The Nebraska State Fair then and now | TheFencePost.com

The Nebraska State Fair then and now

Ellen Campbell
Central City, Neb.

Photo By Ellen CampbellEllen Jacobsen Campbell as a 4-H member (early 1950s) presenting a demonstration at the Nebraska State Fair. Note the hand-lettered poster, as contrasted with today's 4-H posters that would use computer graphics.

I’ve attended the Nebraska State Fair many times in my life, beginning back when I was a 4-H member. The first visit was with my parents, and I don’t recall whether or not our whole family attended. Since there were six of us kids, usually some had to stay home from anywhere we went. I do remember that we parked somewhere on the east side of the fairgrounds in Lincoln.

The first thing we did was spread a blanket beside the car to eat lunch, just as we always did at the county fair. We had fried chicken, bread & butter sandwiches, garden tomatoes, Colorado peaches we had bought by the bushel to can, and probably oatmeal cookies for dessert.

In those days livestock was housed on the east side, so that was our first stop. I was impressed with the massive draft horses and the huge Landrace hogs that were in open-class exhibits.

We crossed the midway, but the rides were too expensive for us. We went to the 4-H Building to view the exhibits, and especially to check out what ribbons we had been awarded on our own things. We spent the whole afternoon visiting exhibits, including the school building where artwork from our country school was on display cards with others from all over the state, the main open class building where the quilts hanging overhead caught my special attention, and the State Fish & Game Dept. aquarium with its glass tanks of large native fish. I remember the agriculture building where the pungent smell of muskmelons pervaded the whole area and there was an apple display by one of the orchards of Nebraska City. Every year that family had their apples arranged in a design of some kind with the different varieties. One election year they had a display of red apples in the background with yellow ones in the shapes of a donkey and an elephant.

Like a lot of other people, we sat in the open air auditorium to watch the free music and talent performances while we rested. High school bands marched through the grounds as they still do.

We watched demonstrations of slicers, dicers and other kitchen gadgets at the advertising booths, most of which looked miraculous there, but not so great after people bought and took them home.

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Then and on subsequent trips to the fair, we never stayed for the evening shows. To date I still have not taken in any of the shows. When I was an older 4-Her I had demonstrations and/or judging contests to compete in at least twice and my final year I was in the 4-H style revue, so we made the trip to Lincoln each time, pretty much following our same pattern of visiting exhibits and not spending much money. That first trip was the only time we brought our own lunch. After that we bought hamburgers or perhaps a plate meal at a church food stand. And we always visited the University Dairy Store stand for ice-cream cones.

After I married, I was a 4-H leader for more than 20 years, and trips to the fair eventually became an almost annual event, especially when our own children were old enough to compete. I particularly remember the year I took my three small children along when I had club members involved in some activity. We never had much money to spend, but we all got in free with 4-H passes and there were plenty of no-cost things to do. My kids were old enough to be interested in many of the exhibits and young enough to enjoy a trampoline-type bouncing thing inside one of those blue grain bins. We also got free popcorn at the farm implement places. so I got out of buying expensive fair snacks except for the dairy store ice-cream which was a must. I believe we had as much fun as families that spend lots of money at the fair.

At least three years, my 4-H girls’ song group competed at the state fair. In those days the rules were so much more stringent. Members had to be over 12 by the first of the year in order to have any part at all in state fair events, and accompanists for the music had to be a member, a leader or a parent. We had none of those available so at first our group sang a’cappella where mistakes can’t be covered up by piano. Even so, we won blue ribbons. The final year, Mary Kay Sawyer had learned to play the guitar and our girls’ voices had matured. We won the coveted purple ribbon!

Our family continued to attend the fair as our own children were involved. We added one more tradition to the things we did: we ate at the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Assn. cafe. When the state fair moved to Grand Island last year we were so pleased the good beef dinners moved with them.

Several years ago after our kids were grown and gone, Duane and I attended one last fair in Lincoln, with no idea we’d be experiencing it later on in Grand Island. We had a leisurely day. I remember looking at all the antique tractors which I love, and also the fish display the same as other years. We took time to really look in depth at exhibits like the art and photography, recognizing names we knew on some of the items. As we viewed the 4-H exhibits I had a lump in my throat remembering what had been and never would be again in my life. We had our beef dinner as well as ice cream from the East Campus Dairy Store. And we finally bought and shared a funnel cake after all those years of wondering how they tasted. By that time some of the features at the fair were a little different. Buildings were deteriorating. There wasn’t much in the elementary school art display because all those country schools no longer existed. They had been absorbed into town districts.

Last year when we attended the first fair in Grand Island, we were amazed. Everything was so new and clean, and all built with determination in such a short time. The buildings were air-conditioned, ATV and golf cart rides were available from place to place. There were attractions that were new to us: the cute racing pigs, the goose man and walking tree on the grounds, volunteers helping out everywhere, a cleaning staff constantly on hand to keep the grounds and restrooms immaculate, little spots of beauty in the landscaping. What a joy! Most of all, everyone seemed so happy. I didn’t see any grumpy people.

This year, living so close to the fair, I decided to enter some food exhibits in open class, and it was such a satisfying experience I’m going to add horticulture exhibits next year. Duane and I attend on week days when the crowds are not so heavy. We went together on Monday, and I returned on Thursday when I was in Grand Island for a couple of meetings. Together we watched some of the cattle dog competition, went into the birthing barn to see babies, and viewed the largest steer which was a huge and attractive animal. We also looked at the largest hog in Nebraska, and to be honest I wasn’t impressed with that. To me it didn’t compare in size with the Landrace hogs of the early days. We missed some of the livestock on the days we attended because we were there between exhibitions. One thing I loved was our walk past some prize dairy cattle. These cows were absolutely beautiful, so sleek and healthy. There was a Jersey, a Guernsey, an Ayrshire, a Holstein, and even a milking Shorthorn which was the breed my dad milked so long ago.

Duane and I covered the usual exhibit areas, had our beef lunch and shared a funnel cake. Nothing on a stick tempted us, however, despite the fair’s theme for the year.

On my day alone, I looked at every single item in the quilt display, petted Smoke the Donkey brought over at considerable expense from Iraq, chatted with open class superintendents to become more knowledgeable about exhibiting, saw a few friends, and chatted with anyone I sat next to during times of resting.

I have always loved the state fair, and the only real complaints I’ve heard are from people who were there on the final Sunday of this year’s fair, who found full parking lots, long waits for rides from the remote lots and tie-ups in traffic. This was on a day when the attendance was unexpectedly and overwhelmingly high. I advise people to go on the slower days of the week when the crowds are manageable and the experience is totally enjoyable.