Top 10 Reasons To Love the Iowa State Fair

Our state fair is a great fair, acclaimed in book, movies, and song. As a 4-H member I yearned to go. Alas, that desire was unfulfilled. Now that I live within four miles of the main gate, though, I never miss the annual extravaganza.

With a nod to David Letterman and the Late Show, and before August slips away, I must share my Top 10 Reasons to Love The Iowa State Fair.

Drumroll please …

Iowa State Fair Goat

Keeping an eye on passers by.

10. Inquisitive goats. And pigs and horses and cows. I love livestock.

9. Joining a queue for no reason other than the possibility of free stuff. Our line led to Mixify – an initiative to help educate teens about the importance of balancing calorie intake with activity. I explained how I keep moving and walked away with a t-shirt and a frisbee.

8. Cattle Judging. Watching little kids manhandle a 1,000 pound steer around the arena is a hoot. “Just don’t let go,” is the advice one kid gave the new Drake University President Marty Martin before the celebrity steer show. Good, simple advice; I like that.

Iowa State Fair Giant Pumpkin

The winner weighed in at 1,235 pounds.

7. Giant things – Random things – Butter things – pumpkins, tomatoes, bull, boar – a hot wheels race on the grand concourse – the butter cow, joined this year by a tribute to Monopoly. It’s all good.

6. Food on a Stick – The Ultimate Bacon Brisket Bomb, a bacon-wrapped, ground brisket/jalapeno/cheese-filled concoction earned the public’s favorite new food-on-a-stick award, so of course we tried it. The smoked brisket mac n cheese is better. IMHO.

5. Quilts – The needlework is amazing. My friend Sheryl entered five projects and took ribbons on four. My sister-in-law Anita won a blue ribbon. These are talented folks.

4. Ice Cream. When one massive scoop costs $4 and a second massive scoop costs only $1 more, you can imagine what we chose. Even though that’s more ice cream than I eat in a normal week. And I eat ice cream every day.

Iowa State Fair - Chia Cow

Just the thing for a dairy farmer’s daughter.

3. Peanut Brittle Judging. My first experience at food judging provided 17 entries –  enough to appreciate the range of Iowa candy maker creativity – and satisfy a sweet tooth.

2. A Chia Cow. I want one.

1. I avoided every single presidential candidate. Given the number of candidates and the fact that every one of them wants to see the butter cow and flip a pork chop and hold forth from a hay bale, that’s no small feat.

There you have it my friends – The Iowa State Fair. I can’t wait for next year.

What are your favorite things to do at the fair?

It’s “I Grew Up Country Day” – How will you celebrate?

We expect you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Hopefully with enough restraint to leave room to celebrate a far newer day.

What country stories could you tell?

Have country roots? Let’s celebrate.

Since Iowa Governor Branstad signed a Proclamation declaring March 18, 2015, “I Grew Up Country Day,” 50+ folks have joined our Facebook page where we encourage, collect and celebrate stories of growing up country. If you have a story to tell or would like to hear from other country folks, please join us.

We don’t have enough folks all in one place this year to stage a parade – maybe next year. Which doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate. My fellow country girl memoirist Shirley Showalter and I offer a few suggestions:

1. Do something you did growing up country:

  • Bake cookies or bread,
  • Invite a neighbor over for coffee,
  • Take a walk in the Back 40 or a nearby park,
  • Visit someone in the hospital.
  • Spring is almost here so get out in the yard or garden – reconnect with the land.

2. Pull out the old photo albums, trigger some memories, and share them with someone – a family member, friend, neighbor.

3. Jot down a memory or two about your country life.

4. Join us at I Grew Up Country, our new Facebook page, and share those memories with others who have country roots.

5. Take a walk down Main St. in a small town. Enjoy the fact that you can smile and say ‘Hi’ to everyone you meet and not feel in the least strange.

6. If you have older relatives – parents, aunts, uncles, cousins – who grew up country, ask them to tell you a story.

Shirley's sugar cookies - appropriate for St. Patrick's Day and I Grew Up Country Day.

Shirley’s sugar cookies – appropriate for St. Patrick’s Day and I Grew Up Country Day.

