Mountain Stair Fair hosts a different kind of livestock show
The midway is fun for all, but agriculture is the core of a country fair. And agriculture is important to Henderson County — where the annual North Carolina Mountain State Fair takes place, and where Linda Johnson lives.
Since 2007, Johnson has spent each fall racking up ribbons at one of the fair’s many livestock competitions. She is neither a farmer nor an animal-husbandry student. Johnson is simply a 75-year-old woman who’s proud to show what she can do.
“It’s important for people like Linda to feel good about themselves — to shine,” Sheila Holbert, Johnson’s younger sister and caregiver, tells Bold Life from her Valley Hill home. Behind her, pinned on two large bulletin boards, are more than a dozen ribbons awarded to Johnson at the Very Special Livestock Show.
Held each year, the Very Special Livestock Show gives special-needs people of all ages the chance to participate in the fair in a meaningful way. “It’s very different from other livestock shows,” says Anna Viands with Daystar Machining Technologies Inc., the event sponsor. Before their big debut, each exhibitor is paired up with a four-legged critter — normally a Boer goat or wool breed of sheep — provided by a local 4-H club.
When their name is called, the participant shows their hoofed beast around the ring with the help of a handler. But, unlike most animal-husbandry competitions at the fair, the focus is less on the animal and more on the person.
“As they walk around the arena, the emcee talks about the participant, not the goat or sheep,” Viands explains.
The announcer may, for instance, discuss the contestant’s hobbies, pets, favorite foods and restaurants, or what they would do with $100 — all information gathered from the entry form. Meanwhile, the crowd claps and hollers approval. “When all the attention is on them and the audience is clapping, their faces light up,” says Viands.
The entire production is moving, both for participants and onlookers. Viands remembers a particularly emotional show when a father carried his teenage son, who had mobility issues, on his back around the ring. “That brought tears to my eyes,” she says.
Typically, though, caregivers opt to push wheelchair-bound loved ones. If someone needs a little more reassurance, a caregiver may hold their hand or walk beside them. “It’s important to honor all people,” says Viands. Among the newest participants are students from North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton.
The show isn’t limited by age, either. Exhibitors range from elementary schoolers to senior citizens. (Thus far, Johnson reigns as the show’s eldest participant.) There’s also a fair share of young adults like Aubrey Baynard, a 22-year-old Hendersonville resident.
According to Aubrey’s mom, Joy Capps, it can be hard to find spaces where people with special needs feel welcome and accepted. But at the fair, Capps says her son always feels at home.
“He loves animals and loves being the center of attention, so it’s a perfect fit,” Capps says. “He’s always so happy and excited afterward.”
The same is true for Jaxon Ingle, a rising senior at Enka High School who loves playing on the computer, eating tacos, and hanging out with the “cute, silly” goats at the fair come fall. “Jaxon always walks away from the show with a smile,” says his mother, Tonia.
This unbridled happiness is what has kept Viands coming back each year since 2016, when Daystar assumed the role of event sponsor. “Organizing the event requires a lot of work,” she says, rattling off logistical to-dos. “But when I leave, my heart is full. It’s a true honor to watch participants experience joy.”
According to Holbert, joy is also what motivates her sister to march around the arena every fall, four-legged companion by her side. “The show is about making participants feel happy and special,” says Holbert. “That’s what’s most important.”
She indicates all the brightly colored ribbons displayed in her Hendersonville home. “Linda talks a lot about [these]. She just loves them.”
The North Carolina Mountain State Fair (WNC Agricultural Center, 1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher) runs Friday, Sept. 9 through Sunday, Sept. 18. The Very Special Livestock Show will be held on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 1:30pm in F Barn. All are encouraged to come cheer on participants. General admission to the fair costs $4-$10. For more information and to buy tickets, visit wncagcenter.org or call 828-687-1414.