County fair sizzles for participants, visitors
Editor's note: Staff members from the Current's sister publication, The Tonganoxie Mirror, prepared this report on the Leavenworth County Fair, which ended Saturday, Aug. 12, after a weeklong run in Tonganoxie.
Tonganoxie - The rockets had already been judged Monday evening at the Leavenworth County Fair, but youngsters took the time to indulge in the fun part Friday afternoon - launching them high into the sky.
Parents busily helped children set up launch pads, adjust parachutes and align rockets in the baseball fields north of the fairgrounds to prepare for the big event. Children that were not participating ran out into the field to act as spotters to help catch and retrieve the launched rockets. Superintendent Brenda Schmalstieg said the rocket launch is just for fun.
"The rockets were judged Monday night based on things like the paint jobs and fins," she said. "They're not judged on the actual launch or post launch damage."
After a few final adjustments the creators stepped back one at a time, cleared the area, counted down from five, hit the button and watched their rockets blast off with a hiss and a cloud of white smoke. Each rocket produced different results. While some flew high in the sky and floated safely back down to earth with the help of a perfectly opened chute, others dove nose first into the ground after the parachute failed.
"That's called a disaster," Anne Johnson, a mother of a veteran rocket launcher said pointing to a rocket that had just crashed to the ground. "That's when something goes wrong. It's called a milestone when the chute opens and everything goes well."
Many of the children chose to launch a couple of rockets, but others who had earned purple ribbons decided it was better to leave the winning rockets at the fairgrounds.
"All purples are eligible for the state fair," Schmalstieg said. "The last thing you want to do is damage your rocket."
Playing it safe was the way to go for veteran rocket competitor Ethan Johnson, 13, who won grand champion for one of his rockets. He plans to send his winning rocket to state, which features a two-part design - the actual rocket and a separate glider plane.
Friday afternoon he focused on launching a bright orange skinny rocket and helping his friend Matt Spezia, 11, and sister Sadie Jane, 9. The lone female rocket launcher donned her rocket called the "Cosmic Cobra" with none other than pink stickers.
"This is Matt and Sadie's first year doing rockets," Anne Johnson said.
Schmalstieg said the kits to make the rockets can be purchased at craft stores such as Hobby Lobby and the children really enjoy watching their creations come to life.
"They just really like coming out and doing it," she said.
Wednesday is hot and dry.
In the livestock arena, just north of the hog barn, a south wind blows. Somewhere downtown, it's said, a bank thermometer reads 105 degrees.
Even when shoes and boots aren't kicking it up, dust on the nearby lane rises and swirls in the summer wind.
Calves bleat, cattle moo, hogs squeal and life goes on at the Leavenworth County Fair.
Before the bucket calf competition begins, fair volunteers spray water on the arena floor in the hope of keeping dirt down. Near the bleachers a blond-haired boy sits on the ground, playing with loose brown dirt as if he were in a sandpile. It's August. It's hot, it's dry and it's Kansas.
Across the highway, just south of the fairgrounds, corn, which a day before was still tinted green, has turned to brown, dried up in the summer sunshine and drought.
It's a sweltering heat. But you'd never know it by looking at the youths who are showing their bucket calves. Spruced up, boys and girls with dusty boots, shiny belt buckles and wide smiles. Calves, freshly bathed, every hair combed in place.
It was fair time, and the county fair - which each year offers something for everybody - was well under way.
When Kansas artist John Steuart Curry painted murals in the Statehouse, he was criticized because he painted pigs' tails curled in the wrong direction.
Gene Waters, superintendent of open class swine at the Leavenworth County Fair, wasn't so sure which way a pig's tail does curl. Even a quick glance didn't answer the question. Today, it's common to dock pig tails when they're young, so only about half the pigs at the fair even had tails to check. For the record, those tails were about 10 inches long, and some appeared to be curled clockwise, and some counter-clockwise.
"If they're happy it curls to the left," Waters said, grinning. "And if they're sad it curls to the right. It's an old wives tale and I might have the directions mixed up."
However, he said, if a pig's tail is straight there may be cause for concern.
"It generally means they don't feel well," Waters said.
Dean Sheets, 4-H hog superintendent, said 224 hogs were entered in this year's fair, about a dozen less than last year.
The hogs are kept in an open barn with fans, straw to rest on and plenty of food and water. The children who take livestock to the fair know how to take care of their animals. With hogs, it's particularly important to make sure the animals don't overheat.
The high temperatures the first couple of days stressed the hogs. "But we didn't lose any," Sheets said.
Sheets has a long history with the fair. He started in hogs when his son, who now is 51, was only 7.
"I haven't missed any since," Sheets said of the hog competition.
And, for the past 30 to 35 years, Sheets has served as 4-H hog superintendent.
Curious George almost got away.
But instead, the Lansing hen found herself at the fair, entered in the open class poultry division.
And what a week it was for Curious George - also known as Georgette - as well as for her Lansing neighbor, Denise Butler.
Butler usually enters craft or cooking projects in the fair. This year she focused on baskets. Last week - on Tuesday morning, the opening day of the fair - she put several baskets in the trunk of her car and went back inside her house to gather more.