7. Spread the word about I Grew Up Country. Here are a few ways we’re doing that.

I will spend much of today caring for a friend who recently had surgery. Shirley is baking cookies to share with neighbors, using the sugar cookie (“cakes”) recipe in her book.

Please do celebrate I Grew Up Country Day and tell us what you did. We’re eager to hear.

I Grew Up Country – New initiative encourages storytelling

On Monday, March 9, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed a Proclamation declaring March 18, 2015, “I Grew Up Country Day” – in Iowa and wherever food is produced.

Governor Branstad lent his support to "I Grew Up Country"

Governor Branstad lent his support to “I Grew Up Country”

Haven’t heard of “I Grew Up Country”? Let alone a day to celebrate it? Not surprising. The day and the concept are brand new, the brainchild of fellow author Shirley Hershey Showalter and myself.

Last fall, Shirley and I shared the podium for a reading from our memoirs at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  Afterwards, over a latte, we discussed the fact that every time we shared our own stories about growing up on farms in the 1950s, people were eager to step up and tell us their stories.

Prairie Lights Bookstore - where "I Grew Up Country" began.

Prairie Lights Bookstore – where “I Grew Up Country” began.

Readers of my memoir Growing Up Country told me the stories made them think of their own growing up years; they also told me reading these simple stories made their own lives and their memories more important somehow. Shirley heard from people who read her memoir Blush and remembered butchering day, baling hay, milking cows, swimming in farm ponds, and downing food from tables loaded with fresh produce, meats, and homemade desserts.

We agreed we needed a place for all these people to find each other, to share their stories, to take pride in their collective appreciation for the country way of life.

The seed of an idea began to germinate. Over the weeks it took root, and this month, Shirley and I are kicking off “I Grew Up Country,” an initiative to encourage, collect, and celebrate stories of growing up country.

Here’s how we’re spreading the news:

We’d like to hear from you.

Our collaborator Millie had a great idea. She encourages any one who grew up country, to tell us how you’d complete the sentence:

“I know I Grew Up Country because …”

She even suggested a few answers, which brought smiles of recognition from Shirley and me. Here’s Millie’s contribution to start us off.

“You know you grew up country: If you bring home more stuff from the dump than you went with … Or you know you grew up country if you can sew on a button or hem a skirt … Or, You know you grew up country if you have ever stood barefoot in a garden eating a sun-ripened tomato — the juice dripping down your arm and off your elbow.”

Leave a message here and click on over to Facebook to meet other country folks and share your stories there. And, please, spread this news to anyone you know who grew up country.

Growing Up Country now an audiobook

Changes in the publishing industry have made life easier for indie authors with every evolution helping us reach more readers. As I launch the audiobook version of my memoir this month, it’s been fun to go back and look at the journey of my first indie publishing venture from the beginning.

Growing Up Country Audiobook Cover

Growing Up Country – Audiobook Cover

In 2008, I published Growing Up Country – Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl in paperback. To my surprise, printing after printing sold, and the paperback version continues to find reader interest eight years later.

In 2010 – after digital books were more than a gleam in someone’s eye – I jumped on the ebook bandwagon and converted Growing Up Country to an ebook format. New marketing opportunities abound.

Now I’m pleased to announced that Growing Up Country is available as an Audible audiobook.

While I know many readers enjoy audiobooks on a regular basis, I’m most pleased about this new format because it makes these stories available to people who have low vision, as my mother did.

The conversion to audio was far easier than I expected. I chose Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) to do production. If you haven’t checked into ACX, I recommend it. There are two key questions you’ll have to answer as you get started:

  1. Do you want to pay for production or do a revenue share with the talent? Cautious soul that I am, I chose to share revenue so I didn’t have to go out of pocket. I will make less on each sale, but it’s a new revenue stream for me, so I’m okay with that. Of course, I hope my narrator makes a ton on this one.
  2. Who will narrate? To find a narrator, you put a sample of your book up on ACX. Interested narrators do a sample read. You can choose one of them or if you don’t like any who apply, you can put the request up again. I found a narrator who was just right on the first try. You can also find a narrator independently of ACX and upload the finished piece through ACX, but staying within the system is much easier and can be less expensive, even free, as it was for me.

