One of my earliest memories is fuzzy, like cotton used to plug a bottle.
Horses trotting smartly around a track, a tunnel emptying out onto a grassy infield, prizes to be won on squares of cardboard, and taffy the length of a ruler sandwiched between pieces of wax paper.
This was the Great Stoneboro Fair, an institution in Mercer County in the western part of the state that has celebrated farm and family and fortune for nearly 150 years. When I moved to Centre County 30 years ago, I adopted the Grange Fair and have made an annual pilgrimage to Centre Hall each August.
But the Great Stoneboro Fair — smaller, homier, grittier with its horse track that doubles as a demolition derby oval — is worth the two-hour trip.
Before I could walk, I would have gone to the fair with my grandparents. I am fairly certain that as the only daughter of their only child I was proudly paraded before their friends and neighbors like a prized pig.
Make that piglet. A cute piglet.
My grandmother died shortly after I turned 5. If we returned to the fair in the years after that, I have no memories of those visits.
What I do remember is that, at the start of my senior year in college, I had the use of my mother’s car for a few days. Grove City was only about 15 miles from Stoneboro. It probably took me about 10 minutes to cook up a plan to haul some of my friends over to the fair.
The horse track was still there for sulky races. The infield was crowded with farm machinery. A pocketful of change bought rights to bingo cards and a chance at games and small appliances. And slabs of taffy were stacked behind glass.
It was one of those times when memory becomes reality, when time stops and catches, like a hiccup, before fast forwarding.
I’ve returned to the Great Stoneboro Fair a handful of times since then. My husband and I make the drive across Interstate 80 and meet my parents in the parking lot. Usually, one or more of my nephews are in tow along with one of my brothers and sisters-in-law.
We visit the animal barns, where we admire the chickens and the pigs and the horses pecking and snorting and pawing in unfamiliar cages and stalls. Seeing my stylish, beautiful, perfectly accessorized mother happily traipse through the barns is worth the price of admission.
We stop by the Fine Arts Hall, where quilts, needlework, photography, drawings, paintings and flowers are on display. A couple of years ago, when admiring an especially flamboyant spray of gladiolas, my mom told me that my grandfather had grown and exhibited gladiolas. Who knew?
We swing by the Sportsman Hall and look at the stuffed animals on display. Invariably, we’ll talk about the black bear that my grandfather bagged and converted into a bearskin rug. A couple of years ago, my parents hauled to the fair the stuffed and mounted head of an antlered animal my grandfather had killed and donated to the sportsman who was on duty that day. The idea was that rather than the head moldering in my parents’ basement it could molder in the Sportsman Hall for years to come.
We buy French fries from the fire company booth, see which church group or Girl Scout troop is selling what, and eventually top it off with two plates of funnel cake to commence with what my nephews and I have dubbed “the feeding frenzy.”
Invariably, we run into someone who remembers my mom, from her days as my Uncle Walter used to say “the former Joy Reed”, and the past five or 10 or 25 years are highlighted and compressed, like shorthand on a page, into a 10-minute reunion.
Shrill screams from the riders on the midway hang in the air. Powdered sugar dots my chin. The loudspeaker crackles with announcements about upcoming events.
When it comes to something to remember, it’s not glitzy or expensive or breathtaking or notable.
It’s dusty and humid and crowded.
It’s the slimmest of links to a childhood memory from long ago.
But for an afternoon as summer comes to an end, it’s enough.