I went to the Ohio State Fair on Wednesday to see the Phyllis Diller chickens.
Whenever I’m at a fair, I can’t pass up the poultry barn. The scratching feet, the head bobs, the strangled crows. Cage after cage of chickens and their marvelous high-strung weirdness.
I grew up in New Jersey. County fairs weren’t on my radar until my family moved to upstate New York when I was 14. My father, an electrical engineer who designed lamps for Westinghouse and later for Philips Lighting, was transferred to a Philips plant in Bath, New York.
I was a suburban-sprawl child. My parents were true city kids. To them, our new home must have seemed like the far side of the moon.
That summer, before our house was ready, my father and I rented an apartment so I wouldn’t miss the start of school. We shared the place with Mr. Kowal, a Philips technician from Nutley, New Jersey, who had a son a few years older than me.
We went to the Steuben County Fair, now in its 197th year. We were in the poultry barn when Mr. Kowal spied a chicken with a shock of feathers sprouting from its head like bursting fireworks.
“Hey Walt!” he exclaimed to my dad. “This one looks like Phyllis Diller!”
The comment has stayed with me. The chickens do resemble comedic genius Diller in one of her blond fright wigs, but I also remember the comment for its shared city-slicker incredulity, that we could be in awe of a chicken, of all things. Where on earth were we moving, where bears left muddy tracks in our driveways, and chickens resembled loudmouthed comedians?
On Wednesday, 32 years later, I stood in the Poultry Pavilion with James Ward of Jeffersonville. Ward knows chickens.
“When I was a 4-H kid about 9 years old, I started showing at the state fair and never left,” he said.
Ward handles chickens the way you or I might answer a phone or pick up a banana. He says things like, “A Cornish is all about having a big breast,” “The Dorking has a fifth toe” and “Most chicken historians believe …” He shows off the Buckeye breed, Ohio’s official chicken.
His passion is infectious.
My Phyllis Diller chickens are the Polish breed, he said. Domesticated chickens date back 10,000 years. The Polish, with its feathery crest, turned up in the Middle Ages. It is considered a pretty old European chicken.
“At least 500, 600 years, these chickens have been around,” Ward said.
I have to imagine they’ve been delighting humans since then.
“Are you judging the chickens?” Wendy Hart of Upper Arlington asked me. No, I was just admiring the Polish breed.
She said, unsolicited, “Phyllis Diller.”
Cue jaw drop.
She then made a strong argument that the silver Polish birds, with their black-fringed white feathers, are the most Diller-esque of the bunch.
Hart was with her daughter, 14-year-old Penelope Hartley. They come to the fair every year. It reminds Hart of her childhood in small-town Michigan.
“This was the biggest thing that you did, was go to the county fair,” she said.
Cassady Calder, 18, of Ostrander, and Clara Selle, 19, of Delaware, laughed among the rows of chickens.
“They have so much personality,” Calder said. The friends, who raise chickens, then reminisced about their chickens. One gave out “hugs” with its wings. Another puffed into an adorable feathery ball.
I lost track of Mr. Kowal after leaving upstate New York. I’m pretty sure he lost a leg as his health failed. He died in 2008 at 75. My father died three years later, at 82.
Phyllis outlasted them both. She passed away in 2012 at 95. I discovered only Wednesday that she was an Ohio treasure, born and raised in Lima.
The state fair runs through Aug. 7. I’ve made a note to return with the kids.
I’ll let them do their thing, and they’ll humor me with a trip to see the chickens. But I’m reminded that fairs aren’t so much about the small wonders we see before us — the butter cows and racing pigs and Phyllis Diller chickens — but rather those we choose to go with, who make us laugh, who are standing, for a time, right there by our sides.
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