Once you choose a narrator, the two of you agree on a production schedule. My book took about two months, start to finish.

While production is turnkey, the author is responsible for making certain the final product is perfect. I listened to each chapter, following along in the book, noting any errors using the time code. I told the producer who fixed the errors and sent me a corrected file to review. Easy.

When you and the narrator are finished, the project goes through ACX review. That can take a couple of weeks. Once ACX approves, they set the price and post the Audible version on Amazon. They also send codes for free copies you can use in marketing.

Back in 2007, I had no expectations of what would happen with this memoir – other than that my mother would read it. So, it’s been fun to see my stories reach new readers as each new format opens the door to more folks.

Speaking of reaching more folks, on to marketing. This is where you, dear readers, come in.

  • Do you know someone who enjoys listening to memoirs, stories of family and childhood, Iowa, history? Please tell them Growing Up Country is not available as an audiobook.
  • Do you know anyone who would be interested in listening to Growing Up Country and doing a review? I have a limited number of audiobooks to give away for just this purpose. If you do, please let me know.

Finally, if you’re an author who’s looking at an audiobook conversion, what questions do you have? I’m always happy to share whatever I’ve learned.

What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


A waffle iron for Christmas?

The humble gift of long-lasting love.

Making waffles on Christmas Eve.

We still make waffles on Christmas Eve.

As Christmas Eve rolls around, I check to make sure I have all the fixings for our waffle supper.  Waffles mark Christmas Eve in our house as surely as Santa and the Christmas tree.  It’s a tradition that goes back a long ways.

My father was never much of a present buyer. If someone didn’t remind him, he seldom got Mom a Christmas present at all. But occasionally, he would get her something, and Mom always welcomed the gesture.

My memory is dim on the specific year Mom opened her gift and found a waffle iron. My guess is it was sometime in the very early 1960s because I was old enough to know this type of gift was not quite what a woman would hope to get from her husband.

If Mom had any hesitations, you’d never have known it from her reaction. A gift from her husband was a gift to be treasured.

Mom received her new kitchen appliance with enthusiasm, going into the kitchen immediately to mix up a batch of waffles. Since none of us Iowa farm kids had ever seen waffles, we watched her create this exotic food with great interest. 

At our house, pancakes made it into the rotation of breakfast meals with some frequency. Pancakes can be whipped up and thrown on the griddle, creating stacks to feed the whole family in a matter of minutes. Waffles take time. Several minutes to make a waffle to feed one or two people. Then you cook another one. Meanwhile the troops get restless.

Day-to-day life on the farm was practical. The waffle iron proved not to be so. Mom used the waffle iron a few times in the first year. She wanted Dad to know she appreciated his gift. Gradually, the waffle iron came out less and less frequently until finally it only appeared on Christmas Eve. But it appeared every Christmas Eve, and we all came to expect waffles, to relish the uniqueness of the meal, to cherish the tradition.

The waffle iron and Mom’s devotion to Dad and his gift spoke to us all of the love of Christmas.

Thank you for joining me in 2013 as I shared the challenges and triumphs the year offered.  I wish you all the best in the new year, and I hope to see you here again in 2014.

Clean-living Mennonite faces a tobacco challenge: And two book giveaways

Blush_frontcover-copy-optimized-194x300Today I’m over at Shirley Showalter’s blog talking about how good memoirs include themes that connect with readers. Meanwhile, Shirley is here sharing a story from her new memoir  BLUSH: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World,

As part of our blog swap, we’re both doing book giveaways. Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of  BLUSH. Comment on her blog for a chance to win a copy of my memoir, GROWING UP COUNTRY. Now, on to Shirley’s story.

Most people who know Mennonites might be surprised to learn that in the 1960’s, many Mennonite farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, grew tobacco. Since Mennonites were and are advocates of “clean living,” this seems a surprising crop choice.

Shirley disliked the crop, both for ethical reasons and personal reasons. But at least her years of toil in the tobacco fields gave her one good story.

