It is one of the smallest county fairs in Wisconsin, but in one of the most beautiful settings in the United States. Gays Mills lies in the bosom of the Kickapoo Valley that slices through Crawford County in the hill country of the southwest part of the state. Green hills rise up on all sides of the narrow dale.
I arrived at the fairgrounds at 9 a.m., the sun burning off the last of the early morning fog. I grew up on farm a few miles from here, near Seneca. I headed straight for the dairy and cattle judging barn. A circle of nine Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys were parading around the judge.
This middle-aged bovine referee is studious, balding, wears dark slacks, sports a tie and a sheriff-like badge on his right chest area. Surprisingly he carries no clipboard. He softly barks out, “Set ‘em up,” and dutifully each young lad or lass halts the young cow, using a halter hold and show stick to get all four feet set up square on each corner of the animal’s body. The youngsters know the rules of showmanship. “When standing still, the animal's front feet should be squared with each other while it's back legs should be open to whichever side the judge is on to show the teats if the animal is a heifer. If it is a cow, then the animal's legs should be closed to whichever side the judge is on to offer a full view of the cow's udder.”
The cattle move forward, each with a snug fitting halter to which is attached a lead strap to which is attached the young show person. These young people, most between the ages of 10 and 17 have been well coached. Don’t let that lead strap drag on the ground. One hand on the lead strap, the other holding the show stick. Keep the show stick pointing down.
I ask a young lady waiting to show her springer calf, “What’s the dress code? “We have to wear white pants and something that looks nice for a shirt or blouse tucked in, no baseball caps, no gum chewing,” she replies. Each show person wears a bib with their competition number.
One of the nine humps and poops on the pea gravel floor. Will that count against her? A farmer quickly grabs a swoop shovel, gathers together the bovine waste, scoops it up, walks it out of the ring. “Nice job,” a spectator tells the man.
Parents in the bleachers lean forward, apprehensive, a few biting nails, whispering to a spouse, or no one in particular. A few handle camcorders. It’s a time of high tension. Sibling youngsters are fidgeting and squirming. A John Deere Johnnie Popper passes the cattle barn on a nearby road, heading in the direction of the antique tractor pull being held later at noon. A rooster from the next door poultry barn breaks the tension. A baby cries. One of the contestants pushes down the tail of her young cow. Who is more nervous, the young lad or lass parading the cow or their parents watching in the stands? Will all that training, washing, clipping and grooming pay off?
They are from the 4-H clubs of Crawford County: the North Clayton Cardinals, Steuben River Runners, and Eastman Cloverleafs. A few are associated with schools, such as the Wauzeka FFA. The names are familiar: Kramer, Payne, Nagel, Mezera, Boylan, Klema, Oppriecht and Achenbach.
The judge stops, asks the show youngster a few questions, moves on to another. Each youngster has been coached on possible questions: what is your cow’s name, age, birthdate, sire, dam, breed, and weight.
Finally, the judge walks over to the table, picks up the microphone, and intones a few positive comments about the class of cows in general, then announces the first and second prizes.
This class leaves the ring as another is about to be announced. A 14-year-old girl takes the lead, her first-place Holstein obediently trailing behind. A beaming freckled face, pigtails with red ribbons, she glances over to proud parents on the third seat of the wooden bleachers. Mom takes a photograph and her dad gives her a thumbs up.