Earlier, she had shooed the chicken, who was an Easter gift to a neighbor girl, away from her car.
She came back outside and placed her last baskets in the car.
"I didn't think anything about the chicken," Butler said. "And I just popped the trunk shut and we came to the fair."
She parked her car by the fairgrounds administration building.
"I popped the trunk open and said, 'Oh my gosh.' There was the chicken, she was just sitting there between two cans of pop. I like to had a fit because I thought, what am I going to do with the chicken."
Butler had planned to spend the day at the fair.
She picked the chicken up and, with her friend, carried baskets into the building to enter.
"The ladies had a fit because I was carrying this chicken I, and I said, 'It's a stowaway - I couldn't do anything about it,'" Butler said.
Hearing her plight, someone suggested she park the chicken in a cage in the poultry barn. Denise Sullivan and her daughter, Meghan, said they would take care of the chicken there.
"And so I went and entered it in open class," Butler said.
Later she called her neighbor and told him she had "a little problem."
"He just laughed," Butler said.
Butler said the extra trouble she went to for the chicken was worth it. And she encourages others to participate in the fair.
"I had a great aunt who was involved in 4-H when I was growing up," Butler said. "She always told us kids, 'If you don't take stuff to the county fair and participate in 4-H, you won't have a county fair.' So I always think about that every year when the fair comes around."
And as for Curious George, though she didn't win a ribbon in the poultry judging, she won an unexpected trip - and likely a memorable - trip to a county fair.
Watch for the kicker
While everyone at the fair suffered through the heat in one way or another, one 4-H father went to extraordinary lengths to participate.
David Schmalstieg, McLouth, was looking forward to helping his children, Jake, 13, and Faith, 9, with their livestock and other fair projects.
Last week, on Monday afternoon, the first day of the fair, while still at home, David was clipping one of the heifers they planned to bring to the fair.
"Something spooked her and she brought her hind leg up and kicked me in the nose," Schmalstieg said.
The kick from the 1,000-pound cow knocked him over backward.
So, instead of heading for the fair, the family made a trip to the emergency room at Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Schmalstieg, who wasn't knocked out by the kick, had three lacerations, a broken nose and two black eyes. It took 20 stitches to put his face back together again.
But he still was determined to help his children get their livestock to the fair.
"I was sitting there in the emergency room waiting to get out of there because we had to get the hogs down there by 10 o'clock that evening," Schmalstieg said.
And they did, pulling in with a load of hogs by a little after 8:30 p.m.
Schmalstieg's bruises made him the talk of the fair. And Schmalstieg, who is 38, said his bruises reminded fair-goers to keep a safe distance from the hind legs of cattle.
"I had parents come up to me and tell their kids, 'This is why we tell you to be careful,'" Schmalstieg said.
The Schmalstieg family lived in an air-conditioned camper during the fair, which helped Schmalstieg survive the heat.
"Whenever I had a free chance, I would go in the camper and ice pack it down, and the swelling would go down big time," Schmalstieg said.
And as for the heifer, well she missed out on the fair.
"We left her at home," Schmalstieg said. "I figured, there's no sense in trying that again."
The gentle giants, bridled, harnessed and ready to go, stood in pairs along the horse arena, quietly waiting their turns to pull
Al Dyer, who's helped organize the draft horse pull for about 15 years, said this was a good year for the event.
"We had a good one, 11 entries," Dyer said. "I think that's the most we've ever had."
Dyer said Merle Beckman, Mound City, took top prize, with his team pulling a 10,400-pound sled a distance of 12 feet. Taking second place was Joe Miller, Clark, Mo.
Dyer, who is 84, said usually the draft horse pull includes Belgians as well as Percherons.
"I believe every one there was Belgian," Dyer said. "Didn't have a Percheron in the bunch."
Of the horses competing, one pair, Dave and George, was entered by 7-year-old Ranae Poole from Wendyville, Mo. The family brought three teams of Belgians in a 32-foot horse trailer.
"We did real good," said Ranae's mother, Jackie Poole. "We got a fifth and sixth and an eighth, so we did good, I think."
The Poole family used to use the Belgians to help feed hay to their 550 cattle.
Now though, Jackie said, the Belgians are used for fun. Ranae and her father, Robert Poole, train them for draft horse pulls.
And the horses, whose ages range from 6 to 20, have a good life.
"They stay here till they die," Jackie Poole said.
She said Belgians are nice to have around.
"They're real good-natured," Poole said. "They're just a good-natured horse."
Normally, the family participates in numerous draft horse pulls in the summer. But Poole said, with higher fuel costs, they've cut back on area competitions. However, they're looking forward to making a big trip in September, to a horse pull and rodeo in Albuquerque.
She already knows how she'll load the six horses into the trailer.
"It's kind of like a puzzle," Poole said. "You put all the harnesses and stuff at the front. Then you put in two horses and a gate. Then another two horses and a gate, and then the last two."
The horses aren't lightweight animals to haul around. They're 17 hands tall and each of the Belgians weighs nearly a ton.