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95 years at the fair

PRINCETON — When it comes to attending the Bureau County Fair, Coyla Harris of Princeton is no doubt the record-holder — having attended every county fair for the last 95 years.

Harris, who will be 96 years young in November, plans on being at the Bureau County Fair on Thursday for Senior Citizens Day. She’ll come early and leave late.

Looking back on the last 95 years, Harris said the only time she came close to missing the county fair was the year her daughter Margaret was born on Aug. 17. Back in those days, women stayed in the hospital about 10 days after having a baby, but Harris told her doctor she had a record to keep and she needed out of the hospital in time to get to the fair. And that’s just what happened.

Harris said she and her baby got out of the hospital on the morning of the last day of the fair. She wrapped up her baby and headed straight to the fair. Harris walked around the fair twice, had a hot dog, and decided she should probably head for home ... with her perfect attendance record in tact.

Harris said she got her early start at the county fair because her mother worked every year at the Congregational Hall at the fair. It was her mother who came up with the idea that Harris should make it a goal to go every year to the fair and set a record. While her mother worked, Harris and other children were cared for by helpers at the Red Cross building on the fairgrounds. When Harris got older, she helped watch the younger children at the Red Cross building

In time, Harris also helped at her aunt’s food tent where people could buy regular meals, like roast chicken and mashed potatoes and homemade pies. Breakfast was also served. There were a lot of dishes to wash, since there were no paper plates or cups like there is now, and the dishes had to be washed twice and dried twice. She also was on potato-peeling duty.

When she wasn’t working the fair, Harris would go for rides on the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel. The rides weren’t extravagant like they are nowadays, she said.

In addition to the rides, Harris said there’s been lot of other changes at the fair in the last 95 years. In those early years, people came to the fair on foot, or by horse and buggy, or by old cars that barely ran. She and her family walked a couple miles to the fair, leaving their home at 4:30 a.m. each day. There was a special area set up where people could leave their horses and buggies for the day.

The food is different, not as much home-cooked meals as she remembers. In those early years, her mother would pack a food basket of fried chicken and all the goodies that go with it. The watermelon was kept cold in a tank of water. Everyone put their watermelon in the same tank and nobody knew whose watermelon was whose and nobody cared, she said.

Attending the Bureau County Fair has been something she’s looked forward to each year — when she was younger and now that she’s older. When she was 8 years old, she won her first prize on a cake she made. Through the years, she’s won prizes on her baked goods and canned items. In time, she became a judge at the fair in the canning and baking departments.

One of her favorite parts of the fair has been seeing the horses and the cows, Harris said. She loved the horse racing and playing bingo when they were part of the fair.

For years, she was a member of the Sharps and Flats kitchen band, which played every year at the fair. Her main instrument was a grill, but she would also play the bells, just about anything someone would give her. The band is no longer active, since there’s only three of them left, Harris said.

“Oh, yes, I can go on and on about the fair,” Harris said. “It’s fun, and I look forward to it every year.”

At 95, Harris said she doesn’t walk around at the fair like she did in the past. Instead, she will spend most of the day in the hospitality tent visiting with folks, many of whom she sees once a week at the fair.

Harris said she’s appreciative of all the years she’s had at the Bureau County Fair.

“I would like to thank the fair board for all these years I have been able to enjoy the fair,” Harris said. “Keep up the good work and may it go on another 100 years and more. See you next year.”

Comment on this story at www.bcrnews.com.

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