"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 21, 2014

"There Ain't No Gettin' Over" (our county fair)

Frank Sinatra was known to want to shoot movie scenes in one take. It's a worthy ideal, this desire to get something right the first time. Ronnie Milsap once told me about one of his hits from the 1980s that he recorded in one take: "There Ain't No Gettin' Over Me."
I had the privilege of interviewing Ronnie when he came here during our "run" of having big-time singers at our county fair. The first of those singers was Donna Fargo. 
It was an interesting phase of Stevens County history: bringing some absolutely top-notch names from country music here. We got the Statler Brothers.
This phase began after the Wheaton fair had succeeded with this. Wheaton got lucky, according to West Central Minnesota lore, booking an act just before it got "big," and then hosting that group for that less than market value price. Was it (the group) Alabama?
We all talked about "the Wheaton fair." Wheaton parlayed its initial success. Morris stood pat with its pretty pedestrian county fair, until finally our leaders followed the fashion of getting those big names. I remember the Milsap concert well.
I remember interviewing T.G. Sheppard in his bus. It was more than an interview as it developed into a conversation. I interviewed Janie Fricke.
You may not remember Charly McClain (a woman). She was one of those meteoric stars with country music. Charly came here with a fellow performer who I believe was her significant other. He had the last name of "Massey" and I recall he had acted in soap operas. The couple was very nice to interview. I remember that as soon as I hopped into their bus, Charly commented on my Boston Red Sox cap.
"The Kendalls" came here to sing when they were semi-big. Ah, "Heaven was just a sin away." 
It's amazing that the big names of that time came to such small towns. Donny Osmond came to our Stevens County Fair. I don't remember if Marie was along. The puppet "Shotgun Red" (from TV's "Nashville Now") graced our fair.
Truly we were no longer shown up by Wheaton. Morris should never be shown up by Wheaton. Morris was once shown up by Hancock in high school athletics. We had athletic programs that could get shown up by several of the very small schools in this part of the state.
 
Yawning time in our history?
Tying all this subject matter together, one might conclude there was a time when Morris was a little complacent, which is a better word than lazy. We were just supposed to feel comfortable here.
Today we have a county fair that stands out as a real gem. Considerable work and commitment go into it. Back in the late 1970s, believe it or not, the Stevens County Fair was basically "marking time." If you had commented that the fair was a relic of a bygone time, you wouldn't have gotten much of an argument.
Oh, I know that sounds sad. Some of you might wrinkle forehead and say "Oh, I don't think so" or "don't be so negative." I'm just trying to recall history as it was. I remember a well-known barber in town - no, not "Floyd" although he could have been - who said of our fair: "If it wasn't for the 4-H kids, there wouldn't be much there." (This was not Dave Evenson.)
Such dismissive or cynical talk was hardly uncommon. Many of us dutifully went to the fair anyway. Subconsciously we all knew the American spirit wasn't going to die, in spite of the economic "stagflation" and the malaise of the Jimmy Carter years. (I don't think he ever actually used the word "malaise.")
I first started covering the Stevens County Fair for the media in 1979. There was no indoor (or covered) arena for livestock exhibiting. I remember the city crew (including Marlene Reineke) bringing some aluminum bleachers to set up next to the livestock building. The show area was on the opposite side of the building from where it is now.
I heard talk about an "indoor arena" as if it was a big future goal.
The seating capacity for the 4-H foodstand was much less. The tables for customers were around the perimeter of the inside only. The dedicated Flossie Mathison was in charge.
All the stuff I'm writing about got expanded later. We shot for the moon and it appears we made it. The commercial exhibits went from a rickety sort of wooden building to our lavish Lee Community Center of today. We might take it all for granted. Do not take it for granted.
There was a time when the Stevens County Fair was much more small-scale. We were sort of "shamed" into going after the big-name entertainment like Ronnie Milsap. Did it work? I think from an economic standpoint it was "challenging" continuing to bring these stars here.
Eventually our economy adjusted for the benefit of all, as the door got opened for casinos and their showrooms. It was better for both the stars and their fans. Meanwhile our beloved rural outstate county fairs went back to the kind of "dirt" attractions we all love.
I wonder where Charly McClain is now. I wonder if she stuck with Mr. Massey. I remember my friend Jim McRoberts joking about how talent-challenged Mr. Massey seemed. "I could have gone up there and sung as good as him," Jim said. That gave me a visual that I found amusing. Jim is a great guy but his talents are in the grocery business.
I remember the days when if Wheaton and Morris were to play in girls basketball, the score would be something like 100-10. Wheaton used to bring a virtual mass of fans, most wearing red, to the UMM P.E. Center for high-level post-season games.
Obviously Morris had kids who had just as much "talent." I'd go around town trying to remind people of this, and I got in tremendous trouble doing so. Kelly McCann of Kelly's restaurant had a daughter in Hoffman-Kensington athletics which was one of those pretty ambitious small-town athletic programs. I told her one day about the problems trying to even discuss the Morris school's deficiencies with our townspeople. The sage Kelly said: "They don't want to hear about it."
Behind the scenes, I think certain town leaders were really pretty aware. It takes time to address issues like this. There are always some regressive, dug-in forces, people in their complacent, comfortable and entitled positions who simply don't want things to change. A sociologist could expand on this.
Morris in the 1980s needed some time to get going on some fronts. We eventually followed Wheaton's lead and got Donna Fargo here, followed by other luminaries of the time. I remember taping some of my interviews with these people and I probably still have those cassettes. It surely was exciting. I feel bad having used my "press pass" to get into the shows. I should have bought tickets. We surely needed the revenue.
The Jimmy Carter malaise is long behind us. Life moved so very slow. If a young person of today were to step into a time machine and go back to then, he/she would faint from culture shock. And yet the American spirit of optimism was never really dimmed, it was just a little dormant.
Ronald Reagan did much lighting that positive fire. I'm a Democrat but I'll concede there are times we need Republicans, just not tea party Republicans. Just not maniacal Republicans like Michele Bachmann.
The forces of private enterprise and individual initiative needed to be unleashed. They most certainly were, and there comes a time when we need to tap on the brakes a little. That time is now.
I think the time is near when we'll have a major economic collapse. The county fair will survive that, just as it has survived everything save for the polio epidemic (which shut down our state fair).
In just four months we'll have the 2014 Stevens County Fair. How therapeutic it will be, when the warm weather again arrives. It will arrive, won't it? Oh, and the trial for our high school principal is set in August too. What fun.
  
Addendum: The Ronnie Milsap song title I reference at the start of this post has a complicated "name" story to it. The song's official title was "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me." (The parenthesis thing makes it complicated too - aren't those irritating sometimes?) The official song title with the parenthesis never appears in the lyrics. Fans came to know the song for the title I use in the headline and first paragraph. Perhaps the record company didn't want to promote bad grammar. Let's enshrine this 1981 song as "There Ain't No Gettin' Over Me" (or our county fair).
-Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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