SALT LAKE CITY — In that place where scents of deep fried food mingle with those of livestock, there might be no better American tradition to connect generations young and old than the fair.
“The cheerful atmosphere, the warmth, the sun, the color. All of this is quite interesting,” said Norman Clark, 84, of Holladay, as he captured the scene in front of him — a ferris wheel set against a bright sky — in a plein-air painting.
Like many others enjoying the festivities at the Utah State Fair on Saturday, Clark said it’s a yearly tradition for him. Though he usually participates in the fine art exhibit, he decided to do a “quick draw” this year, during which he could observe fairgoers.
“I’m interested in people, because I’m also taking some training in portraiture and people-drawing, trying to incorporate that in some of my painting. So it’s good to see the different colors, different variety and diversity of people,” he said.
For the Barnes family, of Lehi, their reason for returning to the fair in Salt Lake City year after year is simple.
“It’s just our hobby. It’s just what we do,” Janine Barnes said over the sound of several roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing.
“And having the kids involved, that’s been kinda nice,” Lee Barnes added.
One of the couple’s chickens, a fluffy Black Cochin flaunting its shiny coal-colored feathers, won Best in Show in one of the poultry competitions. The couple had another competition coming up.
Lee Barnes has been showing fancy birds since childhood. That’s how he met Frank Takahashi.
Takahashi — now about to turn 96 — has returned to the fair with his wife, Kik, for more than 50 years. Even after retiring, he keeps coming back to see his friends take part.
His daughter, Janet Takahashi, recalled, “It was those two that would come down faithfully every year, from morning ‘till night.”
They’ve continued for “the love of the chickens and the people they get to meet,” Janet Takahashi said.
Misty Morris, of Salt Lake City, brought her two kids to the fair to see the cow sculpture made of butter — a Utah tradition — and the animals. As the children ran around catching giant bubbles created by a machine stationed outside the fair’s art center, Morris said she believes it’s important to keep the tradition alive among younger generations.
“I think that I heard that 4-H has lost some funding and access, so I don’t know if it’s a sign of changing times, but I think there were important lessons to be had. And it just gives kids a look at a different way of life, especially if they live in the city,” she said.
“As long as it’s here, we’ll come.”
For Dave Robbins — hanging out with a group of parents, kids and sheep in one of the barns — being part of the 4-H club as a child started a long tradition. This fair will mark his 23rd, he said, and now he’s passing along the skills he learned to kids in his community.
Though showing sheep might not look too difficult, it requires a lot of effort and care.
“It teaches them responsibility and hard work at first. Because each 4-H kid is assigned their own personal sheep, and the sheep are mostly lambs so they’ve never been around people. And so the kid has to teach it to be calm and to trust them, and then they teach it how to lead,” Robbins explained.
“Then we teach them how to show and they have to hold it without the halter. They also learn how to feed it, wash it, sheer it, and then show it. So there’s like five different skills that they learn through one opportunity.”
Jazmin Mitchell, part of the Santaquin 4-H group, said, “It feels like you have a really good responsibility.”
“I have one sheep, and it feels really good just to get a blue ribbon,” the 10-year-old said, adding that she hopes to win one this year.
Jazmin’s mom, Laura, showed pigs when she was young with Future Farmers of America.
“I like her getting the experience and knowing that there’s still people out there that like to work with the youth, and get them to do things other than video games. Get hands-on experience.”
Louis Williams, 17, said, “It’s a pretty good experience. Some of us have two or three (sheep). It’s just kind of a good experience, all your hard work pays off when you get to show it off in the ring.”
“They’ve worked with it all summer, and to come and do it on a statewide level ... is a real sense of accomplishment. It’s fun just to be up here in Salt Lake and to be part of the history of the state fair,” Robbins explained.
JoAnne Flink, of Tooele, returns to the fair every year with her family drawn by the “funnel cakes, kennel corn, the food, definitely,” as well as “the kids having fun with the animals and seeing the animals.”
For June Winterton and Karen McLaws — friends who both make a type of lace called tatting — the fair experience runs deep.
“I’m 67, and I have pictures of me asleep over on the bulls in the barnyard when I was a tiny baby, so that’s a long time,” Winterton recalled.
She enjoys the “people watching. There’s so many people and such a diversity of ideas” and she attends the fair all 10 days every year.
“I square dance, do tatting, cowboy poetry, the horse pull. All of it. And the rodeo.”
She thinks people should know “that they can do or be a part of as much as they want. They can stand back and look and admire. But they can be a part of everything that is here. You can find something that you want to do everywhere in the state fair.”
McLaws has also been to the fair since she was “a tiny child.”
“My parents were just big on coming to the fair, and they used to come to, you won’t even remember this, but they used to have ice shows at the fair, and that was kind of their big thing every year.”
Though her family didn’t have “a ton of resources,” the fair was one thing they did together every year.
As a child, “To me, it was just exciting. I loved the ice show but not as much as my parents did, I don’t think. ... I think it was just the excitement to just be here and see all the people, and see all the rides, and all the activity.”
Ventriloquist Jerry Breeden, who travels the country performing in fairs year-round, believes the draw behind fairs lies in the idea that “it’s just one of our great, as far as America is concerned, it’s just a great place of entertainment, it has been for years.”
“But also just a fabulous place for kids to be able to show their animals, all their hard work for the whole last year raising their livestock, and I think it’s very good for the young people, as far as their self-esteem. It’s just a great family event, and I love being a part of it.”
The Vans Park Series World Championships also wrapped up Saturday at the Utah State Fairpark’s brand new skate park that was donated by Vans and opened on Tuesday. A large, cheering crowd attended, with many youth later wheeling around the fair on skateboards.
The fair runs through Saturday, Sept. 15, and features a variety of activities including live music performances, numerous food and dessert trucks, livestock shows, rides, a hypnotist, a circus, and livestock, arts and crafts displays.
For a complete schedule of events and prices, visit utahstatefair.com.