Dances With Chickens

Meet the judges at the Cuyahoga County Fair.

Space Cowboys
Jim Burnette, chicken judge and petting zoo magnate, gets a bath. - Walter  Novak
Jim Burnette, chicken judge and petting zoo magnate, gets a bath.
Judges at the county fair aren't required to use the term "sticky wicket" in a sentence. But they shore can, if they got a mind to.

"That became a sticky wicket with some of the women," says Donalene Poduska, cross-stitch and needlepoint judge, of the men-only sewing contest. "They thought the men were getting a special category."

Having seen way too many poinsettia-patterned tissue boxes in her 20 years as a fair judge, Poduska is the president of the Embroiderers Guild of Greater Cleveland and a resident of the rural outpost of Cleveland Heights. A failed crocheter in a household of rabid afghan-makers, she learned embroidery in her Kentucky hometown at the feet of a family friend, a refined woman who kindly adopted her, craft-wise.

"She felt that every Southern lady needed to learn some type of fine precision work," recalls Poduska, who took to the technique like "a duck to water." Many tea towels and pillowcases resulted, as did a plaid skirt that told her personal history via thread.

"There were the beginning bars of 'My Old Kentucky Home' on there, a cardinal on there, something for the PTA," she remembers. "I also had a couple of designs that represented Italy, Greece, Czechoslovakia," places of family heritage.

The skirt made a piquant conversation piece. A former Cleveland Heights school board member, Poduska occasionally wore the skirt to meetings. And her hands didn't stop flying when the meetings commenced.

"Later, I found out from another board member that, if I raised my hand to ask a question but didn't lift up my head from my stitching, they knew it was an easy question," she says. "If I raised my hand and looked up, it was a little harder, and if I raised my hand, jerked up my head, and put down my stitching, it was a real toughie."

Unlike Poduska, judges in the rabbit and guinea pig division don't need a magnifying glass to examine the entries, says Bruce Kucharski, head bunny wrangler at the fair. But they do need a yardstick and a sharp eye. "You have to measure them, look at their toenails, look at their teeth, and make sure all the girly parts are there and all the boy parts are there."

A rabbit raiser, Kucharski is rather nonchalant about guinea pigs, also called "cavies," so he has other people judge that category. As for livestock, the fair board has a "heck of a time" filling the stables for the 4-H part of the fair, he says. The 4-H kids have to live in Cuyahoga County to enter, and there are only about 400 small farms here, most of them glorified gardens.

"It's very tough for the kids to keep any kind of livestock," he laments. "There are ordinances against it in almost every community in Cuyahoga County. The people that do have them have a good relationship with their neighbors and keep everything within reason."

The fair itself almost became a casualty of "progress" a couple of years ago, says Jim Burnette, the fair's longtime director of small animals and proprietor of Burnette's Petting Zoo in Olmsted Township.

"There was a big drive to get rid of our fairgrounds and put this into housing development," he says of the 117-acre property, smack in suburban Berea. "That's why I fought so hard. No way do we want to get rid of this fairground. Because this area needs a fairground more than out in the country needs a fairground."

A perennial poultry judge, Burnette, 66, grew up in rural Lawrence County in southern Ohio, where his constant companion was a Brown Leghorn named Brownie.

"My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and he gave me a chicken when I was about three," he says. "And I always carried that chicken like a teddy bear. If you look in my baby book and all through my life, as you see my pictures, I'm always carrying some kind of an animal."

Usually, that animal is a chicken. "Cawwwww. Caww, caww," he says to one of his birds, a genial Japanese Silkie with blond fur, not feathers, that readily submits to petting. "Hear her talk to ya? Cawww. Caw. Caw. I've got another one over here that's the same way. Get down and eat your grass. There you go."

Though most chickens live to age 4 or 5, Brownie made it to 18. "She was a good show chicken, so she won many prizes."

A retired teacher and school superintendent, Burnette has encountered all kinds of chickens, from Silver Pencilers to Golden Polish, and all kinds of kids -- country and city, rich and poor.

"I've seen some wonderful projects come from the poorest kids," he says of the 4-H judging. "Extreme poverty. Poultry and pigs. They take more pride in 'em sometimes."

When Burnette judges 4-H chickens, he checks their wing feathers for holes (that means lice) and gives the owners brownie points if their birds look "extra special and good."

"You can actually wash 'em," says Burnette of chicken grooming. "I would scrub their legs and put Vaseline on their legs. Sometimes I would take real red lipstick and Vaseline and massage their comb and make it real red and pretty. Some of the kids even take clear nail polish and paint their [chickens'] toenails."

Burnette also judges in the pigeon category, where his pigeon-rolling trick is a hit with the youngsters.

"You have [a pigeon] called a parlor tumbler," he explains, lingering on the syllables. "And after this pigeon is a year old, it no longer can fly." Instead, it rolls to escape predators.

"If they're more thoroughbred, they'll go in a straight line," he says. "If they're not too good, they'll go sideways.

"What I do, I take my hand, and I twist my hand like I was winding up this pigeon. And then I set it on the ground and clap my hands, and this pigeon rolls. So I wind him up for the children, and they really think he [is] something like a wind-up toy."

Also worthy of a one-man show is the cake judge, Dick Dennis, who learned to bake cakes in a seminary in Florida. Abandoning priestly inclinations for cake-baking, he became a professional cake decorator and taught classes. He's judged a lot of homely cakes during his fair tenure.

"There's a few that you're even afraid to taste," he says. "Maybe the icing is dripping off. Maybe the family likes it and all that, but then you have to try it, and you have to wash your mouth out."

Not many can outdo Dennis, though. For his daughter's wedding, he baked a 23-layer cake with a six-fountain waterfall built into stone, which took up six long tables. Ten of the layers were Styrofoam "show layers," with the edible-layer spectrum including date nut, banana nut, coconut, pistachio, and Harvey Wallbanger.

But not even that cocktail can prepare Dennis for the demands of judging each summer. "By the end of the day, with the chocolate and all, I just get out of there and get a tomato or something to cut my tastebuds. I'm all sugared out."

The most hands-on of all the fair events has to be the junior fair, which includes the watermelon-eating contest, the lobster walk, the beauty pageant, and the bubble-gum-blowing contest.

"Last year, we had a ball," says head judge Sheila Peebles. "We had a guest contestant with the pie-eating contest. A long-haired Scottish cow with great big horns. First contest, it beat the kids. Second contest, an eight-year-old won." Tomatoes all around.

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