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Love of county/state fairs

5 p.m. July 20—

I remember when the idea of attending a county or state fair was corny. Or corn doggy. Or as square as Dennis Hastert. There were more important things to do like spending an afternoon in the Wrigley Field bleachers or listening to the Allman Brothers on a warm midsummer night.

Over time I’ve learned how these homegrown affairs can deliver meaningful slices of life. This was the case in 2001 when my brother and I took our 81-year-old parents to see Bob Dylan in 85 degree heat at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. [My Dad said Bob was good, but he was no Debbie Reynolds.] and it happened again last night when I attended the Kane County Fair & Festival in suburban St. Charles.

The Neville Brothers were our main draw on a crisp evening, and while I have seen them about two dozen times I have never seen the first family of New Orleans play before approximately 250 people at a county fair….

….Aaron Neville’s honeysoaked voice led the band through a golden field of soulful standards that included Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” The band played to the backdrop of a neon Ferris wheel, spinning around like your first kaleidoscope. That ride always goes in circles, yet it always takes you back.

After the band concluded with Bob Marley’s “One Love” and snippets of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” brothers Aaron and Cyril Neville took time to greet fans along the fencing in the dimly lit east side of the stage. They could have been grumpy about the sparse turnout, but their impromptu meet and greet was straight from the heart.

They’re from New Orleans.

The chill in the carnival air was brought on by a fierce storm that rolled through the Chicago area on the previous evening. I figured this might have been why attendance was so light. After the concert, we rode the Ferris wheel and wound up being the only people on the trip. The fairgrounds were so quiet the carnival workers weren’t even blaring Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River” at our ride.

St. Charles (and for that matter the Du Page County Fair in Wheaton) are now far more suburban enclaves than anythng to do with country life when these county fairs started. More kids probably think 4-H is a rapper instead of a group of young agrarians. A Meier super super store is across the street from the fairgrounds and we saw more young people at a free rock concert in a downtown St. Charles park than we did for the Nevilles.

This is why the fair’s simple charms seemed bigger.

While visiting the cows we learned how one baby cow was born during the previous night’s storm. Her mother was scared and suddenly gave birth to “Stormy.” The mother cow intensly watched over her sleeping “Stormy” as fairgoing children willingly shared the story with anyone who walked by.

I learned about 4-H clubs in Brooklyn, N.Y. and the free spirit of such a delightfully incongrous pursuit made me know I was in the right place. We saw swine sleeping snort to snort and someone made a race car out of a cucumber in the “Vegetable Art” section of the fairgrounds.

I’m now making an RV out of a watermelon.

I rediscovered Randy Ream’s bratwurst from Ream’s Elburn Market (www.elburnmarket.com). Only 55 miles outside of Chicago, Ream is one of the best sausage makers in America. His secret bratwurst recipe includes dashes of onion and lemon, bitter mace, nutmeg and ground caraway. He is a member of the Cured Meat Hall of Fame and also played jazz saxophone behind Bob Hope in Hilton Head, S.C.

The county fairs are a fine warm-up for the state fairs.

This year’s Illinois State Fair runs from Aug. 10-19 on the state fairgrounds along old Route 66 in Springfield. The state fair is 155 years old and there are more than 150 buildings of displays and exhibits including the 400-pound butter cow. Grandstand highlights look to be Gretchen Wilson (Aug. 10), Martina McBride (Aug. 17) and Joe Walsh (Aug. 18). An insider’s secret is “The Twilight Parade” that kicks off at 6 p.m. Aug. 9 in downtown Springfield. Admisson to the Aug. 9 “preview” portion of the state fair is free and carnival rides are discounted. Visit the fair’s website at www.illinoisstatefair.info.

The Wisconsin State Fair has always been a little more hip than the Illnois Stae Fair. The Cheeseheads get down for the 156th consectutive year between Aug. 2-12 in West Allis, Wis., west of Milwaukee. The Cousins Subs Ampitheater is the largest free grounds during the fair. Enterainment highlights include Colin Hay of Men at Work (Aug. 2)., Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (Aug. 6) and Shooter Jennings (Aug. 10). These two crack me up in an ‘Only Wisconsin’ type of way: Craig Chaguico–“formerly of Jefferson Starship” (Aug. 9), and Mr. and Mrs. State Fair Physique Competition Finals at 6 p.m. Aug. 12 in the ampitheater. Yikes! Visit wistatefair.com for more information.