It”s Friday afternoon, and the Columbus fairgrounds are both an oasis of calm and a teeming mélange of life. If this was an ordinary year, Bob Burns would be at the center of it all, just as he was for the past 60 years before his death Sept. 8 at the age of 87.
It”s a bittersweet time for his family, especially his daughters, Jane Burns Jordan and Carolyn Burns Kaye, who have been tasked with making sure the spectacle is as special as the man who made it the center of his — and their — world.
But there are no tears today beneath the tin roof canopy that shelters the 70-some-odd petting zoo animals. Jordan smiles as a young zebroid (a hybrid zebra-donkey) brays, vociferously voicing his jealousy as another animal is fed.
Four-year-old Trenton Waltman marches up and down the dirt-floored enclosure, his green rain boots kicking up dust as he rushes to tell Jordan that one of the chickens has slipped into a pen with the rabbits.
Nearby, his grandmother, Sherry Parks, prepares a path so his grandfather, Donnie Williams, can unload the latest arrival — a buffalo.
Jordan crouches to coddle one of six kids (baby goats) that have been born at the fairgrounds this week.
Waltman is too young to realize it, but he is having an experience that is familiar to Jordan and her siblings but may someday be an anomaly for his peers.
—A sight to see
It must have been a sight to see — race horses, hooves flying, necks outstretched in the golden afternoon light as they competed for ribbons at the first Columbus fair in 1859.
Nearly a century later, in 1951, a 27-year-old cattle farmer would join the Columbus Fair and Livestock Association and bring his growing family with him. By 1982, that young cattle farmer, Bob Burns, would become president of the association, forever linking his name and his vision to the fair.
Six weeks ago, Burns sat down at the kitchen table with Jordan and told her everything he thought she and her sister would need to know in order to make sure this year”s event went smoothly. By the time they were finished, she had filled two yellow legal pads with instructions.
Now, as she strolls the fairgrounds — her grief over her father”s death still fresh — she talks to him in her head.
She reminds herself to take care of the people who have stood beside her family, and the fair, for decades. She promises him she will bring livestock back to the fair, even though the popularity has waned and it”s been more than 15 years since teenagers stood awkwardly in the show ring, all nerves and pride while waiting for judges to award ribbons for the cattle they”d raised from knob-kneed babyhood.
She knows her father would be pleased over the new petting zoo. They”ve had a petting zoo in the past, but it was a much smaller affair than this year”s extravaganza.
From “Peanut,” the zebroid; to his companion, “Zelda,” a zorse (zebra-horse hybrid); to “Dazzle,” the fancy-feathered Frizzle chicken; to the three-legged duck and the assortment of other goats, cows, chickens and farm animals, it”s just the thing her father would love.
Like him, she worries children are missing out on the type of childhood she and her siblings experienced.
When she was a student at New Hope Middle School, she remembers getting out of school early to come to the fairgrounds on Highway 69 to care for her animals. A teacher looked at her parents” absentee note and asked if she thought her cows were more important than her education.
“”Yes,”” she recalls saying. “They still are. That”s how I make my living.”
Jordan, along with her husband, Bo, took over her father”s farm in eastern Lowndes County four years ago. There, she tends 85 head of Brangus cattle.
It”s a good life.
It”s a life that is, in some ways, becoming as much a quaint relic of a bygone time as county fairs themselves.
—Rooted in tradition
Jordan remembers when you could drive out in the county and find yourself lost in a cow pasture. Now, that cow pasture is likely to hold sheep, catfish ponds, or, increasingly, a subdivision or industrial facility.
She knows industry is vital to Lowndes County”s future, but like her father, she worries about what is being lost.
The 4-H and Future Farmers of America Clubs now focus more on environmentalism and conservation than animal husbandry.
Just as her father passed the “Rockin” B Ranch” down to her, she will pass it on to her daughter and son-in-law.
Children are growing up more likely to be able to tell the difference between a Kindle and a Nook than between a chicken and a duck. Earlier in the week, an 8-year-old sauntered into the petting zoo, pointed excitedly at a cow, and said, “Look at the rabbit!”
“What they learn, they learn from books,” Jordan says. “Nobody lives on farms anymore. We”re turning into an urban community.”
Children today have little contact with farm animals, and Jordan worries they”re missing out on life.
“There”s a lot of compassion they lose, not being around animals,” she explains. “It”s just a part of life they”re totally missing.”
Even as she plans to bring the petting zoo back for next year”s fair, renovate the stables and re-block the livestock area”s stalls, she ponders this year”s scant attendance. The economy has taken a toll, to the point that even the $2 per person admission fee is too steep for many families.
People tell her they miss the old county fairs of their youth, but their interest doesn”t always seem to translate to ticket sales, the proceeds of which are used to pay vendors, purchase awards ribbons, etc.
Even the children themselves are less enthused, she admits. They”re accustomed to big amusement parks like Six Flags. They miss what the fair is actually about — family, tradition, heritage and roots.
Jordan gazes toward the carnival section of the fair, where workers are preparing for the night ahead. Every year, at some point during the week, her father would grab her mother”s hand and stroll with her down the midway, surrounded by lights and their love for one another.
“This is where we came from,” Jordan says quietly. “I”m going to try to bring it back.”
Next year”s fair will be held, as always, the week after Labor Day. And like her father, Jordan wouldn”t miss it for the world.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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