Seeds of change
Prisoners take pride in their fancy foliage
Next year, when he comes to the Illinois State Fair, Trinity Payne plans to eat ice cream and caramel apples and try "that big slide."
Justin Hartmann hopes to sample the ribeye steaks and "walk around—like I can't do now."
"Aw, c'mon, be honest," their supervisor says. "What you'll probably do is start weeding the flower beds."
For the past few years, weeding flower beds—and watering, pruning, and grooming the plants—is all Payne and Hartmann have been allowed to do at the state fair. But they count themselves lucky. They are both prisoners at Logan Correctional Center, and the work detail at the fair—restricted though it is—is still one of the best assignments an inmate can get.
Besides, the work has a way of (ahem) growing on them. They've become knowledgeable, skilled, proud, and protective of their plants. When the prisoners see a careless maintenance worker nip the petunias with a weed eater, they groan, "Oh man, can you believe he did that?"
To qualify for this detachment, inmates have to meet all the criteria for the work camp—no violent crimes (Payne and Hartmann are in for burglary), no discipline problems, and no more than two years left on their sentences. Then they have to prove themselves trustworthy on less-public assignments, like setting up exhibits at the Festival of Trees, for instance. If they pass all those hurdles, they get the privilege of working at the state fair, where they're free to partake in the aroma of popcorn and grilled onions, though not much else.
"They cannot openly communicate or fraternize with the public, and at no time can they leave the direct supervision of an officer," says Major Scott Hudspeth, who has been in charge of this project since its inception in 1994. So far, he says, there has never been a problem.
This type of program obviously has the potential to change lives. Hartmann, for example, plans to look for a job in construction when he's released, but promises, "I'm going to make my mom's yard look real good."
So far, the person whose life has been the most drastically altered is Jerry Morgan, the Department of Corrections officer who has been in charge of this program for the past six years. He not only supervises the work crew; he also designs the beds and selects the flowers. He has been transformed from a prison guard into an artist who paints with plants.
"He is a master gardener," Payne says respectfully.
Morgan, who taught himself landscaping by surfing the Internet and browsing Barnes & Noble, is more modest. "Everything we do out here is just shootin' from the hip," he says.
He views the beautiful beds around the fairgrounds with a critical eye, noticing spots where tall flowers block out shorter ones, and places where three-foot-tall cleome are bordered by one-foot-tall "new looks" with no two-foot-tall plants in between. The bed of petunias designed to resemble the American flag didn't turn out quite like he'd pictured, and he isn't pleased with the big bed of marigolds under the Lincoln statue either.
But he's proud of the "spilled whiskey barrels" and "spilled wheelbarrows" arrangements—they were both his ideas. And he likes the colorful petunias in the hanging baskets, which previously held plain greenery.
"The biggest improvement this year is the hanging baskets," he says.
When two giant shrubs near the main gate burned (there's a story there, but no one will tell it), Morgan replaced them with dazzling flower beds, and then realized he could do the same elsewhere on the grounds. He and his crew are eyeing the prickly bushes near the giant slide as candidates for replacement by fancier foliage.
The inmates aren't the only ones thrilled to escape the big house. Morgan likewise considers this detail the best assignment he could have. "This is great for me," he says.
The SJ-R's mission: nail the state fair overcount!
The State Journal-Register is concerned about the way fair officials count attendance. Maybe suspicion began last year when officials announced they were adding 150 people to the attendance totals every day in honor of the fair's 150th anniversary—not the best way to win over auditors. But it's not like they're fudging the state's population, or covering up anything people really care about, like how little soda vendors are putting into your $2 cup of ice.
On Saturday, according to state fair workers, the S J-R hired its own counters to stand by all the entrance gates with clickers. Expect a story about an inflated-numbers scandal. Anticipating the news flash, state fair bean counters have already been making adjustments. For instance, it was announced early this week that Saturday's attendance count came in at 96,250. Not bad. But not as good as the attendance on the first Saturday of last year's fair—175,000 (or should we say 175,150?). Hmmmmmm.
Illinois State Fair workers say there must be something more serious than fair attendance for the S J-R to worry about. "That's their issue?" asks one. "We think it's nuts," says another.
"That's fine, they can look at the attendance numbers—we're not looking at the numbers," says Charles "Chuck" Hartke, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which oversees the fair. "We're looking to see if people are having a good time and that the vendors are happy."
