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Montana's Beaverhead County Fair Mixes Fun, Rural Traditions

Here in the United States, summer is changing to autumn, and in rural communities from coast to coast, the annual county fairs are drawing big crowds. County fairs celebrate the abiding rural values of farmers and ranchers, and provide a bridge to the country's agricultural heritage.

The Beaverhead County Fair in Dillon, Montana -- a small, mountain-ringed community of about five thousand in the heart of the American West -- is one example. On one recent Saturday afternoon, there was almost too much to see and hear and do. Authentic cowboys who live and ranch nearby sauntered along the promenade between the fair's carnival section and its agricultural pavilions. Families examined the homemade Western crafts and ate hot dogs and cotton candy, while prize cattle bellow in advance of that night's rodeo.

Meanwhile, in a livestock shed near the center of the fairgrounds, an auctioneer was selling off the last of the sheep, hogs and other livestock raised by children as part of their yearlong "4H" program (a national youth agricultural club), and a freckle-faced 10-year-old boy named Weston Helle seemed a bit sad. He had just sold his lamb, Sandy.

"Yesterday I showed it, and got a blue ribbon. But my lamb ate it," he smiled. "We trained her to follow our motorcycles." When asked how he felt about selling Sandy, he quickly said, "Pretty sad. This is my first year. I needed the money in a college account, so I sold her."

Karen Helle, Weston's mother, raises wool sheep on the family farm. She sympathizes with her son, but thinks raising lambs from birth to market was a wholesome learning experience for her children.

"It's definitely responsibility," she said. "They have to feed their lambs morning and night and do their jobs and measure their feet and clean their pens and they have to exercise them every day. It's good for them!"

Fourteen-year-old Ann Hutton, who belongs to an old Montana farming family, raised her prize-winning hog from a piglet. Ann said she will also miss her pet… But it is also kind of a relief to get rid of it," she said. Her two hogs were named Ralph and Lauren after the glamorous fashion designer. "And those pigs are actually named Victoria and Secret," she said, pointing to the other side of the pen. Ann freely admitted to being a modern farm girl as well as an old fashioned one.

Like all traditional county fairs, the Beaverhead fair features food and crafts competitions. Kay Conover sat in an exhibition shed near the livestock pens, surveying the fruit pies and other baked goods that were vying for a blue ribbon. Also on display were the needlework, embroidery and quilts locals had made for the crafts contests.

"We've lost a lot of the little old ladies that used to do the embroidery and the crochet and stuff like that," she lamented, "so our entries in those competitions have been down in the last couple of years, which is sad. It seems like there is less time to do this kind of stuff anymore. It's all rush-rush-rush!"

Chris Renfree, the fair manager, agreed. He said that while the economy - and the spirit -of Beaverhead County are still rural, many of the skills and crafts that once formed the focus of the fair must now compete with the increasingly popular amusement park rides. "I think it's got the rural type fair and the country type fair to it. A bigger carnival kind of takes a little bit [away] from that. But people like to be entertained."

Nearby, a large group of children are having their faces painted as animals and super heroes, while a clown entertains them.

"Hi! I'm Pippi the Clown! I've come to Dillon just to fool around!" she rhymed. "We're doing magic and balloons and face paintings and games. Are you guys having fun?"

"Yeah!" came the chorus. Pippi then proceeded to transform the children into butterflies, Spider-Men, martians, and tigers.

Any role is safer than being a rodeo bull rider. That's a job which combines an old-West skill set with the thrill of a roller coaster ride from hell. At one nighttime rodeo event, men took turns riding wild bulls, most of which weighed over 800 kilograms and were hand-picked for their brute fury. To ride eight seconds before being tossed off, and not break any bones, is considered a superb ride by rodeo lovers. Ouch!