Showing Squatch the Sheep

By: Lisa O’Donnell | Winston-Salem Journal

Published: October 01, 2012

The smell was barnyard manure.

The sound was one long, cacophonous “baaaaa.”

The dress was farm casual: button-up plaid shirts, jeans, rhinestone-studded belts and boots.

The sheep barn at the Dixie Classic Fair is its own world, far removed from the blood-curdling screams and pulsing hard rock of a midway dense with the scent of cotton candy, caramel corn, candy apples and funnel cakes.

If the midway, with its thrill rides and barkers, represents the fair’s flashier side, the livestock barns are its heart and soul, a link to its agricultural roots.

Sunday, that tie with the past was on display at the sheep barn, where dozens of young people competed in the junior market lamb show.

Leah Thomas did not have the past in mind when she stepped into the show ring with her lamb, Squatch. Her eyes were fixed squarely on Jeff Hoppes, who traveled from Clyde, Ohio, to judge the show.

“I never drop my focus,” said Leah, an eighth-grader at Forbush Middle School. “The outside world is not here. It’s my lamb and the judge. I call it my game face, and I’ll never change that.”

Leah, 14, and her brother, Eli, 10, showed their lambs Sunday in the showmanship competition. They were judged by how well they handled their lambs and their demeanor inside the ring.

In preparation for the fair, she spent time with Squatch each day, leading him up and down hills on the family’s farm near Enon in Yadkin County.

Leah’s father, Marc, and her mother, Leanne, showed livestock for years when they were growing up. They have passed along their love of 4-H and animals to their children, who belong to the Deep Creek 4-H Club.

Over the weekend, the family spent 14-hour days at the fair, feeding, washing and tending to the sheep.

Once work and school let out today, the family will head back to the fair. They will load up the nine sheep they brought and take them home, then bring five more on Tuesday for additional shows.

“He’s already begging me to pick him up early from school,” Marc Thomas said of Eli.

Sunday, just before showing his lamb, Mrs. Spot, in the showmanship competition, Eli and a friend played near a shearing stand.

Leanne Thomas said the family rarely ventures into the midway or in search of some of the fair’s infamous junk food. They keep a cooler packed with sandwiches, drinks and snacks in a clean, spare pen in the barn, next to their sheep.

Eli and his friends have spent the past few days hanging out in the livestock barns, helping out occasionally when a livestock judge or official needs a hand.

“That’s what builds memories,” Marc Thomas said.

Leah wound up with an exhibitor’s white ribbon, not the blue ribbon she had hoped. She was disappointed in the result but took pride in the judge’s choice ribbon she got for a dress she made.

Both sets of Leah and Eli’s grandparents and an uncle came to watch them show Sunday. Melissa Staebner, the 4-H agent and interim cooperative extension agent in Yadkin County, came by as well.

She said children who show animals at the fair learn responsibility and hard work.

“It’s not about whether you come out with a blue ribbon,” said Staebner, who showed animals while growing up in Connecticut. “But we’re raising blue-ribbon kids here.”

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