Blast to the Past — Wyoming State Fairs

Swingin’ Gym carnival ride ca 1969

Part II of Wyoming State Fair Series

My husband and I both grew up in Douglas and have many memories of our last days of summer being spent at the fair. What a gathering place it was … and is!

I still have a state fair scar on my left knee. The carnival ride injury happened after my curfew one afternoon in 1969. Mom was not happy that I needed stitches in the emergency room, as the accident happened only minutes after Dr. Heinrich’s office had closed. I admit is wasn’t good timing. Here is the story.

I had made a collect call home from the only pay phone at the fairgrounds (childishly saving what was left of my own $$ for another ride). I was seeking permission to stay just an extra hour ‘til six p.m. Of course Mom wasn’t happy to pay for the call and only reluctantly agreed to let me stay longer. It was just before eighth grade would start. One of my best friends, Barb Peterson, was moving away the next day. No wonder we wanted to prolong our fun a bit longer. My friends and I had nearly perfected our ability to get some ingeniously hinged cages called the Swingin’ Gym, over the top of the contraption more times than anyone else. Two girls would get in each cage. “One – two – three – GO!” we would shout as we pumped those cages with all of our might, squatting, and rising and leaning, racing to see whose cage made it over the top first, and who got over the most times in one ride’s time. We just wanted to compete a few more times, break our record and then go home for dinner. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm, I pumped a little too hard, too close to the edge, and rammed my knee into the woven wire cage, taking a nicely squared chunk of skin right out. The painful bloody mess was not part of the plan for fun, but memorable nevertheless.

Sometimes a late afternoon thunder storm would blow through long enough to send us indoors to exhibit halls. The short downpours would bead up in the dirt and be gone in minutes, but my brothers and sisters and I would browse with Mom for hours. Our school art hung in the basement of the tall brick Ag building. Mom’s entries were creative floral arrangements and home canned goods. The 4-H building was a showplace of youthful talent and creativity. We would count our ribbons and look at projects from all over the state. It was such an exciting time of the summer and ever so inspiring to see what other 4-H members had done as we thought of projects for the next year.

My husband still chuckles over a particularly funny State Fair experience. He and some friends gathered near that one and only phone booth with some flirting girls from nearby ranches. Some had developed from girlish figures to young ladies over the summer. One, who was quite petite must have felt somewhat under-endowed for she had developed a strange case of Kleenexes popping up out of her top from inside her bra. Not a moment to be forgotten by those wide-eyed boys.

As a girl I spent many fair days at the Kiwanis food stand where Dad volunteered. It was just behind the rodeo announcer’s booth on the east side of the arena. We were in close view of rodeo queens, race horses, bucking broncos, and Brahma bulls. It wasn’t hard to create all sorts of imaginary fun back there, and no one cared how dirty we got in the hot summer dust.

One time, our day turned out much differently than anyone would have guessed. A race track surrounded the rodeo area. Every sooften,  amid the loudspeaker’s race commentary, a rush or horses with jockeys in bright racing silks would thunder past. We were small enough that our best view was had by climbing the white rail fence surrounding the track. With our feet on a lower rail and little heads bobbing above the top rail, we watched the race. One particular day, a horse was spooked and threw his jockey into the fence just after he passed us children. I will never forget the stillness of that small man in a green and yellow uniform as he lay face up, eyes open, in the dirt track.

“He was dead in an instant,” they said. “He never knew what happened.”

I hadn’t seen a dead person before. I wondered where he had come from. How did his family receive the news that strangers knew of first. Did he have children at home who would never see their daddy again? I never knew. Many years later, perhaps after reading Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven,  the thought came to me that our little group of kids balancing on that white rail fence might have spooked the horse in the first place. I really hope it wasn’t us. Maybe a certain jockey just needed to go to heaven that day. Maybe I will meet him there.

Please return for the final and more cheery Part III of this series.


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