Dylan Howell, 9; "Just Katie," 13; and Desiree Jennings, 15
Desiree wears boots decorated with green and white nail polish, with a red skateboarding lace in one, a Smokey-the-Bear lace in the other. She shops on-line and at thrift stores and boycotts Hot Topic. "I dress like this every day. I try to avoid dressing up for special occasions."
Katie usually wears striped thigh-high stockings, like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. "If you call it punk, that's the fashion these days, and I don't like that. It really annoys me because I say I'm just dressing myself with what I think looks cute on me. It's not really any fashion."
Desiree did Dylan's hair in "half ponies" with a trailing tendril to look "chaotic." Dylan says, "I picked this out because it matched, and my sister [Desiree] helped me pick this out because she said you have to look suitable."
Desiree: "I like her to look like a cute little cheerleader."
Noah McClurg, 7; Joshua McClurg, 16; and Madison McClurg,
The McClurg family made a special trip to the State Fair to see a quilt Madison made displayed in a 4-H exhibit. The kids collected stickers, pins, buttons, hats, and free yardsticks from booths promoting IDOT, IEMA, the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, State Senator Barack Obama, and the George Bush/Dick Cheney ticket.
Clayton Ann Joyner, 13, and Katie Ford, 13
They dressed alike in white shorts and tank tops. Clayton Ann's shirt is black; Katie's is white. Both shirts have big pink satin bows on the shoulders. Clayton Ann also wore gray Converse sneakers with pink trim and pink laces. They wanted to look alike because they were performing together, having won the vocal group competition with their rendition of "I Will Never Leave You" from the Broadway musical Sideshow. They each also won ribbons in the solo vocal competition.
The Lieutenant Governor's fight to save Plum Island
Politicians at the Illinois State Fair are known to ham it up for votes. There's a day for Democrats to do it. And there's a day for Republicans too. (If only they could stick to that one day.) You'll be able to tell which day is which by the number of people carrying around Rod Blagojevich tote bags or Judy Baar Topinka bumper stickers. Then there's Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat, to be sure. But he doesn't want you to carry around a bag at the fair. He wants you to sign a petition to save an island in the middle of Starved Rock State Park in Utica.
A Native American burial site is located at the island, which is also a favorite home to bald eagles. So many eagles nest there during the winter it's the reason why Illinois plays host to more of them than any of the other 47 contiguous states.
The 60-acre island is the site of a proposed development of cabins and condominiums covering at least 50 half-acre lots. Understandably some people are upset, including Quinn, who was alerted of the plan by the Illinois Audubon Society during a June Illinois River Coordinating Council meeting at Starved Rock.
At Quinn's State Fair tent, located close to the Miller Beer Tent, visitors can sign the petition, which has about 12,000 names already, including ones from Japan and the Netherlands, according to Eric Schuller, one of Quinn's policy advisors. During a press conference at his tent on Tuesday, Quinn said there might be state funds to purchase the island for public use. Regardless, he vows, developers will never get the necessary permits to build.
"It's a good cause," says Quinn. "Illinois only has pockets of wilderness left. Plum Island should belong to the people of Illinois. I don't want to see neon signs and condos where I could be looking at eagles."
Quinn's office sponsors a Web site for people who want to learn more about Plum Island or sign the petition to save it. It's at www.state.il.us/ltgov/PlumIsland/default.htm.
Stitch out of time
Richard "Shotgun" Morris's last day at the fair was Saturday, August 9. From Tuesday through Saturday he was there every day and often into the early morning hours repairing bridles and harnesses for society horses and ponies, the ones that trot and prance around to organ music in the Coliseum.
Friday afternoon, in an alcove between stables 25C and 25D, Morris was sitting on his World War I-era, wood saddler's box--a kind of portable repair kit that harkens back to the days when armies had "company saddlers" who fixed cavalry equipment on the battlefield. Morris's hair was tied into a ponytail and he was smoking a pipe wrapped with electrical tape because he'd burned a hole through it. As he straddled his box, with his bare feet on the ground, he stitched intently into a saddle.
"A rider without his saddle goes nuts," says Morris. "It's shaped to his body."
