By Nikki McKim
This year the Richardson County Fair is doing things a little different. They’re doing a one day only fair instead of their usual four night, three day event. When COVID-19 hit, I, like many other people, mistakenly thought that maybe this thing could be tapering out by fall. When it became apparent that this wouldn’t be the case, one of my first very trivial thoughts went to the fair.
You see, the County Fair is a staple in my home. Growing up in Dawson, We didn’t attend Cobblestone; we saved our money and went to the County Fair instead. It was only about ten magical miles from my front door. Well, most of the time, it was.
I was born on September 4, 1983. I was about two weeks old when I attended my first Richardson County Fair. The theme was “Happiness Is….” I didn’t know it then, but happiness would turn out to be County Fair chili, County Fair bingo, and County Fair nights with my friends and family.
Not long after I was born, my family moved to Texas. Each fall, my my mom would somehow find a way to bring me and a few years later, my little sister back to Humboldt for the fair. When we finally moved back to Dawson, my sister and I would dress up each year and proudly walk through the parade. In those early days, I remember my great-grandpa Marsh, Aunt Mayree and a few others who have since passed or moved away, waiting for us after the parade to tell us how wonderful we were as we smiled and waved. Those were the good ‘ole days when we would gather, laugh and eat the best chili and hamburgers you can get.
We’d ride rides in the September sun, some rides good, but most for me were really bad. My pal John Vaughn always likes to remind me of the time I unloaded all of my delicious lunch on him when we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl with him one miserable day. I thought that was the end of my carnival riding days. Then came high school, when a cute boy asked me to ride the zipper after enjoying a full bowl or two, maybe three of chili. The same results ended with that boy never speaking to me again. I vowed that I’d never ride another carnival ride that spun me around and I’ve stuck to that promise. But then Alex was born and then the nieces and nephews came along. While their cute faces will never be able to sway me into riding anything that spins, I’ll always climb the steps to go down the slide and drive them around in the bumper cars, no matter the consequences. A few years ago, I took my niece down the slide because nothing can go wrong on that ride, right? Well, you get a bigger girl like me on a slide like that and she gets some speed. We couldn’t stop and we went right through the end, across the bricks smashing into the carnival workers toolbox, spilling his lunch onto the ground. He wasn’t amused. I like to think he hung our photo up like a wanted poster banning us from that ride for the rest of the year.
And let me tell you, nothing smells like the fair. Scientists say smell is closely linked with memory. The smell of a perfectly cooked hamburger or the sweet smell of cotton candy will make me think of the fair. Sometimes the putrid a stink bomb will make me smile in fond memory of nights running around the Humboldt Square as a kid.
I’ve only missed one County Fair in my 37 years on this earth. That was in 2004 when I got married and my honeymoon was the same weekend as the fair. Had I realized that as I was making plans, I would have rescheduled my honeymoon.
But the best part of the fair is the way we gather together each year. My family drops everything and we come from Kansas City, Auburn, Falls City, Dawson and the surrounding areas to meet in the Humboldt town square for a parade and styrofoam cup of chili. We sit on a wood board that will always give us splinters as kids run across it shaking us as we try to balance our food on our laps. We see friends we haven’t seen since the year before. I can always count on seeing my friend Jeff who I’ve known since I was a couple of years old and his growing family. I know that I’ll get my chili served to me by Mr. Eickhoff, a man whose blood pressure I may have raised more than two hundred times in High School when he was the principal at Dawson-Verdon. I’ll see my former next-door neighbor and longtime friend, Josh and his growing kids. The faces are always the same, faces of so many people I love and have known my entire life. After the parade, lunch and free-act, we’ll all retreat for a few hours-usually to catch a Husker football game in the afternoon. Then we’ll all meet up again for dinner, more chili and the free act. After that, we’ll play bingo until they kick us out.
This year I don’t know what to expect; it’s a whole new ballgame. Brian and Alex will be staying home and I’ll probably sneak in and cover the coronation for the paper and grab some food, but it won’t be the same. Spending time walking around the square and riding bumper cars with the kiddos is another casualty of 2020. I asked my sister this past weekend if she thought her youngest would remember things like wearing a mask, now as I type this, I’m sad he’s missing making the memories that Alex has of riding bumper cars with his older cousins, Hannah and Rex. Those are memories we talk about each year when we go to the fair. Each year matters, each year is unique and they pass by so quickly.
Here’s hoping next year at this time we’re all celebrating the success of Cobblestone and The Richardson County fair and you’ll find me pouring gallons of chili down my mouth right before I take a spin on those bumper cars with Olive and Lucy; or a ride down that slide with Henry.