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FAMILY AFFAIR: SC State Fair provides showcase for state's champion talent

Hospitality and Tourism
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From cows to cheesecake, the best of South Carolina crafts, agriculture and art will be on display at the S.C. State Fair, coming to the State Fairgrounds in Columbia Oct. 12-23.

The annual harbinger of fall is in its 153rd year and its second in-person event after COVID-19 forced a drive-through edition in 2020, and general manager Nancy Smith is eager to see attendance and exhibitor numbers continue to bounce back.

“This year we’re moving forward, more in our regular frame,” Smith said. “We have just about everything in place now.”

Along with the lights, rides and food of the midway, a main attraction for many fair attendees is the competitive exhibits, ranging from flowers to swine. Thousands of S.C. farmers, artists and makers enter their works each year in hopes of winning cash prizes and peer recognition, and for the fun of seeing their work showcased.

An average of 3,500 individual exhibitors submit around 15,500 entries each year, Smith said. 

“I think they are really the heart of the fair,” Smith said. “We have representation from every county throughout the state of South Carolina. I like to look at the fair as a big picture of everything that South Carolina has to offer.”

Some parts of that picture have been contributing to the fair for four decades, such as Columbia resident and baking and craft champion Patty Wentworth. For others, like the Harman clan from Leesville, the fair is a family affair, with sisters and friends showing their prize cattle.

“Family is a word that describes the fair, because we have generations of people that have entered in the fair,” Smith said.

“I can recall, years ago, in the home and craft department, there was a third-generation pickled peach person. We had pictures of three generations of people that had entered their pickled peaches.”

Smith also has family experience in the exhibit arena. Her sisters have entered categories before and will be submitting some jellies this year, she said, in honor of their mother, a great cook who died in 2021 at the age of 104. Smith’s niece Jennifer also contributes crafts, such as a replica of the fairgrounds’ iconic rocket made out of a paper towel holder.

Smith, who became the first female general manager in the fair’s history in 2017 after working for the nonprofit for more than 30 years, also sees the tangible fruits of exhibitors’ efforts in ways that transcend ribbons. With her own fair career beginning in the fair’s home and craft department in 1983, Smith’s involvement with 4H clubs as well as the Future Farmers of America has given her a closeup lens on “the positive difference that the effects of those organizations have had on their lives,” she said. “I’ve also had the opportunity to help judge some scholarship recipients. If they don’t win the first year, maybe they come back afterwards for the next year. It is just amazing to see the growth in those young people. That’s the future of our fair. We need to remember that we have to keep looking for new ways to involve the young folks to keep the heart of the fair alive with that.”

Livestock lessons

Ellie Harman isn’t yet 18, but she’s already learned some valuable lessons that some take much longer to comprehend.

Harman has been showing cattle at the S.C. State Fair and throughout the Southeast since she was a young child, following in the footsteps of her older sister Allison and absorbing a few fundamental truths.

“Showing and working with these animals has really taught me a lot about patience and teamwork, which aren’t really my highest attributes, I would say,” she said. “I’m not usually a very patient person, but when you’re working with a 1,000-pound animal that does not want to do something, it’s kind of hard for you to just make them do it. I think that’s been pretty good for me, just trying to build relationships with animals. I think it’s translated to my personal relationships as well.”

Harman’s show career has also earned her some scholarships, including a $2,500 one from the S.C. State Fair last year — though her father, Al, joked that he would’ve been better off saving that money, given the expense and effort the family puts into showing cattle. Being in the show ring has also taught Ellie, the Gilbert High School FFA chapter president, the importance of advocating for agriculture.

“It’s important to know where your food comes from. I’s important to appreciate the people who get it to you,” she said.

Ellie, who has applied to Clemson University to study wildlife and fisheries, said she’s had several favorite animals throughout the years, including a calf named Muffin who won lots of awards last year. Her most memorable fair experience came in 2018, when, after years of cultivating her showmanship skills while the family farm worked on breeding more impressive animals, she at last took home a coveted banner as reserve champion of the junior show.

“They give those nice banners when you win — grand or reserve champion — and you get ribbons when you don’t,” Al Harman said. “None of us had show experience. We were trying to learn, and there’s just so much to it.  We did not win our first banner at the state fair until we had gone over there for 10 years. We went and got beat and we went and got beat, over and over and over again.”

That banner is now on display, along with several others, in a section of the Harman home known as the Hall of Fame.

“It was such an emotional thing,” Ellie said. “I don’t really know why. It really wasn’t that big of a deal, but we had just been wanting one of those state fair banners for so many years.”

Ellie, described by one judge as having a swagger in the show ring, said she’s also made some of her best friends there, and her father sometimes looks back through competition photos to help keep track of the last 10 years.

