Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alfalfa Festival Antics

Although Lancaster is no longer a rural place, it is home to the Rural Olympics, the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival's signature event. On a hot afternoon in August--this year, August 30--ranchers compete in a variety of events, from hay loading to tractor driving, Model "T" racing to old fashioned tug-o-war. The Rural Olympics have a long history in the Antelope Valley, as the fair website describes:
Midway through the depression, Antelope Valley ranchers and truck drivers, headed by Donald Jaqua Sr., assembled in the Antelope Valley High School sports field and challenged each other to hay loading contests and truck and tractor driving skills. Whether these challengers and organizers knew an Antelope Valley tradition was born or not is a matter of conjecture. But what is officially the Rural Olympics today is the direct result of these Alfalfa Festival antics.
For some fifteen years I attended the annual Olympics, missing the last two years only because the event conflicted with law school. Throughout my teenage years, I volunteered to help with grandstand seating--although, to be honest, I didn't truly appreciate the Rural Olympic events at that time. While I thought the Rural Olympics were "pretty cool" then, I really couldn't wait for my shift to end so that I could meet up with my friends, purchase giant clouds of cotton candy, walk around the carnival area, and talk to boys. Fair time was the most magnificent ten days of the year--ten days when I was allowed to stay out well past curfew.

In my twenties, the fairgrounds relocated. The old wooden buildings were torn down and shiny, new "barns" were put up at the new location. The Emblem Club Taco Booth now serves their famous tacos (at least by Antelope Valley standards) from a great big trailer, rather than an old greasy shack. For the most part, the fair just isn't the same. It has become more commercialized, more glossy and modern. Even the cotton candy seems not-quite-right, now pre-bagged instead of fresh and warm from the spinner.

But the Rural Olympics remain a highlight of fair time and, particularly with the relocation of the fair, I came to fully appreciate the down-home charm that the Olympics have to offer. Despite the increasing suburbanization of the Antelope Valley, the Rural Olympics remain a notable effort to highlight a time in Antelope Valley history--a time when Alfalfa was King. The Eastside vs. Westside Tug-o-War competition is still fierce, the Antique Car Dash still requires loading onions by hand, and the ranchers return each year to defend their local records in tractor backing and gravel transfer.

One of my favorite events, the Hay Stealing Contest, consists of six two-man teams. When the flag drops, each team is required to back their vehicle up to a stack of hay, quickly load 24 bales onto the bed of the truck, and drive to the finish line.

Another favorite event, the Antique Car Potato Race, requires an antique car passenger to lean out the window, stab potatoes with a spear, and move the potatoes into the cab of the vehicle, all while the driver speeds through the course. The fastest car--with five stabbed potatoes in the cab at the finish line--wins a $400 prize.

The Toughest Farmhand award goes to the contestant that can most quickly and efficiently complete a series of tasks, including stacking hay bales, connecting irrigation pipe, carrying large buckets of water, and transporting a 50 pound sack of onions.

According to the fair website:
Even people who have a difficult time fathoming the meaning of rural get just as excited as those who haven't missed a Rural Olympics since its infancy. There's no single place, except at the Antelope Valley Fair and Alfalfa Festival, where these events can be seen and experienced.
One good thing about the new fair location--it made room for a Rural Olympics Hall of Fame, established in 2005 with Donald Jaqua, Sr. as the first inductee. Sometimes change is for the better. Sometimes. Now if only they would bring back that freshly spun cotton candy.

(Photos from Liz Breault, Antelope Valley Fair Photographer)

1 comment:

Jennifer Murad said...

I just wanted to say "Thanks" for the great entry about the AV Fair Rural Olympics. I am the staff member in charge, and I really enjoy hearing what others have to say about our truly unique event. If you are in Lancaster during Fair this year, please come by the Admin Office and say hello. Thanks agin - Jennifer