Thrills, spills & runaway pigs, the Washington Co. Fair has it all

My family has been going to the Washington County Fair since my twin sons were little ones.

Now older grade-schoolers, they still look forward to the old-fashioned fair every August, but not with the same sense of wonderment of earlier years.

But even after so many visits, we always come away with a few unforgettable moments. Last year, for instance, we took in the livestock auction for the first time.

Just walking into the auction barn and smelling the hot, pungent air transported me back to my childhood and memories of my uncle Cliff’s red barn with its rows of wooden stalls, enormous sows and suckling piglets.

There was always a sense of danger lingering in the darkness of my uncle’s cavernous barn. Whenever my sister and I entered it, Uncle Cliff issued the same stern warning: “Don’t stick your hands in the pens, because sows are unpredictable. They’ve been known to nip off kids’ fingers.”

A pig chewing off one of my fingers seemed unlikely, since the only signs of life in my uncle’s hogs were occasional grunts and ear twitches to dislodge flies, but just to be safe we kept our hands tucked in our pockets.

The animals at the Washington County Fair are cute, perfectly groomed and lively, quite a contrast from those at Uncle Cliff’s.

At the fair’s 4-H livestock auction last summer, we sat on aluminum bleachers and watched young 4-Hers trying to smile despite the heartache of knowing their prized cow or rabbit was headed to the slaughterhouse.

Every so often, a wayward duck or chicken would make a dash for freedom under the bleachers, and one time the auctioneer’s cadence was interrupted by laughter when three sheep darted out the show ring door and disappeared into the fair crowds with their frantic teen-age owner trailing behind.

After the auction, we visited the midway, dined on fair food and then strolled through the livestock barns before heading home.

In the swine barn, we saw the championship pigs that had been in the auction ring just a couple of hours earlier. Individual 4-Hers were now posing for photos with their blue-ribbon animals.

Directing the action was a female photographer perched on a tippy stool near a sunlit door.

We stood next to a stall decorated with streamers and artificial flowers as we watched the portrait sessions. Looking in the pen, my sons, Christopher and Kevin, tried to guess how much the handsome Hampshire/Yorkshire pig inside it weighed, estimating 70 to 80 pounds. They were surprised when the lanky farmer feeding the compact pig said it weighed about 250 pounds.

“Ewww,” Chris interjected, “the pig is eating the fake flowers. Will that hurt it?”.

Before the farmer could reply, his son appeared and it was time for the pig’s portrait. Several muscular farm dads held small wooden gates to funnel the reluctant pigs to the photo area.

One moment everything was calm, and then suddenly it was a free-for-all.

“Oh no,” Chris exclaimed, “there’s a pig on the loose.” Sure enough, the meaty porker that had been docilely munching the phony flowers was now hurtling down the aisle straight towards us like a 250-pound torpedo. Soon other pigs were squealing and wiggling away from their owners and racing toward the exits right along with the frightened city folks.

A pig bumped the photographer off her stool and onto the ground. The 4-H kids were flailing around trying to grab their animals, and the dads were now using the gates as shields and occasionally bopping one of the renegade beasts on the head.

Runaway pigs were brushing up against us and above the din, I heard myself shouting, “Keep your hands in your pockets, boys. Don’t let the pigs bite off your fingers!”

I don’t know how, but eventually the dads were able to restore order. The photographer cautiously got back on her stool and resumed the portraits.

My sons proudly held up their hands to show that all their digits were intact.

Still feeling a bit shaky, we slowly walked toward the door. As we crossed the threshold, Kevin breathlessly declared, “Wow! That was way better than any carnival ride.”

It is unscripted, memorable encounters like this, which are so different from anything we experience the rest of the year, that keep drawing us back to the county fair every summer.

— The Washington County Fair runs from Wednesday, Aug. 3, to Sunday, Aug. 7, at the fairgrounds south of Highway 5 on Manning Avenue along the eastern border of Lake Elmo.

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