When I was a kid, the Berrien County Youth Fair was the pinnacle of my summer. Everything led to the fair. All year long, I worked with three different 4-H clubs; I cared for my rabbits; practiced with my dog (“sit” and “stay” kind of stuff); I leather crafted (it’s a thing, really!); I wood crafted; I baked; and I horticultured (also a thing).  In short, I lived for the fair. Every third week in August, the BCYF became home away from home, where I felt free to wander without parents, drink a gallon of shaken lemonade every day, and ride the pirate ship until my stomach churned. It was glorious. 

It was tradition. 

With the excitement of the fair approaching, I have been thinking of the BCYF traditions I want to share with my kids next week. What’s more, I wondered what traditions other fair-lovers, like myself, have continued and created with their families over the years. 

Recently, I spoke with three local Berrien County Fairgoers–Maureen, Sarah, and Kelly– about their own fair traditions: showing animals, baking bread, and fair photography.  No doubt, these ladies are looking forward to the fair and all the traditions (And maybe a bit of nostalgia from their fair-pasts.) 

The Horse Show Tradition

Maureen Pliley has been going to the fair since she could remember. For her, the horse area at BCYF feels like home. The soft  dirt path, pockmarked with hooves; the long barns decorated with 4-H club signage; the intermittent announcements ringing from the arenas’ loudspeakers–this is her family’s tradition. Maureen started showing horses at the BCYF when she was only six years old. And this year, her six-year-old plans to continue the tradition and saddle up for her second year of BCYF horse shows. 

Many families in our area show animals. Arguably, the fair is built on the tradition of showing. The shows that run all week long keep the east end of the fairgrounds alive with animals moving from stalls to arena with spectators perched on metal bleachers. 

The tradition of showing, however, is not simply a one-day event that happens in August. Showing horses–and other animals– requires a year’s worth of effort and dedication fostered through 4-H clubs. When Maureen rode competitively, she belonged to the Trail Busters 4-H Club. Today, her daughter practices with the 4-H Double Bridle Club.   Maureen hopes her daughter will be able to experience 4-H friendships as she did. She says this was her favorite part of being a part of the horse community–socializing in tack stalls, making pit stops at The Korn Dog stand, or roaming the field of carnival rides with friends. 

This week, Maureen’s daughter and local equestrian riders alike, will be hard at work in backyards and barns, refining their horseback riding skills in preparation for next week’s shows. While those rosette fair ribbons may be the goal, Maureen hopes her daughter simply enjoys herself and has fun. Fun is what the fair is all about.  

Happy pony trails makes for a happy little 6-year-old girl.

The Banana Bread Tradition

Like Maureen, Sarah Blurton’s heart belongs at the horse barns. She, along with her siblings, showed ponies for years, creating a lifetime’s worth of fair memories–nights spent in the tack stalls, long days in the show ring, and pictures with tall trophies and purple rosettes in front of the brick wall. For this reason, the fair has always been a highlight of summer for her family. 

While Sarah loved showing horses, Sarah’s most cherished memory of the fair–and favorite tradition–was baking banana bread with her grandma. I imagine it was a sweet time mashing bananas, scooping flour and sugar,  cracking eggs, mixing, and then pouring. They would slip the pan into the warm oven and watch it bake. Maybe they’d write out the recipe on an index card while waiting; maybe they’d wipe counters and set out the cooling rack.  However it happened, however the bread was baked, it was done with a woman Sarah loved and admired. It was done in grandma’s kitchen.

This week, Sarah’s five-year-old  twin boys will do their own peeling, mashing, and mixing; they are (finally!) old enough to bake and enter banana bread–just like their mom did.  This time, though, it will be Sarah’s mom, their grandmother, who will carry the tradition. What a delicious treat: grandma time  and sweet banana bread. I’m sure they will earn all the A’s (and maybe one of those fancy ribbons). 

Banana bread and goat-showing make the perfect fair tradition for Sarah’s twin boys.

The Tractor Wheel Tradition 

The BCYF is not complete without a picture of your kids sitting in the wheel of a John Deere combine. Am I right?  During fair week, my Facebook feed is a block of pictures with kids in the yellow rims.   If your kid sits in a yellow wheel, I know they you are at the Berrien County Youth Fair. No caption needed. 

Kelly Voit, one of my close friends and local fairgoer, has been collecting pictures of her kids propped in the yellow rim ever since her oldest could sit up.  Kelly admits she doesn’t remember many fair experiences from her youth. But she has begun her own traditions and memory-making with her kids.  “The giant tractor wheel picture is a must for me,” says Kelly. “I love using it as a reference to see how the kids have changed in a year.”

Imagine this: a line up of 18 years of yellow-rimmed tractor pictures. That is a true BCYF treasure that can’t be bought in any commercial building. Priceless. 

After Kelly snaps pictures of her two, they always round out their fair traditions with large snow cones, the Wonders of Birth barn, and a treasure hunt in the commercial barns for free pencils. Her kids can’t wait to collect ALL the pencils next week. 

Mom: “If you sit still, I’ll get you an elephant ear!” Kids: “Cheese.”

This week, thousands of families in Berrien County are gearing up for the fair. Whether they are packing their trailers and tack boxes, training with animals, finalizing crafts and baking all the sweets (hands up over here! Lots to make and bake this week), fairgoers are ready. May all of our hard work and BCYF traditions continue under the 2019 theme: Country Nights and Carnival Lights.

With so much to do and experience at the youth fair, many traditions are sure to live on this year. What are your favorite fair traditions?


Tracy Becker