For the past 16 years Morris has worked the fair to promote his business, Morris & Sons Harness Shop, based out of his mid-19th century farmhouse in Morrisonville, about 40 miles southeast of Springfield. His sons live with their mother near Elgin. At ages 15 and 16 they're not quite old enough to join the business, but Morris says they're beginning to show an interest. He charges $20 an hour for repair work and up to a couple thousand for a handmade society horse harness set, which can require up to 120 hours of labor.
"I started doing leather work for Civil War re-enacting," says Morris. He took an early 20th century George McClellan saddle--named after the Civil War general who designed it—and retrofitted it back to Civil War authenticity. That was more than 23 years ago, when he got into the harness business. A former girlfriend he'd met at a re-enactment, where he got the nickname "shotgun," introduced him to a harness maker out of Taylorville who took him in as an apprentice. When Morris and his girlfriend broke up he moved into a horse trailer behind his new boss's shop. He bought his farmhouse about 14 years ago.
Between 1969 and '71, Morris was in the Army, stationed in Germany. After he got out, he went to Northern Illinois University, where he majored in history and anthropology, graduating in 1974. He worked two years as a substitute teacher trying to land a full-time job teaching history, but then realized teaching wasn't for him. He considered pursuing a master's in museum management, but says he always thought "it was more important to preserve skills than artifacts."
Morris works quietly and discreetly. "I don't put up a sign at the fair," he says. "The traffic—the crowds that build up—are a hassle. And I usually get behind on my regular work. Being at the fair is a double-edged sword. For 16 years I've repaired stuff for people who aren't familiar with anything new I do."
Though he says he doesn't have any true competitors because the biggest names in the business now do all their work with factory machines, it's hard to win new customers, who tend to stick with their favorite shops. He once traveled a circuit that stretched into Missouri, picking up jobs along the way. Now he'll do business with anyone, but usually works through an equestrian equipment dealer near Kansas City, Missouri.
Morris doesn't make a lot of money, clearing anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000 a year. He lives humbly with his dog Harry Potter, numerous cats, and five horses on five acres. The past couple of years receipts have been low, he says, due to the economy.
"But nobody does it at the level I do it," he says. "I'm into the handiwork. I hate machines."
A prairie grows on Main Street
One of the most unexpected new features of the Illinois State Fair is the prairie restoration exhibit next to the Emmerson Building. Ablaze in red, purple, and yellow, the handsome stand of wildflowers is a pleasant respite from gaudy souvenir and fried-food stands. This dandy show of original Illinois prairie flowers is the brainchild of Patti Blagojevich, wife of the guv, who recently saw beautiful plantings of wildflowers along roadways at a governors' conference in Texas and thought Illinois highways could be equally beautiful. Patti B. could be the next Lady B.!
Test your plant identification skills with Virginia spiderwort, blazing star, obedient plant, and rattlesnake master(!). Inside the booth are free packets of wildflower seeds and color posters of roadside wildflowers from the Department of Transportation, as well as free Illinois roadmaps. Check out the exhibits to see what plants are native to your part of the state.
The plantings for Mrs. Blagojevich's State Beautification Initiative took five days to create, according to Jack Pizzo of Pizzo & Associates, Ltd., who specialize in restorations of prairies, woodlands, and wetlands. Restoration of roadside prairie is a cost-saving measure for the State of Illinois, Pizzo says, because it eliminates the usual mowing and herbicide spraying. Illinois has some 19,000 miles of state roadways, many of which will be planted with wildflowers instead of turf.
Only one tenth of one percent of our original natural areas remain, but no state has had its native plants so thoroughly catalogued as Illinois, thanks to the efforts of the Natural History Survey in Champaign, Pizzo says. Because of the INHS documentation, restoration of prairies can be done accurately. According to the State Beautification Initiative, each county will have plants native to its area. Once the fair is over, the coneflowers, liatris, and other flowers and grasses at the fair site will be planted at highway intersections in Sangamon County.
If you're really serious about prairie plants, you can pick up a free 60-page book at the booth that tells you how to establish your own bit of prairie paradise, courtesy of DNR, EPA, and DOT.
Where's the beef?
Illinois State Fair food . . . from Wisconsin
Illinois may have failing schools because so many kids get their first history and geography lessons at the state fair. They learn of an Illinois island called Key West and of the state's proud entertainment industry based in the famous town of Hollywood. At one point Illinois probably was a little Wild, Wild West (for people in New Jersey in the early 1800s), which is why it's helpful to let everyone know about its days of 11-year-old, gun-slinging cowboys.
