeeze a teat whether the cow had a name. He hesitated for one second, just long enough to convey that he was humoring an imbecile.
     "Bessie," he deadpanned.
     All part of the education process.
     Across the road, in an arena smelling surprisingly of dill, we watched pure white 
Charolias beef cows walk in a circle of wood shavings
under American flags. Payton Creasey, 15, had just won a red ribbon — second place — in the open show competition with her 1-year-old, and was leading the 1,500 pound animal from the ring when it let out a moo; well, a far more guttural noise than a mere "moo" would suggest, but "mwraerha" looks wrong, so "moo" it is. I might not even have noticed the sound, but my 16-year-old, standing at the fence beside me, said something in utter sincerity that was shocking: "I never heard a cow moo before."
     How sad is that? But also typical. We trot off to the grocery store, load up on milk, vegetables and meat, and seldom wonder about where all this bounty comes from. Every year the movies — most of which are garbage — hold a big awards ceremony for themselves and everybody watches. Everybody pays attention to the Tony Awards and the Pulitzers and all the other self-administered back pats every other profession gives itself. Yet the business that keeps us all from starving to death celebrates and we shrug.
     No, I don't expect that Evan Jodlowski's Toggenburg dairy goat being named Grand Champion at the Illinois State Fair should be up there with this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner. But it's definitely worth showing up at the fair to notice and to clap, and worth looking around—not only to appreciate the variety and beauty of the animals, and the intense, stolid effort of their keepers, but also because the fair's just plain fun, though I think I went the wrong weekend — next weekend is the Monster Truck Competition, the baton twirling and ponytail contests, and the Illinois State Dental Society's Smile Contest. That sounds like something to see.
                              —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 13, 2012


  1. One can learn a lot (academically speaking) about milking cows from Tess of the D'Urbervilles. And the cows all had names too.


  2. Good points about what we take for granted.

    By the way,Mr. S., thanks for the heads up on the Lennell cookies in the Monday paper. I'll have to get a box before they go.

  3. It's occurred to me more than once that farm people are a great deal less sentimental about animals than city people are. I guess they have to be. As Neil says, to farmers, animals are basically production units for meat, milk, eggs, whatever.

  4. Thanks from me too for the cooky column -- inspired me to get a couple cookies from the panaderia down the street. Delicious, but messy. Definitely not for dunking.

  5. This would certainly drive the unrealisitic fanatics at PETA right to the insane asylum.

  6. I suppose farm people are amused and sometimes put off by the antics and conversations of city people, but hasn't isolation on their farms and small communities kept their only contact with us at events like state fairs? It's no wonder our perspectives are so different.

    1. My parents live in one of those small communities you mention, with only around 400 people. Our modern life of mobile phones, internet, and satellite television have connected the community far more than in the past. But the issue I see is that type of connectivity allows you to select the larger community you want to experience. You're allowed to self-select your internet/television and therefore reinforce your point of view without being challenged by new ideas.

      However, I do not know that urban/suburban people are actually that different in the idea of selecting a community/culture and ignoring what is different/unknown. Are the rural folks exposed to less diversity - absolutely. Is it worse than someone who "hides" in Libertyville... I'm not sure.

  7. Neal's lesson in how to squeeze a teat brought to mind a visit last summer to a farm in Italy renowned for the production of it's Pecorino, a sharp Tuscan cheese of ancient lineage made from sheep's milk. It was just outside Pienza, a picturesque hill town favored by film makers for its Renaissance architecture and the views from its walls over the lovely Val d 'Orcia.

    It was all very interesting. Extraction of the milk was, of course, a critical part of the production process and differed somewhat from Neil's bovine experience in that your milk maid needs a very low stool.

    Tom Evans

    1. The first thought I had was the classic line from Eli Lapp to John Book (Harrison Ford) in the movie "Witness". (As Book struggled to grasp the proper technique of cow-milking, Eli reprimanded him, "You never had your hands on a teat before!" to which Book responded, "Not one this big.")

    2. I guess the best thing would be the automatic milking machines.

  8. Neil, have you read David Foster Wallace's "Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All"? He immerses himself in all aspects of the ILL. State Fair. A look at animal and anthropological life as only DFW can bring, including the carnies It's in his collection of essays "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".

    1. Yes, I mention it in the first part of this report.


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