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County Fair Watch
#1 in a series

[whitespace] This week: Alameda County Fair

By Richard von Busack

County fairs, once the annual highlight of many Americans' lives, now rank much lower in recreational popularity than, say, paint-ball guns. These annuities of Americana, celebrated by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jean Shepherd alike now seem faded. They recall to the sophisticated mind images of dubious food, surly teenagers, precarious rides and smelly animals prostrate and panting in the heat. The main stages groan under the weights of washed-up rock stars, each one with a tale of woe about what the record companies did to him or her.

But I love county fairs. Love 'em. And you don't want to go with me, because I'm the kind of person who has to see everything there. Over the course of the summer, I'll be visiting local county fairs to report.

Alameda County Fair
Rating: ** 1\2 (small size, small quantity of livestock)
Open: Through July 11, 10am-10pm.
Theme: "The Gold Rush Is On"
Early-Bird Special: Monday-Thursday, 10am-noon, admission is $4.
Headliners: Sister Sledge (July 7), the Aristophanes-like comedic stylings of Carrot Top (July 8) and Rick "Jesse's Girl, Jesse's Girl, I want Jesse's Girl" Springfield (July 10).

Located in the rapidly developing light-industrial corridors of Alameda County, this fair has the advantage of being accessible by public transportation. The fairgrounds are directly opposite the ACE commuter station; a free shuttle, running every 20-30 minutes brings you to Pleasanton/Dublin BART; great for San Franciscans pining for a hot summer day and some cows to ogle.

Last Fourth of July, there was a shooting at the midway. Fears of another "incident" have hurt attendance this year, according to the Contra Costa Times. The gates have metal detectors now. The fair has canceled its usual Fourth of July fireworks because of the shooting: has the NRA been informed?

As you enter, there's a small plaza with a stage, roofed like a shed. It offers karaoke, sparsely attended. The singer, a woman of about 19, segues from "She Calls It Love" to "Only Love." Five people watch, one bickering into a cell phone.

Nearby, two woodsman demonstrate throwing a double-headed ax at a target. Great skill, especially if the Vikings come back. The poultry exhibition cages are toward the midway away from the Yellow Gate. Peacocks are selling for $100 a mated pair: gorgeous birds with beautiful Celine Dion-like voices that will charm your neighbors early in the morning.

They say that the trouble with baby chicks is that the grow up; perhaps chick-sized Japanese quails ($10) are easier for the budding poultry farmer to handle. Be sure to see the King pigeons, which are the coloring and shape of a street pigeon but the size of a pullet. These birds put the "pig" in "pigeon." If only they'd get loose and breed with their urban cousins--I doubt if their offspring would have any trouble getting people to share their lunches.

Best Haunted Farm Implement: A gasoline-fired water pump owned by "Buzz" Stetler of Stockton, built in 1900 by the Springfield works. It's on display near the interesting (I thought, anyway) collection of vintage washing machines.

Stetler's Folly was purchased at that national mecca of old farm implements, Kinzer's in southern Pennsylvania. The pump came from a farm in Lancaster, where a farmer once disappeared. The hired hand was rumored to be the culprit; it was suspected that the body had been cut up and fed to the pigs (Thomas Harris fans, take note). The hired hand stayed on the farm. After he died years later, they found the pump scarred with meaningless hacksaw "kerfs" or cuts. The discoverers surmised that the insane hired hand believed that the pump was the spirit of the dead farmer, which is why he used a saw to torment it.

Animal Farm: There are a pair of camels for camel rides. No one is buying tickets the day I go. The camel keeper, a woman in her forties, brings the female camel a blue plastic bucket of water where it stands, tethered under the shade of a small cottonwood.

The livestock pavilion isn't much, because most of the farming that goes on in East Alameda county is cubicle-farming. The Alameda County hills are great goat country, though, and what wonderful goats are here! No goat fancier (and who among us doesn't fancy goats?) should miss this pavilion. The goats on display are mostly earless La Manchas and handsome, sturdy Nubians. One breeder is exhibiting a pair of symmetrically horned rams gorgeous enough to be mascots for any football team. Unfortunately, I don't have the names of the ranchers, because my notes got eaten.

Hobby Halls: The Hobby, Gem and Mineral Pavilion has bread-box-sized displays. Many of these collections are quotidian ("Seashells," "Great Moments With the Oakland A's," "The Tasmanian Devil."*).

Lynette Journeay of Castro Valley collects mannequins, which she calls "my silent friends." From her notes: "The boy, Scott, is a Decter mannequin from the '70s. ... Decter children are my favorites--they have so much personality and are so happy."**

The Young California Building features home crafts, quilts (superb!) and junior art, including a portrait with the caption "In Loving Memory of Soundgarden." This building also houses the 4-H Club cake booth: cake $1 a slice, a discount of some 200 percent from the prices on the midway!

Food Fact: Dona Avila of Tracy won this year's Spam Cook-Off!

Best T-Shirt: "24 Hours in a Day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?"

Best Shame-Faced Advertising Slogan in the Small Business Displays: "U.S. Army--We're still hiring."

Next Week: The Solano County Fair, Vallejo (opens July 14).

* A tattoo artist told me that the most popular cartoon character for tattoos is the Tasmanian Devil. A shame. Taz is barely coherent, and all he does is race around in a frenzy, eating everything in his path. A whirlwind of unsatisfied greed; an image of the consumer society at its worst.

**The Decter company website is www.decter.com.

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Web extra to the July 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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