Over the years we've come to accept these little incongruities. They give our real museums some misconceptions to work off. But there's one oddity that's way out there. Did you know there's a guy at our fair selling "Wisconsin Beef"?
Evidently this has escaped our governor's keen radar for mischief. "Illinois families, their friends and visitors from around the country and the world annually travel to the State Fair each year to celebrate our agricultural industry," Governor Rod Blagojevich notes in his letter inside this year's fair guide. "The State Fair is devoted to providing the best that Illinois has to offer."
Bill Powers, of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Cheese and Sausage Factory, was too busy Monday to worry about such trivial matters as promoting Illinois agriculture. He's here, he says, "to make some money." Twelve hours a day, every day, you can find him at the Expo Building selling three-and-half- and one-and-a-half-pound sleeves of sausage—made from 100 percent beef processed at his factory where it's also smoked and cured. He also sells bags of beef jerky and slim jims (three for $5, but he usually throws in an extra bag). Swiss Colony and Hickory Farm buy from him, he says, but he's selling this stuff from his company's private cache.
Considering all his expenses—renting the booth, paying for a hotel room and parking, buying food and gas—he figures he has to sell at least $1,900 of meat to break even this week. "I'll make money," he says. "But talk to 14 out of every 15 vendors here and they'll tell you business is down this year."
Business was business, though, and I had to step aside as Powers worked the crowd of hungry noontime pedestrians. Powers has been in the meat, sausage, and cheese business for 25 years. This is his second year at the Illinois State Fair. He's got a gift for sending people off with a pound or two of links and some slim jims. He stopped to answer every question but made it plain that there was another beef jerky vendor down an aisle he had to worry about. Before I left, he had to get some of his own beef off his chest.
"Your state has got to spend some money on air-conditioning in this building," Powers says. "I do 100 shows a year and this is the only one without A/C."
Wham, bam, thank you, SPAM
Turkey Corn Chowder? Sounds good. Now try Turkey SPAM Corn Chowder. Doesn't have the same ring, does it?
Over the years, SPAM has tried to shake off its low-rent stigma. "People have a bad mindset about SPAM," admits Sandy Shadoff, superintendent of textile and culinary arts at the Illinois State Fair. "It's good!"
Last Monday, the National Best SPAM Recipe Contest was held in the Hobbies, Arts, and Crafts building. The contest showcased various recipes using SPAM. Hormel has sponsored the event for about 10 years. The winning recipes were "SPAM Cheesy Tent Rolls" in third place, "Sweet & Sour SPAM Turkey Tarts" in second place, and "Turkey Corn Chowder" in first. (Maybe the chowder won because it didn't have SPAM in its name.)
"If you tasted that soup, you would not know that was SPAM—that thing was good!" says Shadoff. Deborah Steele of Springfield won the first place prize and got a free apron. These recipes were judged on appearance, the number of ingredients, and, of course, taste. Sandy says she hasn't come across a bad recipe yet.
Turkey Corn Chowder
1 can of SPAM Oven Roasted Turkey
2 cups of diced canned potatoes
3 cups of cooked corn (1 can creamed, 2 cups fresh)
1 pint of cream
1 pint of milk
1 can of mushrooms (16 oz.)
1 large onion, diced fine
1/2 cup of butter, divided
1/2 lb. bacon
1/2 cup of sour cream
Cook bacon until crisp and set aside. Cook onion in a 1/4 cup of butter until limp, do not let brown. Dice SPAM turkey and add to onion along with corn, potatoes, milk, cream, mushrooms and half of the bacon. Heat on low for 10 minutes or until warm—do not let boil. Before serving, add sour cream and second 1/4 cup of butter. Sprinkle remaining bacon over top and serve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.
A day at the races
Small stakes at the Grandstand
Late Monday morning Ronnie Gillespie was studying The Review, the daily racing form for handicapping horses at the Grandstand. Gillespie doesn't bet often, but the stakes weren't high. He and his friend Jodie, both from Starkville, Mississippi, were placing gentlemen's bets between themselves—no money involved. It was a good strategy; the favorites kept winning, perhaps bringing in a paltry two bits on every dollar risked. Still, Gillespie couldn't help but look for ways to bet against that number one slot: It's the only way to win big.
