Once a year, there is a pilgrimage that many people make all across this great nation, one that harkens back to a simpler time and is a slice of pure Americana. It's time for the state fair! Having never attended our own Kentucky State Fair, Leigh and I set out to experience this spectacle for ourselves and, boy, are we ever glad we did!
Kentucky's State Fair, lasting 11 days, is held every August in Louisville, Kentucky at, oddly enough, the fair grounds adjacent to Freedom Hall. Originally organized in 1816, the fair was moved from city to city until in 1907, Louisville was chosen as the permanent location. Over 600,000 people attend and there is something for everyone, young and old alike. From our perspective, you could probably spend 11 days taking in all the exhibits, music, food and activities that surround it. We only had one afternoon, so we will give you the CliffsNotes version.
After arriving and paying the $10 parking fee and $10 admission, we parked the car and proceeded to the entrance. (Tip#1 Buy tickets/parking pass online ahead of time and save some money.) It was a beautiful, sunny day with temps in the low 80's, so perfect weather for our outing! The first tent we noticed, or should I say smelled, was called the Great American Cookout. It being lunchtime, this was the ideal location to start our tour. Everyone talks about how good fair food can be, and they are completely accurate in that assessment! This being Kentucky, a state known for its tremendous farms providing bountiful crops, beef, pork and fish products, how could you go wrong? I had heard from several people that the pork sandwich was not to be missed, so I went with that, and Leigh, a cheeseburger connoisseur, went with a Kentucky Proud burger. There were plenty of tables covered in red and white tablecloths and folks sitting down to enjoy their lunch. We saw plates piled high with homemade potato chips, French fries, brats, BBQ, etc. Digging into our food, we were tickled pink that it all tasted as good as it smelled. Talking with the those around us we heard that the other menu items were delicious as well! Okay, time to move along to another important aspect of the fair, the animal exhibitions and competitions!
Leaving behind the delicious aroma of food cooking, we approached another building that had its own unique smell, that of manure and barnyard animals. Quite the contrast, for sure! Entering this giant space we saw throngs of people, some of which were leading around adorable lambs on leashes. The lamb competition was currently underway, so we took a moment to take in the action. In the ring were about 15 young people each "showing" their lambs. Curiously, we watched as the handlers, dressed in denim, boots and plaid shirts, many with rhinestone-studded belts, held their lambs' heads and expertly arranged the lambs' legs so that they attained the perfect posture for judging. The judge, in his cowboy hat and Wrangler jeans, walked up and down the line and called out the ones he felt met the standard. We had no idea what exactly he was looking for, but those in attendance were all tense with anticipation to see which one would be declared the "best in show". The final ones were awarded a blue ribbon and the lambs were then escorted out of the ring and into the waiting leashes of the owners, hopefully to enjoy a tasty treat of some sort for all of their hard work!
Adjacent to the lambs were hundreds of pens, about 6 feet by 3 feet with one to two pigs or swine, all doing one of my favorite activities, taking a nap! They were all different colors and sizes, but not knowing anything about pigs other than what we learned from one of our favorite books, Charlotte's Web, we sought out the assistance of someone in the know. We came upon Jonathan from McLean County (Owensboro area), in western Kentucky, who was there with his family which was showing approximately nine animals that day. We asked Jonathan if there was a difference between "swine" and "pigs", and he informed us they were interchangeable terms, but that he just called them "hogs". He told us that his daughter had been "showing" hogs for several years and that this was a hobby for their family. The state fair is the World Series event for these animal exhibitors and the winners of some of the events can take home several thousand dollars in prize money! Wow! Although, considering how much money they spend on the care of these animals, as well as the cost of transportation and lodging to the fair and other events, this is definitely a labor of love and not an income-producing venture for most participants. It's obvious, however, that what these families and children are gaining in time spent together and life lessons learned, the experience is truly priceless. Leigh and I learned a lot from Jonathan about pigs, and we also learned that this exhibit hall is not the place where you want to be wearing open-toed sandals. (Tip #2 - bring some boots.) Beyond the pigs were scores and scores of cattle, all being washed and groomed, awaiting their turn in the ring. The owners and their families were camped out beside of them lounging, eating and talking shop with one another. We realized how much more to this is involved than meets the eye. It's not all glamorous, and requires lots and lots of hard work!
