St. Henry man reminisces on decades of fair memories

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Jerome Buening of St. Henry feeds his sheep at his farm on Thursday. The sheep he raises are shown by his granddaughter and others at the Dubois County 4-H Fair.


ST. HENRY — For the first time in about 60 years, Jerome Buening, 82, will miss the Dubois County 4-H Fair.

For the St. Henry man — who describes himself as a big kid — the fair is a highlight of the summer, and he hasn’t missed one in decades. In fact, since joining 4-H himself at the age of 9, he has only missed two county fairs: 1958 and 1959, which were during his time in the U.S. Army.

“I enjoy the fair, and I enjoy the kids,” he said. “It’s still exciting for me.”

Of course, missing the fair this year isn’t by Jerome’s choice. Due to COVID-19, the Dubois County 4-H Council announced in May that this year’s fair will be a virtual event. It takes place next week.

For Jerome, who has been involved in various roles with 4-H over the decades, the decision came as a huge disappointment. He currently supplies sheep to a handful of 4-H students — one of whom is his granddaughter, Emma Buening, 14 — and helps them sheer the sheep to get ready for shows. This year, he also helped them take the photos that will appear in the virtual fair. Although it’s still something to recognize the kids’ hard work, it didn’t supply the same thrill as the in-person, traditional fair.

“I really feel for the seniors missing their last year,” he said. “They just aren’t getting the recognition they usually do.”

It’s also disappointing because this year’s lambs were particularly good, Jerome said. He has seven ewes, and they gave birth to a total of 12 live, healthy calves.

Sheep belonging to Jerome Buening of St. Henry eat alfalfa at his farm near St. Henry on Thursday.

Sheep are the third type of livestock he has worked with during his long career with 4-H. When he joined the St. Henry 4-H club as a child, he and two of his siblings, Dan and Norma, showed dairy cattle. He still remembers going to Washington to pick up the cows his father bought for them to show. At that time, the Buening family raised dairy cattle on their farm in Johnsburg. Jerome’s great-grandfather started the farm in 1887, and Jerome still farms the land today.

In the 1950s, Jerome joined the U.S. Army, which led to a break in his involvement in 4-H, but when he returned from the service, he got involved again, eventually becoming a leader for the St. Henry club in 1966. His children — Chris, Debbie, Randy, Jenny and Jim — were all involved with 4-H, and Jerome played a large roll in growing the St. Henry club, particularly the swine club.

“I ran all over hunting pigs down for the boys,” he said.

At the height of his time as a leader, Jerome recalls the club taking 75 hogs to the fair. That was a big deal for St. Henry, he said, but it presented a major challenge: transporting 75 hogs from St. Henry to the fairgrounds. For that, Jerome used a one-ton truck from his farm to transport them and the boys who raised them to the fairgrounds. Once at the fairgrounds, the boys had to build pens for the hogs, as there wasn’t yet a barn.

Back then, too, the boys often camped all week at the fairgrounds with their hogs, and the week served as a vacation for them.

“This was the only place they went — the county fair,” Jerome said.

One year, Jerome was driving home from the fair on a Friday night at around 1 a.m. with the bed of his truck filled with sleeping 4-H members. A policeman pulled him over for a broken taillight. It was common knowledge how exhausted the kids were at the end of fair week, so once the officer saw the sleeping boys, he let Jerome go.

“He said, ‘You get those boys home,’” Jerome recalled.

He will also never forget the years he traveled around to each boy’s home with the veterinarian to blood test the hogs. At the time, a disease was making its way through swine herds, and each hog brought to the fair had to be tested. Since most of the boys were too small to help the vet catch and restrain a nearly 80-pound hog and their parents were often at work, Jerome went along to help.

“You had to get them up, and then you had to catch them,” Jerome said.

The memory of a father-son duo transporting their hog to the fair in a van still brings a smile to Jerome’s face years later.

“The boy and his dad were sitting in there, and the hog was in the middle of them,” he said.

In addition to swine, the St. Henry club also showed chickens and cattle, but Jerome didn’t get too involved with either of those.

Over the years, he became more and more involved with 4-H, even serving a few years as the swine chairman for the county. In that role, he spearheaded planning the swine show. In 1996, he was awarded a plaque for 30 years of involvement with 4-H.

A few years after earning the 30-year plaque, Jerome began to transition out of leading 4-H. Younger leaders were joining the ranks, and he sensed it was time to take a step back.

“I think I just got tired,” he said.

He’s stayed involved with 4-H by attending the fair and providing livestock to some of the participants. He’s also kept in touch with many of the kids he led in the club, forming friendships with them that are still a source of joy for him. He connects with many of them at the county fair.

Although the cancellation of this year’s fair has been a disappointment, Jerome is already looking forward to next year. When the fair opens and the animals are moved into the barns in the summer of 2021, you can bet he will be at the fairgrounds eager to recognize the kids’ hard work, watch the livestock shows and grab some fair food.

More on