The Tobacco Worm

Then there was that day in July when Mother, Daddy, Henry, and I were hoeing. We grew about ten acres of tobacco as our only cash crop. Since we had purchased the farm, cash was more important than ever. We were beginning in the middle state of the elaborate tobacco planting and harvesting process, whacking out weeds that might otherwise overtake a young tobacco plant or sap its growth. In addition to weeding, we loosened the soil around each plant, helping it to absorb whatever rainfall would come.

Now, however, the sun was frying all living things. I could actually see heat waves forming a mirage in front of me. I began to visualize a tall glass of sweetened tea, made with mint picked from the meadow by my little sisters. Ice cubes were clinking in my imagination. The glass was covered in the kind of cold sweat that was the perfect antidote to the hot sweat on my cheeks.

“Look at this big fella!” my father said. We all turned to see him take off his Eby’s Feeds cap, exposing his white forehead in contrast to the dark red of his cheeks. Dangling from his other hand was the plumpest neon-green tobacco worm I had ever seen. It was about three inches long and half an inch wide. As it writhed in Daddy’s hand, I felt the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. We all made faces.

I could tell that Daddy was expecting more reaction, so I briefly considered letting out my best scream but instead decided to try another tack. I pretended to take a scientific interest in the little black tentacles under the accordian-like sections of the bright green body. Daddy looked at me observing the worm, so cool and calm. Then he did something rare. He spoke spontaneously, recklessly.

“I’ll give you five dollars if you bite this worm in two,” he said.

The worm dangling from his outstretched hand that afternoon suddenly became as treacherous and tantalizing as a snake in the garden. Daddy did not go around doling out five dollar bills and seldom said anything without thinking about the consequences. He must have been pretty sure I would never bite a worm.

Why was he taking this risk? Daddy’s motives confused me as I stared at the worm, but my decision came swiftly. My ten-year-old brother’s mouth hung open and my mother clutched her hoe. Then I looked into the hazel eyes of my father, sustaining the tension as long as possible. It was time to be the eldest daughter of an eldest son. The hot earth below and the blazing sun overhead merged into one. Like Daddy when he was under pressure, I would not waste any words.

I took the worm from Daddy’s hand. I held it up to the sun as if blessing it; then I took it into my mouth, biting down hard and fast, spitting almost before the green hit my teeth. I gagged and spit more than necessary, jumping all around my brother, trying to give everyone enough entertainment for such a high price of admission. Daddy’s eyes twinkled and his smile was wide. He said nothing but reached in his pocket and pulled out his dilapidated wallet. He extracted his one and only five-dollar bill and gave it to me. I discretely tucked it into my bra.

I knew I had risen to the task. I knew I was worth the salt in my soup. The taste in my mouth was sour. The taste in my heart was sweet.

# # #

Shirley’s memoir is a treat to read. I highly recommend it. Leave a comment here for a chance to win a copy of BLUSH. Then hop on over to Shirley’s blog and leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of my book. We’ll choose the winners on Nov. 1.  *** Nov. 4 – I‘m pleased to announce that Elfrieda Schroeder is the winner of the drawing for the copy of BLUSH. Thanks to everyone for participating. 

Shirley H. ShowalterAbout the author:

Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at The Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger, and consultant living in Harrisonburg, VA.

Find Shirley at:
Twitter: @shirleyhs

The greatest invention of all time

Yep. No power here!

Yep. No power here!

We lost electrical power Saturday. A little after noon, the TV went off, the fan stopped turning, the oven stopped heating, the clocks stopped ticking off seconds. In that moment, modern life as we know and love it stopped. We may as well have stepped back in time 100 years.

My husband picked up the phone to call MidAmerican Energy to report the outage. Oops! The cordless phone doesn’t work without electricity. Nor could we report it online with the computer. No electricity, no wi-fi. Thank goodness for a cell phone.

When I asked my 92-year-old uncle what he considers the greatest invention of his lifetime, he didn’t hesitate. Electricity. Born in 1922, he remembers when electricity finally made it to their farm.

“Everybody was waiting,” he says. Even though they didn’t have anything to turn on. No toaster. No radio. No microwave. No hair dryer. No electric lights. No TV. No computers.

As I write my novel set in 1913, I’ve done my level best to imagine life in that time. Living without electricity is hardest to get my head around.