The first race had seven horses--all two-year-olds. Armbro Barnes, a speedy trotter owned by Little Springwood Farm in Frankfort, was the favorite, with 3-to-5 odds of winning. Ambro was the only horse in the bunch to have finished a mile in under two minutes.
But Gillespie was drawn to Fire Cracker, a 15-to-1 longshot predicted to come in fourth. Gillespie, a 31-year-old heavy-equipment operator who buys and sells racehorses on the side, thought Firecracker had a couple of advantages. The horse is stabled locally and is familiar with the Grandstand track—one of the fastest in the country, according to Gillespie. His rider, Andy Miller, is an "up-and-coming" jockey who has "good hands" and is supposed to be "aggressive." His trainer, Miller's brother Ervin, is one of the state's best. And according to The Review, Fire Cracker has been known to pick up speed during the last quarter mile of a race.
Gillespie was introduced to horseracing by his father, a Methodist minister. "I fell in love with the speed," he says. Last year at the Clark County Fair, one of Gillespie's horses, O.G.'s Miss Tonycapish, finished first in a five-way harness race. He recently sold another horse, a two-year-old with seven recorded wins, for $6,000 to someone from Newton, Illinois. In June, he bought a colt for $1,000 whose sister just sold for $10,000. He'd rather spend his money buying the horses than betting on them, he says. He claims he did win $4,000 on a race once, though, about two weeks ago, he dropped $210 at another track.
The first race starts at noon. The track is dirt, and the contests usually feature "trotters" and "pacers," meaning the rider sits in a harness pulled by the horse, who has to maintain a steady gait or be penalized for "breaking" out into a sprint. This kind of racing stands in stark contrast to thoroughbred racing, where the rider sits on top and the horse runs like heck.
Armbro Barnes won easily. Fire Cracker never had a chance, finishing sixth. The Review's summary said, "Fire Cracker recovered nicely after an early miscue in his last start. Will need to be at his best to grab a share here."
The program lists each race and every horse, racapping several previous outings. Gillespie studies the quarterly breakdown of past races. The Review also has the condition of every track that horse has raced on—from fast to slow, from "sloppy" to "heavy"—and what the temperature was on that day. It lists each horse's rider, trainer, and owner, as well as other horses it has raced against. Tables detail how many times the horse broke ahead—inviting a penalty—and whether it tripped, bled, or was ahead or behind by a nose.
Harvey Rice, 86, says he's too old to walk up and down the Grandstand steps to place bets anymore. He might lay a little money on just a couple of races, he says, but he's not too excited about the odds. Rice lives in Champaign and once owned about five horses, racing them himself during the early 1970s. He picks a horse by simply looking at its final time in previous races. That's led to his selection of winners in two races at the fairgrounds. These winners also happened to be the favorites, which Rice didn't notice until after he picked them. Not worth the gamble, he says.
"I'm not going to go back down these steps to collect my 20 cents."
Organist Ruth Weber has provided the soundtrack for 13 years of equine extravaganzas
The first thing you notice in the Coliseum is usually some species of equine—pony, draft horse, or mule—prancing around the perimeter, pulling a wagon. Whatever the breed, the animal is sure to be spiffed up and festooned with ribbons and shiny tack. Their drivers are usually equally well-groomed, with some lady linesmen even wearing long sparkling gowns.
The next thing you might notice, with great relief, is the full brigade of ceiling fans, keeping the air fresh and cool.
And then, finally, you might realize there is music playing. It's subtle, like the most tasteful wallpaper: without calling any attention to itself, it gives the joint a dash of color and a touch of class.
That's all Ruth Weber. For the past 13 years, she has been supplying the music at state fair horse shows. A friend with a truck hauls Weber's own Hammond organ from her home in Normal to Springfield just for the event. Weber brings along her vast repertoire of familiar songs, neatly categorized as trot, canter, or walk. Her friend with the truck doesn't need to transport the music; Weber carries most of it inside her head.
"I try to play something that's appropriate for the particular gait," Weber says. "For example, for a slow gait, I usually do 'Ritual Fire Dance.'"
Owners or riders sometimes request that she play a certain tune, swearing that it's their horse's favorite song. She usually obliges.
Weber is tiny, with a delicately soft voice to match. But in all her years of serenading skittish beasts, she has been frightened only once.
