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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 10:31 am

Friendly competition

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Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Tucked away on the east side of the Illinois State Fairgrounds you will find the Hobbies, Arts, and Crafts building. During the fair, some of Illinois' finest baked goods, textiles, hobby collections, fruits, vegetables, and agricultural crops are on display. These items are exhibited by residents from all over Illinois.

Of course, near and dear to my heart are the fruit and vegetable exhibits. If you have ever viewed these displays, you will see some of the same exhibitors winning year after year. For many of them showing off their fruits and vegetables at the fair is a family affair.

Ken and Betty Moser of Decatur have been exhibiting at the fair since 1968. They became involved when their oldest daughter, Mary, started at the Macon County 4-H fair. Since then, all of their daughters -- Mary, Susan, Jean, Ann, and Jane -- have brought vegetables and baked goods to the state fair. While their daughters lived at home, each had their own section of the family's three-quarter-acre garden. The Mosers' grandchildren Samantha and Jack Comerford have also exhibited at the fair. Last year, Jack won second place with his cherry tomatoes.

Betty Moser is proudest of being a past winner of the Spam contest, the Fleischmann's Yeast contest, and the best-cookie contest for her nutmeg flats.

Every year, while watching the vegetable judging, the Mosers visit with fellow competitors who are lifelong friends.

Another family story is that of Leroy and Ruthe Gillam of Canton. Since 1961, they have brought apples, peaches, plums, grapes, pears, and herbs to exhibit at the fair. Their last fruit exhibits were in 2003 because the couple sold their orchard in January. But because the Gillams couldn't imagine not participating in the fair, this year they've brought herbs.

Leroy and Ruthe's son and daughter-in-law, Dave and Kim Gillam, have been exhibiting at the fair for 20 years. They own an orchard in Canton and exhibit apples, peaches, plums, pears, and grapes. Their children -- Tom, Andy, Jimmy, and Marissa -- help their parents prepare prize-winning vegetable and fruit baskets for the fair. Dave says that the best things about exhibiting at the fair are doing it as a family and spending time with family and friends.

These two stories are similar to the story of my own family. My parents, Jim and Loretta Parrish of Dawson, have been participating since 1972. My mother, my sister Rebecca, and I have entered baked goods, textiles, vegetables, and herbs. My mother began exhibiting vegetables at the St. Clair County Fair at the urging of her grandfather. She remembers her grandmother telling her stories about winning blue ribbons at the Illinois State Fair. Her best memory of showing at the fair is winning grand-champion herb in 2002 for her sage bundle. But now she really enjoys the help of her grandchildren: Aaron carries the bundle of herbs, and Rachel says, "Me help."

The Mosers, Gillams, and Parrishes agree that the biggest challenges beyond the usual tasks of gardening when you want to exhibit at the fair are planting vegetables so that the crop peaks in time for the fair and finding that perfect fifth tomato -- it always seems you have four, but entry requires five.

"It's great, friendly competition," says Gillam. Although winning a champion ribbon is a delight, everyone agrees that the best part of exhibiting is spending time with family and friends at the fair.

All prize-winning entries will be on display in the Hobbies, Arts, and Crafts building through noon on Sunday, Aug. 22.

Exhibiting at the fair

Although it is too late to enter this year, you can start planning now for next year's Illinois State Fair.

Jack Buckley, superintendent of agriculture products for the fair, says that anyone may exhibit at the fair except for employees (or their immediate family members) of the Department of Agriculture or the Illinois State Fair.

Jack and his wife, Harriet, used to exhibit at the state fair. She is now superintendent of the Hobby Department. Instead, the couple exhibits flowers, vegetables, and baked goods at the Logan County Fair.

Exhibit information can be obtained on the Illinois State Fair Web site at www.agr.state.il.us/isf/index.php. Entry forms and fees are generally due by the July 15 immediately preceding the fair. 

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