It was pouring rain when Beth Sissom and her 15-year-old daughter, Anna, woke up to load 20 bunnies into their truck for the three-hour drive from Millington, Md., to the Prince William County Fair. The deluge so soaked her sweatshirt that she had to leave it in her bathtub.
They had just packed up from another fair in Queen Anne’s County the night before, and Sunday’s contest in Manassas was to be their fourth of the season, with at least as many more planned. Anna started off with one rabbit eight years ago and — you know what they say about bunnies — now has 30, too many to name. After retiring her past winners, this season Anna is counting on a new crop of does, with their nails trimmed and fur brushed, to bring home the blue ribbon.
When they arrived in Manassas — just in time to cage the black, brown and white animals before the judging about 1 p.m. — the skies had mostly cleared, and thousands of people were flocking to the county fairgrounds for Sunday’s half-price family special.
The fair, which calls itself Virginia’s largest, runs through the end of the week and is part of the season of rides, carnivals and agricultural shows across the region, including the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, also this week.
Last year’s family day drew 16,000, said Catherine Clemen, president of the Veterans Farm Club, which sponsors the Prince William fair. But with Sunday’s weather, she said she would be happy to see 10,000. “If it rains like it did this morning I’m going to cry,” she said.
Braving the elements, Mark Edwards and a few neighbors camped out for the week in tents under a pavilion alongside their dairy goats. Edwards, 49, said it was important to stay close by in case pranksters tried to let the goats out or in case the goats tried to let themselves out. It was dry under there, he said, and the 80-degree temperatures and high humidity weren’t bad compared with the weather back on his farm in Tidewater, Va.
He brought the maximum of 15 goats, which would be judged Monday. When the goats aren’t competing in this or five other fairs every year, Edwards said, he milks them for home use or animal feed but doesn’t have a license to sell the milk or cheese.
“It’s just what we do,” he said.
Unafraid to get wet, though, was a face-painted heckler at the “Drown the Clown” attraction.
“Hey, home boy, do you lift weights?” he taunted a young man in a muscle shirt who stepped up to throw a baseball at the target that would dunk the jester. “Because you look like a dumbbell!” Then he issued a grating, high-pitched giggle that followed his every snide remark.
The pitcher missed.
“Was the baseball too heavy over there? What do you lift weights with, Q-tips?” Another laugh.
Later, as the clown smoked a cigarette, a man he kept calling “Nerd!” hit the target, and the clown fell waist deep in the tank.Climbing back up, cigarette still lit, he reassured the man: “Everything is okay. Bet you can’t do it again!”
The clown’s business partner, Eric Faulkner, who was running the booth and would take over the hot seat in a couple of hours, said every clown develops his own laugh. He demonstrated his: a scratchy snicker.
“Even when he’s not working, he’s still a character,” he said of his partner. Faulkner prefers to stay quiet when he’s off duty, to save his voice.
Faulkner, whose uncle started the business, has been working the dunk tank for 40 of his 50 years. Every year, he works 11 fairs across the South and Mid-Atlantic. His right forearm bears a tattoo of a grinning clown.
The tank is filled with hose water, he said, so it’s not too cold. Some days are wetter than others.
“I quit counting years ago,” Faulkner said. “Sometimes they blast you real good, and sometimes you sit up there and don’t even get wet.”
The fairgoers also were staying dry as the weather held through the afternoon. The fairgrounds filled up as people shrieked on the rides, pet the animals, tried their hand at the carnival games, and chomped on smoky turkey legs or fried dough and Oreos.
As for Anna Sissom and her rabbits, they swept the contest. They were judged on their fur and body type as compared to the ideal of their breed. A 6-month-old female named RCIS won the grand prize (worth $6), and a droopy-eared little doe took second. That’s two more ribbons for Anna, who said she had to start on a second big packing box to hold them all.
“Definitely worth the trip,” she said, speaking over the chorus of crowing roosters that shared the pavilion.