“Teenagers change so fast,” Al said. “You can really see them change and develop. … It is fascinating to watch them grow and develop their knowledge base. While we haven’t always had the best cattle, our kids have done really well in the competitions, and we’ve been proud of that.”

Crafty by nature

Patty Wentworth hesitates to guess how many ribbons she’s won at the S.C. State Fair since she began entering competitions more than 40 years ago — “longer than the fair has kept electronic records,” she said. She thinks the total is nearing 300, but she worries she may be overestimating. 

“I have never really counted my ribbons,” she said. “It’s not that important to me. I love the process. I love competing. It’s a lot of fun. Over all these years, I’ve made a lot of good friends at the fair.”

Wentworth is a prolific baker, entering cookies, cakes and pies while also contributing “everything from A to Z craft-wise.” She’s won the sweepstakes, or first place overall in the fair’s many categories, three times: with her biscuits, her candy and a Halloween door decoration.

Always crafty, Wentworth grew up as one of five children. Her mother made a lot of her clothes as well as Christmas decorations and “the best biscuits in the world.” Her grandparents and two aunts lived two doors down and often created things together.

“It was like a family affair,” she said. “We always had something going on.”

Wentworth’s talents were evident early. In second grade, she won a local art contest with a painting of a woodpecker that was displayed in a local bank in Kannapolis, N.C. “I’ve always had that gift and that talent. I’ve always loved to make things,” she said. “I think I was born with a crayon in my hand.”

After moving to Columbia in 1972, Wentworth would visit the state fair and view the exhibits with interest, though she didn’t enter anything until befriending a frequent contributor whose son played Little League with her son. Now, she’s known by name by the staff members who help check in exhibitors, and they get excited when she wins something, she said.

Wentworth, a self-professed procrastinator, isn’t yet sure what she’ll contribute this year, though a tried-and-true standby in her microwave fudge. She usually follows a recipe, she said, and has no problem sharing winning recipes with others.

“I like to share. Some people do and some people don’t,” she said. “If you make something and somebody compliments you on it and would like the recipe, then I’m happy to share.”

That includes everything, even special ingredients she may add, unlike others who may withhold that crucial information.  “That’s a terrible thing to do — then people think they’ve done something wrong,” Wentworth said. “I would want it to be as good as when I made it.”

She can’t, however, share one blue-ribbon recipe.

“One year I was trying a new recipe. I waited till the last minute,” she said.

Halfway through, she realized the cake recipe called for an unlisted ingredient she didn’t have.

“I just did the best I could with it, and it was the biggest flop. It was terrible. It was very gooey. I turned it into candy. I just rolled into balls and made it into candy, and I won a blue ribbon on that. I was in shock. But coming from a family that had five children, I don’t waste things.

“I could not make it again because I have no idea what I did. That was the one and only.”

Wentworth’s lengthy fair tradition is being passed down. One daughter entered artwork in the fair, and granddaughter Quinn has entered Christmas ornaments and won a prize for a photograph.

Heather Hawfield is also making the S.C. State Fair a family tradition. Hawfield, a Columbia resident with a master’s in theater set design from the University of South Carolina, and daughter Elowen will both have their handiwork on display this year.

Hawfield is a decorated sewer, a hobby that became a passion when she started making clothes for Elowen. She also creates miniature crafts, including a model of the fair featured in commercials for the event, and plans to enter the fairy garden section of the flower category this year.

“I’ve been making little tiny houses out of bark and other found objects. I’ve made some little pots that I’m going to put plants in. I’ve saved some cicadas that I found and I’m going to use their wings to make fairies,” she said.

Unusual projects such as that one, inspired a few years ago by Elowen’s discovery of a solitary cicada wing that she attributed to a suddenly bereft fairy, is one reason Hawfield enjoys contributing to the fair.  “Anyone from South Carolina can submit anything. There are so many categories,” she said. “And even if there’s not really a category for what you make, almost every section has ‘any other item.’ It makes the fair so eclectic and unique and such a fun opportunity for people who don’t necessarily have an outlet to display things like that. Maybe they don’t do it as a business but it’s a hobby that they enjoy and they want to share it. The fair is such a great place to do that.”

Hawfield, who works part-time designing exhibits at the S.C. State Museum, will also contribute some dresses she sewed for her daughter this year, and perhaps some woodworking. Elowen plans to enter a photo and some crafts, Hawfield said — once her mom reassured her that the fair would return her creations.

“It’s all part of that excitement that you feel when you come into the fairgrounds,” Smith said. “You can hear the music of the rides. You can smell all of those tantalizing scents from all the food around. In addition to that, you get to see all the talents of the people of South Carolina.”

Reach Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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