Guest written for ABOUT by Chris Zimmerman
The Pope County Fair has always been more to me than just rides, treats, and games I can never win. Sure, that was alway a big part of it, but my best memories come from the sounds, smells, and memories of the livestock barn.
I grew up in Dover, a few miles east in Moreland to be exact. We didn’t have what I considered a farm, but you could find chickens, a few horses, a dog or two chasing a cat or two, and a couple of Red Poll steers.
The steers belonged to my brother, Jeff, and I. They were our annual project for the Busy Beavers, our local 4-H club. They kept us busy but mostly because my dad was always sure to keep us on track. Jeff was probably more dedicated to his steer than I was to mine. He certainly had more battle scars to show for it. I was a bit more leery of those massive beasts and a bit more reluctant to put myself in a pen with them. While they might not have been as massive as I recall, there’s no mistaking the power of their kicks.
The culmination of our work was to present our steers at the Pope County Fair. We would work with them through the year, grooming, walking with our lead ropes, positioning hooves and legs with show sticks, learning how to present to judges. We developed a closeness but not like that of a pet. It was a respect for the animal itself. We knew that once the shows were complete, these creatures would fill our freezer with meat and our table with meals. It was a good life lesson to learn.
The first step to showing your steer at the fair was to transport it to the fair grounds. This seems like an easy enough task. Load them into the trailer, drive to the grounds and unload. As with so many things in life, though, one misstep and it all goes wrong.
We were about three miles down Highway 124, listening to KARV radio, when my dad brought the truck to an immediate stop. I’m not sure I’d call it panic, but with great urgency he jumped out of the truck and took off running down the road behind us. I leaped out right after him and looked back, shocked at what I saw. Standing (if you could call it that) on his knees in the middle of the highway was my steer.
My first reaction was “he’s dead.” He can’t survive something like that. All the typical gruesome thoughts a teenage boy would have over seeing a cow sitting in the road ran through my mind. My dad quickly grabbed a lead rope, got it around the steers neck, and somehow convinced him that getting up and walking back to the trailer was a better option than kneeling in the road. Dad soon had him back in the trailer and was double checking, no, triple checking all the locks. We got back in the truck and were on our way.
I don’t recall much about that short trip other than I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t going back to the house. My steer had four severely skinned knees and multiple contusions on his hips and sides. To top it off, his tail was… gone! Well, not his whole tail, but all the hair. One of his most prominent show features was no more. He was alive and in one piece, but there was no way I could pull this off. I had convinced myself of the worst.
I was partially right…there was no way that I could prepare this steer for show considering the circumstances. What I didn’t consider at the time was that none of this had happened because of me. I didn’t purchase that steer. I didn’t provide the feed and shelter for that steer. Nor did I provide the encouragement and motivation to even raise and train this animal. That all came from Dad. And as with so many things in my young life, the solution to an impossible situation came from him as well.
After we had settled in at the fairgrounds, Dad went to work. I watched as he tended the wounds and began planning. First he covered up all the blemishes with salve and bandages. He then found just the right shade of cattle touch up paint (yes, it’s a thing) and applied it such that you couldn’t even see a difference.
Then the final step. Together, we spent who knows how long taking hay bale binder twine and fraying it out into balls of string that closely resembled the groomed tail of a show steer. Once perfected, we covered it with hairspray to set, and then painted it as well to match our steer. With the help of a little adhesive, Dad attached it to the nub of my steers tail, and he was good to go. It was a pretty amazing transformation if I say so myself.
As was common at the time, we would spend the nights at the fair barn with our animals. The sounds and smells of the barn are what I remember today, as well as the pride of telling our story to anyone that came by. My steer and I were minor celebrities for a day or two that week, and our story found its way to seemingly everyone. I didn’t mind though, and I’m convinced that neither did my steer.
Eventually, it came my time to show. We went through our paces as we had practiced, with only minor hiccups. My cosmetically enhanced steer and I even won first prize that year in our class. It’s probably not necessary to mention that we were the only ones in our class, so I won’t. The win earned us a trip to the state fair weeks later where we didn’t do quite as well and left with a few more stories to tell. But hey, at least we made it all the way to Little Rock with the gate closed.
Guest written for ABOUT by Chris Zimmerman