“What did you do at night?” I asked my uncle.

“When it got dark, we went to bed,” he replied.  Life was not easy, but it may have been more simple.

My husband was getting ready to put two loaves of bread in the oven when we lost power. He remembered the old gas stove in the basement and went to get it going. We’d never used the oven and he learned the door doesn’t really close tightly. A resourceful man, my husband found a 2×4 to prop the oven door closed.

Cooking by flashlight.

Cooking by flashlight.

If he could make bread, I could make the blueberry cobbler I planned to serve the company coming that night. I took everything to the basement only to realize I’d be working in the dark. No matter how many times we flicked a light switch (and we did it plenty), the lights did not come on. A flashlight provided the little halo of light we worked by.

The good folks at the power company came right away, assessed the problem, and determined they’d have to dig up the cable. They assured us we’d have power again sometime that night. I think they feared we’d scream. But what are you going to do? I was grateful this didn’t happen last week when the temperatures were in the 100s. Or the day when we had 40 guests for a party.

Six men, a backhoe, and eight hours later, we had a hole in our driveway and the electricity back on. Just in time to go to bed. We retired that night very happy to be back in the 21st century.

What do you think is the greatest invention of your lifetime?

Getting the historical details right

Iowa farm women, c. 1913

Iowa farm women, c. 1913

Did farm women wear corsets in 1913? Is there a particular name for the everyday dresses they wore? How many acres could a farmer plant in a day and what was the equipment like? How many men did it take to run a farm?

When I write, I need to see the people and places in my mind. That can be tricky when the events took place 100 years ago. As I fine tune my novel set in the early 1900s, I was stuck on some details so I headed to the Living History Farms near Des Moines. I spent an afternoon walking the 1900’s farmstead and the 1875 village, talking with the interpreters. I discovered the answers to my questions and much more.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big "wrappers" can be.

A Living History Farm interpreter shows just how big “wrappers” can be.

Called “wrappers,” these voluminous dresses gave the women ample room to move, protected them from wood stove sparks and could be used for any number of other tasks. Sometimes women added a belt; sometimes (as you see in the 1913 photo above) they did not. Aprons kept the dresses clean so they didn’t have to be washed so often. Women donned the restrictive corsets only for dress up occasions.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

Butter kept cool in the root cellar. No refrigeration.

I’d known that farm women took care of the chickens and eggs but learned they were responsible for all food-related tasks. They milked the cows, which were often shorthorns, a breed that served for milk and meat. The women used the milk for cooking and drinking; they also made butter and cheese. They sold anything beyond what the family consumed. Eggs, butter, and cheese were a woman’s entree to the social world of town and to some financial independence.

Farms today are labor intensive; in the early 1900s they were more so. Corn was planted two rows at a time. With a planter, a man could plant five acres a day. Some equipment required two men to operate – one to drive the horses; the other to work the equipment the horses pulled.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

Horsepower came from real horses in 1900.

I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s-60s, and talking with the interpreters, I realized farming at mid-Century hadn’t changed much from the 1900s. Farms were 160 acres. It took more than one man to do all the work. Dad grew corn, alfalfa, and oats, just as farmers did in 1900. Pigs were Dad’s cash crop, too, though he also sold milk. We had more conveniences (thank goodness!), such as refrigeration, electricity, and tractors, though Dad farmed with horses in the early years.

Many of these details will find their way into my novel ensuring that readers will be able to step back in time and experience the farm as if they’d walked up the lane in 1913.

The Everyday Stories of Family Life


Ready for church - 1951

Ready for church – 1951

I did not have an extraordinary childhood. Not in the blow your mind, Angela’s Ashes, bestseller memoir sense.  I grew up on a small dairy farm with my mom and dad and two sisters, cows, chickens, pigs, a dog, and a barn full of cats. We could not have been more average.

Yet my memoir has struck a chord not only with readers who grew up in Iowa or on farms but also with many who grew up in the middle of the 20th Century.

Susan Weidener at the Women’s Writing Circle invited me to share my memoir-writing experiences, along with the lessons I’ve learned in the process, in a guest post on their blog today. Come on over and join the discussion as I talk about The Everyday Stories of Family Life.