"It was in the Coliseum," she recalls. "It wasn't at the state fair, but another horse show. It was in a hand class [where the animals are led by halter rather than being ridden] and a horse got loose and ran right through the judges' stand. I thought, oh my goodness, what am I going to do? I'm going to lose everything and we're all going to get hurt! All this was going through my mind real fast as this horse came through the judges' stand.
"Well, he came in one side and went out the other. He didn't hit anything and he didn't hurt anybody! And afterwards, the owner told me the horse was trained to do that, and that he did it really well. I had to agree; the horse did do that very well."
She also isn't scared by any new technology that horse show organizers might be tempted to try in place of a live organist. A good organist can keep an eye on the animals and time the tune to end at a musically logical point, rather than cutting off abruptly on a suspended chord.
Besides, there isn't always a CD with a suitable version of each horse's favorite song.
Horses have favorite songs?
"That's what they say!" Weber says.
Weber grew up around horses and music. Her father owned Standardbred horses; her mother coaxed her into taking piano lessons. After four years, at age 10, Weber switched to the organ.
Besides horse shows, she plays for two churches in the Bloomington-Normal area—Holy Trinity Catholic and Christ the King Episcopal. In those settings, she gets to play powerful pipe organs that make more noise than the Hammond she uses for the horses.
After all these years, Weber could probably judge a horse show herself.
"I have my own ideas about what I like," she says. "I pick out the horse that I like. Sometimes it wins and sometimes it doesn't."
The Expo Building's personality parade
Panels of red and yellow lights illuminate the first booth in the center aisle of the Expo Building. In between the rows of flickering bulbs, four sophisticated-looking gauges read "DC Amperes." All four needles point to zero.
Families, couples, and singles—young and old alike—flock to the lights like moths to a flame. Below the cluster of lights, a line of buttons awaits the next eager patron.
A middle-aged woman in black-and-white-flowered Capri pants takes the bait. "I just have to do it," she tells a friend in a slightly embarrassed whisper.
Lindsey Staff oversees the "Personality Analysis" booth. She explains the basics to the woman, who signs her name on a yellow card. Staff inserts the card into the machine, the gauges begin to move, and some of the lights change color and flash.
With the help of this machine, Staff claims, she can plumb the hidden depths of your personality—all for just two bucks. The machine, which looks like a bad prop from the movie Back to the Future, doesn't inspire much faith in its pronouncements. But Staff says she's had no problem getting people to spend money.
"We're constantly having someone come up to the table and ask to do it," says the 15-year-old Staff, who will be a sophomore at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School this fall.
Many of the people are return customers. Others are simply attracted by the flashing lights and vague promises. Staff says she has no idea how the system works, though the process is easy.
"Someone signs his name to a yellow card, and I take the card and put it into this slot with the name facing in," she says. "If you want a horoscope, then I push the button corresponding to the horoscope, and then press 'analyze,' and then 'start.'"
A computer supposedly assesses each person's signature before spitting out the profile. Patrons willing to splurge can get both a personality profile and a horoscope for three dollars.
"It gives you all kinds of information," Staff says, "such as famous people with your sign and your lucky numbers."
David Acree, regional representative for Televac, the company that owns the machines, tries to provide a more technical explanation. "The computer reads the first letter of the first and last names—it just reads whatever sticks out," he says.
Acree, who's from Tampa, travels around the country to various county and state fairs. His next stop will be in New York. He admits the computer only matches people to one of ten possible profiles.
"We upgrade the computers every two years," he says. "The information it gives people is based on years and years of signature analysis from the FBI, philosophers, and others.
"It's about 90 to 95 percent accurate. We do this mostly for entertainment purposes—car shows, state fairs, and so forth."
But what if people take the results seriously?
Staff offers to give me the test for free, and I find it surprisingly on the mark. But while I might be "self-sufficient," I don't think I am necessarily "overly critical and too prone to give advice."
Staff confides she was skeptical at first. "At first I thought it was a gag, but the more and more I saw it, it seemed pretty accurate.
"The majority of people believe it," she says. "But I had one lady who was in her early 50s or late 40s screaming at me the other day. She was giving me grief because she said it wasn't her. She said it was a rip off. I think it might have said she had a tendency to blow up."
