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Blue Ribbons for Fairest of Rural County Fairs : From California to Kentucky, each selection features a unique food, tradition or activity.

July 25, 1993|ANNE Z. COOKE | Cooke is a free-lance writer based in Venice, Calif

Summer didn't feel like summer ought to feel. Then it came to me in a rush. A month of Sundays had come and gone since I'd been to a rural county fair like the ones I remembered from the '50s.

You know the kind. Where you spit watermelon seeds from the top of the Ferris wheel and roar with laughter. Where you can pet the pigs in the livestock barn. Where booths and rides spread over a grassy field instead of on acres of hot asphalt, and you can munch steamed corn-on-the-cob in the shade of a big tree.

Traditional fairs were history, it seemed, gone the way of fresh eggs and high-top shoes. And then I noticed that high-top shoes were back in style. "Maybe fairs are too," said my husband, and we were off, a stack of events calendars on the dashboard, road maps in the camper's glove box, driving across state lines in search of what I hoped wasn't a memory.

But first I called Stephen Chambers, director of the Western Fairs Assn. in Sacramento, who surprised me by saying that fairs and festivals--state, county and specialty events--are far from an endangered species. Big business nowadays, they draw more than 40 million paid visitors annually.

"We used to worry that when people moved to the city and lost their ties to the farm, they'd lose interest in fairs," he said. "Instead it's heightened their curiosity."

But as state fairs have become giant entertainment spectacles, county fairs, to compete, have returned to their local origins. So in making a list of our personal favorites, first we looked for small to medium-size events, fairs big enough to offer variety but small enough to feel intimate.

Next, each fair had to be an annual community event with a history of past successes. An appealing outdoor setting was also a must: a wooded glen or piney hills, rolling cornfields or fertile river valley. Geographical distribution was a factor, too, so that no matter where you traveled (in the Lower 48) a fair was within reach. Finally, we looked for one feature that made each fair different from all others--a special food, a local sport, a bit of history.

After checking dozens we selected 10 fairs, visited four and sent an emissary--my mother--to the fifth, with orders to report in full. It took a month of Sundays, but it finally felt like summer.

Fair admissions are reasonable, ranging from free to $8 per person, with separate charges for carnival rides, food and grandstand shows. The budget to mid-price hotels listed here come not with our personal recommendation, but at the suggestion of local visitor agencies. At the very least they might provide a starting point for inquiries about lodgings.

NEVADA COUNTY FAIR

Grass Valley, Calif.

Old-timers still pan for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills northeast of Sacramento, but in mid-August it's the Nevada County Fair that brings us (and 120,000 fellow visitors) north to visit friends and spend a day at Grass Valley's pine-shaded fairgrounds.

In these narrow valleys, most residents raise livestock and vegetables on family-size plots and mini-ranchos. Their bounty fills five buildings with 4-H projects, handmade textiles and clothing, baked goods, paintings and carvings, cattle, sheep, chickens and rabbits.

Our Saturday-afternoon favorite is the Loggers' Olympics, with ax-throwing, Jack-and-Jill log-sawing (couples are teams), tree-climbing and log-rolling. Judging from the attendance, most people prefer Sunday afternoon's Destruction Derby.

The Bee Keepers' Assn.'s hive exhibit displays a living honeycomb under glass, filled with blackberry and manzanita blossom honey. New last year was the Chocoholic Contest, a salsa competition and cheesecake bake-off. For quick eats, try the local pasties, serving-size pastries stuffed with meat-herb fillings that were first brought to California's gold country by Cornish miners.

Aug. 11-15, 1993. LODGING: Holbrooke Hotel, $59-$99, (916) 273-1353. INFORMATION: (916) 273-6217.

ARKANSAS VALLEY FAIR

Rocky Ford, Colo.

An amateur rodeo, Mexican fiesta, Shriner-sponsored parade and free admission make this fair in Rocky Ford, on the Arkansas River 50 miles east of Pueblo, a true, old-fashioned community event.

But according to my mother, 87, who lives part of the year in Estes Park, Colo., and who wouldn't miss it for the world, the fair highlight is Watermelon Day, when the town gives away more than 50,000 pounds of juicy melons to all comers.

That tradition hails from 1878, she says, when trading post owner George Swink raised a bumper crop, toted a wagonload to the railroad platform, flagged down the train and gave them away to the passengers. Otero County calls itself the nation's Watermelon Capital, with cantaloupe running a strong second.

Daily events include the Silver King and Queen Contest for seniors (my mother won't enter--it's not her style), the Old Timers' Rodeo and a demolition derby. Melons are definitely in evidence, in jams, jellies, relish, pickles, cookies and breads.

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