MILTON-FREEWATER — Milton-Freewater’s Jr. Show grounds are mostly hidden to uninformed eye, sited on property behind a busy feed store. A glance at 50 mph on the highway leading into town reveals outbuildings that look at home in any rural setting, and no more.
In truth, a multi-purpose building now going up is more than what simply looks like a new barn, Jr. Show officials say.
“It’s the first new structure for probably 30 years,” noted board member Jeff Leber, adding there is much more than lumber and nails involved.
Without volunteer help and support from local government and companies, the barn would cost far too many dollars and take too long to complete to make it a reality for this small, rural town, he said. “It’s amazing, the strength of this community we have, the people who have stepped up.”
And that’s way things have been from the beginning of the organization in 1928, beginning with the first livestock show — called Fruitvale Fair — held across the street from Fruitvale School, miles from the center of town. The event then included a showing of dairy animals and a lunch cooked up by “ladies of the Grange,” according to Jr. Show board chair Shawn Kralman.
Kralman, a Milton-Freewater farmer, has been gathering information on the history of the organization the past six years he’s been in office. Giving credit to others for early documentation of the Jr. Show, he has composed a time line about what he calls “one of the most important youth activities is Umatilla County.”
The annual, three day show in May is solely for children who participate in area Future Farmers of America or 4-H clubs, and there is no other event like it, Kralman said.
Under the Jr. Show umbrella, kids can demonstrate livestock, shooting, cooking and sewing skills, among others. In 2012, about 300 participants entered nearly 500 assorted exhibits.
The Fruitvale Fair soon expanded to include exhibits of other skills like sewing and canning, starting with the Ferndale Canning Club’s entry in 1931.
For a number of years, the show depended on tents and panels to house animals and exhibits. With continued growth and increased community interest, however, the founders decided a permanent structure was needed. In the late 1930s, 4-H leaders took their clubs to the mountains to cut poles, which were hauled on mules to the Benke saw mill to make lumber to buildt the first barn across from the Fruitvale School property.
Volunteers helped hammer and saw, then painted it with a mixture of skimmed milk, ochre and Portland cement — “providing the traditional barn red shade,” Kralman said.
Things kept growing. The show not only provided healthy competition for 4-H clubs, but pulled in parents to help with meals and hog calling, his notes show.
It was March of 1954 before a formal association was established for Jr. Show. By 1959, the school district’s FFA had joined forces with 4-H clubs to become more what the organization looks like today. Once again, people in the community stepped up, this time to haul the show’s barns to an area near the high school, given to the Milton-Freewater school district by the Hoon Family.
That meant room to spread out, according to Kralman’s information. Home-making exhibits were displayed in the school gym while the 4-H Style Revue happened in the auditorium.
In 1973, however, the school district sold the land surrounding the barns for a new golf club, and more land was leased to the Milton-Freewater Golf Club for a clubhouse, leaving the Jr. Show again in need of a landing spot.
Given the history of solidarity behind the event, it is perhaps fitting the organization finally rooted on land once the site of a rock quarry. The new site brought new growth, as well. More buildings were put up to house sheep, swine, rabbits and chickens, all shown by children from the northeastern corner of the state.
Nowadays Jr. Show is best known for the animals children raise and auctioned off the last day of the event. Although there can be tears at the end from those who have watched a baby grow into a marketable animal, the money brought in has contributed to funding higher education for decades.
Those kids are learning — under the guidance of the community at large — about supporting local business, keeping records, saving, investment and looking past immediate gratification, Kralman said. “Us, as parents, that’s what we hope for. We hope they learn to make the choices, to be representatives of the animal and their town.”
Families that participate throw in many volunteer hours, and local organizations spend a “phenomenal” amount of money at the auction. Board members drum up donations to help ensure sale prices are fair for all sellers, the board chairman said. “We’ll bump up a kid whose animal didn’t bring in quite as much, for example.”
Volunteers expect a lot in return, Kralman added. For instance, participants must be on site to show their own animals, no matter what else comes up. It’s another example where kids are learning about priorities and choices.
“This started in the day when there weren’t competitive sports,” he said. “It was ag related ... everybody was in ag. The (Fruitvale) Fair got started when the kids began representing their farms.”
The majority of funding to operate the annual show comes through donations, pledges and three small fund-raisers during the year.
The organization also rents out the spot for any number of community events, Kralman added.
Building a new barn, even as the local economy flutters, is a sign of continued investment. The old structure — twice-moved, largely rotten and unsafe — was from the town’s Pea Festival past, Jeff Leber said. “We had a lot of people step up and donate money, we had some push from the community to do this.”
Come Mother’s Day weekend, Gina Miller will be on the grounds to enjoy the new building and everything else. As is family tradition, son Mike will be showing goats as a high school senior in FFA.
Milton-Freewater’s Jr. Show is the very core of what 4-H and FFA should be about, Miller said.
“Strip away the midway, the carnival and the racetrack of the county fair and what you have left is the pure essence of the Jr. Show — kids raising animals and learning to be responsible young people, community values that will last them a lifetime and families having fun together.”
The 2013 Jr. Show begins May 10. For a complete schedule, go to www.mfjrshow.com.