By the numbers
The education of an auctioneer
Alex Belcher had plenty of options when he graduated from college with a degree in animal science. He could've become a farm manager or a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, tried for veterinarian school or gone to work at a feed lot.
Instead, he took about $1,500 from his graduation gifts and enrolled in auctioneering school.
"I thought I could use it as a sideline," he says.
As it turned out, what he learned in the 12-week course became more important to him than his four years of college. He found out he liked being an auctioneer.
Pretty soon, he was auctioneering every weekend. Within three months, he had recouped his tuition. He gave up his job as a farm hand and started auctioneering full-time, working as an independent contractor for auction services that sell livestock, real estate, and personal property.
Last Tuesday, Belcher, who lives in Buncombe, competed at the state fair in a contest that attracted 23 auctioneers. It was his fourth year in competition and his second year in the semi-finals. He tied for third, had a "tie-off," and ended up fourth, which is his best finish so far.
Each contestant had to auction a variety of small items—John Deere coin banks and replica tractors, yard ornaments, dolls, BB guns, and hand tools—to an audience seeded with friends and relatives. Belcher's support team was one person, his wife Kim, there to ensure he didn't get tangled up on any hard-to-say-three-times-fast version of the number six.
"What she does is anytime I get to six, sixteen, or sixty, she throws her hand right up and bids," Belcher says.
With this duty, Kim Belcher almost got stuck with a rather tacky fiber-optic lamp. Another loyal mate bought a wagonload of merchandise from an auctioneer who didn't finish in the top five.
But the auctioneers aren't judged on how much money they generate as much as they are on their technique, Belcher says. That gargling sound they make between numbers is called a "chant," and each auctioneer has his own sound and style.
When he was first starting, Belcher couldn't find a bid-calling chant that was right for him. A classmate at auctioneer school told him not to worry. "This guy from Arkansas told me, 'You'll be driving down the road in your truck or your tractor and it'll come to you like a light being clicked on,'" Belcher says.
Once he found his chant, he learned to punctuate it with plain English—little dollops of sensible speech thrown in to keep the audience interested. He found out he could work in a quick breath before these exclamations to give them added punch. Then he concentrated on modulating between pitches, working past the beginners' usual monotone.
Now he has a style uniquely his own. His voice is more baritone and less nasal than most, and he segues smoothly between auction items without missing a beat. Nobody nowadays does that "going going gone" stuff; it's too slow, Belcher says.
"Once they quit bidding, sell it," he says. "If you don't train your audience, they'll train you." He trains his audiences to bid quickly. He doesn't give people time to ponder.
And he wants them to bid in increments bigger than a dollar. He can count by 2.5 faster than most people can count by fives, and he can do it forwards and backwards.
"People will go to $500 by ones if you let them," he says.
In the family way
Making her way up the 120-foot pole, Tina Winn confidently waves and smiles to the crowd. As she sits on the trapeze bar, she loops a rope around her ankle and falls with ease.
If you think Winn has a death wish, you're wrong. Along with her husband, John, and daughter, Ashley, she performs similar stunts everyday as part of "Galaxy Girl and Cyber Cycle," a stunt act currently on the carnival midway at the Illinois State Fair.
The Winn family calls Sarasota home, but for John it's never been permanent. "We are on the road more than not," he says. "We're going to be home for two weeks after this, and I consider that my vacation."
Always being on the road means John and Tina home school Ashley, who's 16. "Wherever we go, she has to come along," says John. When they're at home for extended periods, John, 45, and Tina, 38, work in theater. John does stage rigging and lighting, while Tina works in costumes and make-up.
On the road, they are transformed into death-defying daredevils. In their act at the state fair, Tina (or "Galaxy Girl") starts off by working the trapeze and doing handstands on the top of that 120-foot pole. Once she reaches the ground—without one bead of sweat on her forehead—she hands the stage over to her daughter "Miss Ashley," the "Hula Sensation." Ashley does various tricks with a couple of hula-hoops and ends her act with 50 hoops in motion ringing her body. John (or "Cyber Cycle") completes the performance by riding a motorcycle atop a 40-foot high apparatus while Tina swings in the air by her neck.
When asked how it feels to swing by her neck, Tina is blunt. "It hurts," she admits. "My chiropractor says I should find a new profession."
John's family has been performing high-wire and aerial acts for seven generations. "My family is from Europe and as a child we toured there," John recalls. "My father took me up on a high-wire as a baby and strapped me onto another person. In the following years, I was able to do it myself."
