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Originally published August 10, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Page modified August 10, 2012 at 4:31 PM

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Life lessons you learn only at the fair

Beyond the swirling neon of the midway, the roar of the demolition derby and a faceful of deep-fried Oreos, there are life's lessons to be found at country fairs.

Special to The Times

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IT HAS been a sight to see this summer: Seattle urbanites flocking to the giddy glee of soaring skyward on the Seattle Great Wheel. Maybe it's a reminder of how much fun is found in sunny-day pleasures: picnics, berry picking, country fairs. Or maybe we're beckoned by life skills we learn in these simple thrills -- and find nowhere else.

For example, scoop your poop before the tractor comes. At the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden, kids showing animals start mucking out stables and swine pens at 5 a.m. The tractor comes at 7 a.m. to pick up everything piled in the barn's main aisle. If you're not done, you have to wheelbarrow a stall's worth of soggy hay and dung out to the manure pile.

Kids learn early on that it's worth getting up early to beat that tractor run. It's a lesson the Washington state Legislature deems so valuable that funding was preserved to subsidize young exhibitors. It was trimmed about 20 percent, according to Northwest Washington Fair manager Jim Baron, when the program could have been cut entirely.

On the other hand, you're never too old to accomplish something amazing. In 2005, Maybelle Garrison of Lynden, then age 94, entered a quilt at the fair for the first time. She had worked on the full-size quilt since 1972, sewing by hand the flowers of the 50 states. Much to her amazement, she won "a blue ribbon and six dollars," and immediately started another quilt for the next fair.

Of course, fudge happens. And when it does, just smile.

For 20 years, Kim Bonsen, Pat George and Karen Stoffer of Lynden cooked homemade meals for the entertainers who came to the Northwest Washington Fair. Working on a propane stove in a 24-foot RV hooked up to a hose for water, they served steak, salmon and Bonsen's mother's pot roast to musicians the likes of Johnny Cash, Brad Paisley, Barbara Mandrell, Ted Nugent, Emmylou Harris and the Beach Boys (their favorite).

Their Texas sheet cake was always a hit with the celebs. In a rush, Bonsen forgot to add baking powder one year, producing a rather lumpy version for country singer Charley Pride's crew in 1988.

"Charley Pride's wife came in and sat down and said to us, 'That is the best fudge I ever tasted,' " Bonsen recalls. "We just looked at each other."

The fair's motto that year was "Giddyup! Moo! The fair wants you!" but it might as well have been "adapt, improvise, overcome."

Another key lesson is every entrant wins. This isn't helicopter parenting or overindulgence. It means every kid's entry is rewarded with a ribbon and a small amount of money called a premium. This opens many 9-year-olds' eyes wide. Hard work earns hard cash -- a concept that'll carry you far in life.

Finally, no matter how badly you mess up, try again. Now a retired veterinarian, Sandra Matheson of Bellingham still remembers showing a Hereford cow named Yodel as a teen. First thing Yodel did was kick the judge. Then she took off climbing up the viewing stands as panicked bystanders leapt from the bleachers.

"They didn't get her stopped 'til she had all four feet on the seats," Matheson ruefully recalls. Though mortified, Matheson showed again the next year and won grand champion. Entrepreneurs take note.

Beyond the swirling neon of the midway, the roar of the demolition derby and a faceful of deep-fried Oreos, there's treasure you'll find nowhere else. Whether you head to the Seattle Great Wheel or come up to Lynden for the Northwest Washington Fair next week, look beyond the bright lights to see what lessons are there for you.

Sarah Eden Wallace is the author of "100 Years at the Northwest Washington Fair." The book and Blue Ribbon blog are at Listen to her "Fresh Picked" radio show at

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