I have a confession. I’ve never really understood county fairs.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand how important they are to communities. The traditions they can embody go back generations, and they’re an important link to our shared agricultural past.
But there’s a difference between knowing that intellectually and having the kind of visceral understanding that comes from growing up in that environment. I’m a city kid, remember. Growing up in suburban St. Louis didn’t exactly include many farm experiences, and my peers and I didn’t know county fairs still took place in most cases.
My wife, on the other hand, has very fond memories of county fairs and of the Missouri State Fair. That’s part of her background. For her, fairs, FFA and farm animals were part of the backdrop in the same way baseball was for me.
My first experiences with county fairs didn’t help. I was assigned to cover the Beautiful Baby Contest at the Cooper County Fair in Missouri. It was hot. The tent’s fans tried mightily to keep up, but just couldn’t do it. There were, as best I remember, something like seven categories for different ages, and none of the participants seemed to be particularly enthusiastic about waiting their turns in 90-degree heat.
I can’t say I really blame them.
But there have been events over the years that stick out for their sheer strangeness, and robotic chicken poop bingo was one.
This was about a decade ago, when the avian flu led to serious harm for poultry farmers. Iowa banned poultry at county fairs to try to stem the virus. But some kids in Marion County figured out a way to use the basic tools from their Lego League entries to create a robotic chicken that would randomly bounce around an enclosure. Eventually, it would drop a small Lego to mark the winning square, though the timing varied each run.
I wasn’t familiar with chicken poop bingo before the assignment. I had heard of the version with cows, but I had to do a double-take when I heard the word “robot.” That was new.
It turned out to be one of the quirkier stories I had ever been assigned. I headed out to the fair, which was a solid 45-minute, and set out to find the people behind the plan. When I got there I learned that they weren’t even entirely sure what was going to happen. It was a bit after midday, and that’s not exactly prime time for county fairs. So even the robot’s creators weren’t sure whether it would attract any interest.
The novelty worked in its favor. People heard that there was going to be a robot chicken (no relation to the animated program on Adult Swim) and they were curious. There wasn’t a large crowd at the fair yet, but a sizable percentage of those who were present began wandering over to see just what would happen.
It took a little imagination to see the chicken. While the head was recognizable, most chickens don’t have three wheels to move around. But it wandered around the wire enclosure, stopping occasionally, changing direction when sensors told it to avoid an obstacle, and generally gave a credible chicken impression.
Young kids were particularly entranced. This looked like something they might be able to make at home. It was weird, different. They loved it.
And, yes, eventually the robot dropped its Lego to mark a winner.
I’m not sure whether the robot returned in future years. There was talk about it, but the creators said it would most likely be broken up for pieces to go into other projects.
Did it convert me into being a major fan of county fairs? No. But I can see how experiences like that would have done it if I had been the right age.
Here’s hoping we can get back to those fairs next summer.