John sees Ashley one day taking over the family business. "Ashley does a motorcycle act on a high wire with us as well," he says. "She just needs to figure out what kind of acts she would like to do, but I'd also be tickled if she wanted to go to college. It would be nice to have a lawyer in the family."
"Galaxy Girl and Cyber Cycle" performs everyday on the carnival midway at the Illinois State Fair at 2, 5, and 8 p.m. They'll be returning to Springfield this November for the Shriner's Circus at the Prairie Capital Convention Center.
Ten days at the State Fair
Grease, sweat, bumper cars . . . and paying for a mega-pass
The only reason I'm writing this story is to pay for the mega-pass my oldest boy uses at the Illinois State Fair. He's ten, and he likes to ride the bumper cars. With the mega-pass, he can ride the bumper cars all he wants. He rides them at least a dozen times a day. That's every day, because I'm performing each day of the fair right before a gun-spinning act. I yodel cowboy songs and trick rope to attract a crowd for the spinners. I usually pull in a couple of hundred curious, squinting, good-natured sorts by the time my show ends; then I pitch it to the guys with the guns.
As soon as the gun-spinners start to do their thing, I wander off with my two boys to see how many times my oldest can ride the bumper cars that day. My youngest (he's two) watches and screams for his big brother to slam into the other cars "faster, faster, faster."
After fortifying ourselves with hot dogs, nachos, and bottled water—compliments of the restaurant that hired me to open the show for the gun-spinners—we make our way upstream toward the midway (and the bumper cars), swimming against a greasy, sweaty swell of every brand of humanity. In the last few days I've seen lots of misshapen straw hats, cut-off jeans, tube tops, tank tops, and flip-flops.
We weave past the draft horses eternally on their way to some competition, past the kettle-corn guy, past the tent where the Elvis impersonators throw their hips out of joint. Past the food-o-rama or whatever that thing is called where all the tables are crammed with people eating pizza slices. Past the politicians' tents full of brochures, pencil giveaways, and free water. Past men hawking cell phones and religion out of big white tents.
When we get to the rides, I find a shady spot, park the stroller, and jam a granola bar into the mouth of my screaming toddler. My oldest will go on a couple of whirl-and-hurl rides and then settle into the bumper cars while I watch the tank tops saunter by. I wave at him as he runs from the line to the cars to the line to the cars. Pretty soon I start to think that my life has very little meaning.
After three or four hours of this, I'm awfully bored. And yet I'm strangely over-stimulated by the booming rock 'n' roll music projected cannon-like from the rides, the swirling designs some evil person has painted on these contraptions, and the shrieks of preadolescents as they have their bodies slammed around by intense g-forces. I'm glad—no, overjoyed—to swim back into the grease and sweat and toward the parking lot with two boys, a stroller, a sound system on wheels, a mic stand, a guitar case, a diaper bag, five or six half-empty water bottles, and an incipient sunburn.
The trip out of the fairgrounds is actually the best part of the day, and not because I'm looking forward to a long shower when I get home. It's because of the first thing my two-year-old always says as we exit the tunnel into lot #16: "They're screaming! They scream over there!" He points to the scariest ride I have ever seen at a state fair.
The ride sort of looks like a giant toothpick with little baskets on each end. The riders are spun with such incredible force I actually saw two grown men crying as they tumbled out of the thing. (They were laughing, but they were crying too.) Talk about over-stimulation.
"They scream!" the two-year-old shouts at the top of his lungs. His brother laughs at him so hard he trips over his own feet.
And then as we walk across the parking lot, we get to hear the bands doing a sound check at the grandstand. They're just being goofy, so they play the weirdest stuff they can think of just to test their equipment.
One evening Lisa Marie Presley's band was setting their levels on the sound board, and I thought to myself, "Back there we made our way through all these people wearing their trashiest clothes, walking around together getting corn-dog grease in their hair, and now I'm listening to Elvis Presley's daughter get her band ready to play tonight."
At that moment all the chaos suddenly made sense. I really like Elvis, and Elvis would have loved the whole thing: the grease, the sweat, the bumper cars. That's how the three of us have been passing our days at the state fair. And now I've paid for my oldest boy's mega-pass, so I can stop writing.
—Randy Erwin Skalicky