When July and August bring scorching, sun-drenched days across Iowa, it means only one thing for thousands of youngsters across the state.
It’s time for the annual county fair.
It’s been a long time – a very long time – since I, too, was involved in 4-H. Living in town, even a town of 150 people like Alleman (it had that many folks living there more than a half-century ago). Of course, living in town meant that those few of us who did back then had to be selective when it came to our 4-H projects.
We had few choices for our 4-H projects. Of course, there was always gardening, but that was for moms and grandmas, not for boys. Back then, the only other choice we had was small animals, ones that could safely be kept in town. All that’s changed now; kids can show their pets, like cats and dogs and birds, and they can build projects out of glass or wood or other materials.
I had plenty of encouragement back in 1953 when we moved into Alleman and most of that encouragement came from my parents. My dad, in particular, did most of the encouraging. In fact, he was directly responsible for the only 4-H project I ever had.
My dad, who’s been gone for more than half a century now, met someone somewhere who had rabbits. That was all it took; he encouraged me to raise rabbits for my 4-H project. But, he didn’t want just any rabbits. Nosiree, he wanted only the best for his oldest son and that meant travel. Dad was in the hospital with a serious leg infection when he met a Mennonite man from Kalona during his stay at Iowa Lutheran Hospital in Des Moines. During one of their chats, the man from Eastern Iowa mentioned his family had rabbits.
Apparently, that was all dad needed. Soon, we made contact with a rabbit breeder in Des Moines who had pure bred New Zealand Whites, a popular rabbit breed of the day. Before I knew it, I had a 4-H project with no place for the several female white rabbits that suddenly sought a new home in Alleman.
Dad took care of that, too. Using the shop at the old long-gone Alleman school, my dad built a rabbit hut that was a “mansion” among such structures – a two-tiered hutch with five compartments on each level, 10 in all. My newly-acquired 4-H project had begun. Without bucks, however, the project was doomed.
A trip to Fort Dodge solved that when we acquired another registered pure-bred New Zealand White rabbit, this one a buck. You know what they say about rabbits. It wasn’t long before those three does were each chasing a litter of tiny white rabbits around their cages.
I was in the rabbit business, but good. I wasn’t yet a teen-ager when I began carrying 50-pound bags of rabbit food from the Alleman Co-op to my cages. It was less than a block, but to an 11-year-old it seemed like a mile with that heavy bag of food on my back. It got easier with time.
For three years, I tended those rabbits, moving the hutches inside during the cold winter months and taking them back outside in the shade for the summer. That first year in 4-H, I took several rabbits to the Polk County Fair, held at the state fairgrounds in Des Moines a few weeks before the annual state fair takes over. Although I entered several rabbits in the competition, I came home with a single white ribbon – a “sympathy” ribbon from the judge who told me that all my rabbits had buck teeth and should have been disqualified.
I learned from that experience and I must have learned well; or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that my dad learned well.
We quickly eliminated that problem and the next year I won seven blue ribbons and two red ribbons. Never again would I take only a white ribbon. I even added a breed of pure bred Blue Checkered Giants to my 4-H project and won the champion trophy for market breed.
My 4-H and rabbit career ended in 1957 when we were forced to move because of my dad’s heart problems. Although we remained in Alleman, my rabbits were gone.
But, I went out with a bang. In 1957, I racked up nine more blue ribbons and two champion ribbons. I’ve still got those ribbons tucked away safely.
I was on television, too, that year, showing my grand champion buck and grand champion doe. That was an experience in itself. I think it was WOI in Ames that had the live coverage. I took the two rabbits to a spot behind the grandstand and sat them on a table, constantly working to control the animals. The TV announcer (was it Mary Jane something?) asked me a question. “This rabbit is very fidgety and this one is very calm. Why is that?”
“Well,” I answered, “this one that’s jumping all over is a buck, and this quiet one is a doe and she’s due to litter at any time.”
“You mean we could have baby rabbits on this show!” she exclaimed.
It didn’t happen, of course, but it was the first time I’d ever been on TV except for one of those teen dance shows popular back then.
Later, I was presented the top rabbit trophy for all of Polk County during a ceremony hosted by the East Des Moines Businessmen’s Club. That trophy (the rabbit’s ears were broken off long ago) has remained with me for nearly six decades; I’ve taken it with me wherever I’ve lived during those years.
It’s heavy, too. They don’t make trophies like that anymore.
And, I usually don’t stumble answering many questions any more, like I did that first time I was on television.
“Rabbits are just one 4-H project that kids living in town can have,” the interviewer on WOI said that hot day in 1957. “I suppose there are others … like horticulture … do you agree?”
Horrified, I answered: “I don’t know what horticulture is.”