Needing some fresh air, we left behind the smell of animals, and moved back outside to the midway area of the fair. In doing research for our adventure, I came across an article that talked about things to definitely check out, one of which was Freddy, the 18' farmer and representative of Farm Bureau Insurance. Heck, he even has his own Facebook page. Well, sure enough, he was hard to miss standing outside of the main entrance to the exhibition center. Clad all in blue (our favorite color; Go Cats!), he greeted and spoke with everyone who passed by, much to the chagrin of the little kids who approached him, not quite understanding how this statute was able to see and talk to them. The fair is a magical place! Continuing on our way, we came upon a row of other food vendors, but one in particular caught our eye. Y'all, this vendor was serving all things fried! Yes, sir, we stepped right up and ordered something we at first thought might be kind of gross...a fried Twinkie! They also offered Oreos, Snickers, Reese's Cups, and a biscuit, so it was a hard decision. A few moments later, the gentleman dusted powdered sugar on our golden creation and we moseyed on over to the karaoke tent to listen to some music and taste our delicacy. It was really quite good! Reminiscent of a funnel cake, it was crunchy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside. The perfect fair treat, although I would recommend not eating one just prior to riding the rides over in Thrillville.
Thrillville is the area of the fair that houses all of the exciting and vomit-inducing rides, as well as the old-fashioned take- your-chance games. We found lots of families with young children waiting in line to ride their favorites. Leigh and I, however, are not big ride-goers, so we opted to walk past each and specify the reason why we would not get on that one. Example, "I can't take things that spin around and around" or "It scares me to be so high off the ground". You get the idea. But we thoroughly enjoyed watching others take advantage of the many different opportunities and said a prayer for each of them as they got on board. Bless their hearts! One thing we foolishly agreed to do was pay a very nice gentleman $5 to guess our age. Big mistake! Big! (Tip #3, avoid the take-a-chance games, it's not worth your self-esteem.)
Finished with the thrills of Thrillville, we noticed a large group of people in metal bleachers taking in a highwire act, so we stopped to see the performance. Interestingly, it was the famous Flying Wallendas, the circus act known for performing highwire stunts with no net! And true to form, there they were, up on a wire, balancing precariously on chairs and getting up on one another's shoulders with nothing but hot concrete underneath them. Leigh and I cringed and had to look away several times as we thought for sure we were going to witness a death, but we had two nice Kentucky State Troopers beside us that had seen the act several times over the course of the fair and they assured us the Wallendas really could do the stunts without falling to their doom. They were right! The crowd congratulated the performers with thunderous applause and Leigh and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they finished! That was enough excitement for one day!
Wrapping up our visit, we knew we had to go back inside the exposition center to see all of the vendors with their myriad of things to buy, eat, wear or learn about. If shopping is your thing, then this is your area! Hundreds of booths were lined up row after row with tons of nice people just itching to tell you about their products, and some offering free samples. You could buy a mattress, furnish your outdoor living space, get a custom t-shirt or license plate, change your internet provider, get a necklace for your cat, sample and purchase some super hot garlic pickles (pickle lovers' heaven), learn about raptor rehabilitation, meet a psychic, or buy some socks! Anything and everything you could ever want or not need is all there together and we had such fun walking up and down the aisles perusing the different items. (Tip #4 - take plenty of cash unless you definitely don't want to buy anything.) There were several things for kids to do, including the KSP Safety City where kids could hop on tricycles and drive around a course to learn about obeying traffic laws (important for future drivers), and where they could get up close and personal with animals, the favorite being the duckling slide. We could have watched those ducklings all day!
Our last stop and unfortunately one place that we didn't get to spend much time in is the section of the hall dedicated to the different counties of Kentucky. Each county had its own booth manned by residents that offered brochures and advice on what's good in their county. We were blown away by all of the fascinating opportunities that lie within Kentucky's borders. Brochures in hand, we left the fair vowing to make the pilgrimage back to Louisville next year to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the Kentucky State Fair...and to get some more of those deep-fried Twinkies. This year's event runs through Sunday, August 27th. Click here for more information.