NEW BERLIN – Farm animals ruled the days and the nights when Gene Bergschneider was just a young lad showing steers and Hereford breeding heifers. He slept on hay bales for 10 days each summer, ate meals in the barn and mom would bring a change of clothes.
At 76, Gene recalls with fondness those days some 63 years ago spent at the Illinois State Fair. He and his three siblings were the first to show animals, followed by his three sons, a niece, a cousin, a grandson and now a granddaughter. In other words, going to the fair is an all-in-the-family, fun time.
While Gene is beyond sleeping in the livestock barns, his good name is still at stake, as 13-year-old Alexis Bergschneider steps forward to show goats, lambs, pigs and calves. While Alexis lives in Springfield, she ventures out to the farm in New Berlin to feed the animals and prepare them for summer competition. Her grandfather and her dad, Menard Electric Cooperative members, help with their care.
On a Thursday evening in late April, Alexis and her dad, Chris, were taking her pigs for an evening walk, building up the muscles the pigs need. Although slight in stature, Alexis was in charge as she guided the pigs along, teaching them to be show ring ready.
“I like being around the animals,” she said. This year she will be showing two sheep, two pigs and Hereford cattle. It’s a growing experience for everyone and everything involved.
Chris, who has shown at the fair for nearly 40 years, says showing animals teaches responsibility. Alexis agreed, naming the tasks involved: feedings, watering, walking and grooming them. While she is the lone “farm girl” among her Springfield friends, she looks forward to the fair experience every year. She says the fun times are seeing all the people at the fair, friends you make that return year after year and the competing.
This teenager has other interests including dance and volleyball, but she keeps coming back to the farm on a regular basis. Her dad says it’s a natural habit, at least for him.
“When you grow up with it, it’s
in your blood … it comes natural,” Chris says.
Gene, the patriarch farmer of his family, says the fair is truly a life-changing experience for all involved.
“You meet a lot of friends you probably would not have met
up with any other way,” he says.
Admittedly, the fair has changed through the years, Gene says. In the earlier days the biggest grandstand events were the horse races. Today that has changed to high profile entertainment, which brings in crowds.
And while competitors used to sleep among the livestock to care for them, today most head for campers and hotels when the sun goes down.
But there’s something more than competition that keeps Gene going back year after year to the fairgrounds, too. In fact, he goes there even when the fair is over, to see other events throughout the year. The grounds, themselves, are a place where Gene is at home.
“I guess you can call me a ‘fair rat’,” he says with a laugh.