KNOXVILLE — Emma Clark is 11, the same age Tom Nichols was when he first showed cattle at the Marion County Fair.

Clark, who’ll show her bucket calf Tuesday afternoon, is on her way to becoming an old hand in the art of cattle showmanship. Nichols, by his own admission, is well on his way to becoming old. After 70 years as an exhibitor, 4-H leader and livestock superintendent, Nichols says this will be the last fair in which he’ll take an active role. The heat of the fair barn and the demands of running a cattle show can take it out of a guy, he says, but there’s a prize that’s kept him going.

“I like working with kids,” he says. “They keep you young.”

Learning the ropes

Clark was as young as they come, a 10-year-old 4-H’er, when she entered the bucket calf competition last year. She has a hard time recalling the name of last year’s calf, but to make up for it, this year’s entry has two. Clark calls him Galaxy, but her mom wrote Hopper on the fair entry form.

Whatever his name, he’s a handful. He’s hopped out of his pen three times on the Clark farm, south of Dallas, and has run over Clark a few times as well. But he clearly loves her and the Ritz crackers she sneaks him.

Caring for the critter is a regular routine. Clark feeds him, sprays him down and walks him around to prepare him for the show ring.

“You want it to get used to you,” she says matter-of-factly. “You want it to know you and trust you.”

One of her tricks is to pet the calf’s neck.

“It keeps him calm,” Clark says.

“And what keeps him calm keeps you calm, right?” her mom, Danell, chimes in.

Confidence and patience are important to growth in showmanship, Clark says. She hopes to join her cousin in showing larger livestock at future fairs. For now, she and her calf are learning the ropes and preparing for judgment day.

“The judges don’t wanna see me. They want to see the whole cow,” she says. “So if the judge is on the right side, I go on to the left side. I need to stay out of his way so he can see the cow.”

Clark keeps plenty busy during the fair. She’ll be showing her Dutch rabbits. There’s Milky Way and Oreo, but her best bet is named, of all things, Hopper. He hops like a calf, but he’s cuter. She’ll also show Tug in the cat show and Harrison, a dog agility champ. But any trophies that may come will take second place to the fun to be had.

“Prizes don’t matter as much as having fun and just enjoying things with my friends and just messing around,” she says.

Taking care

Clark first entered the show ring in 2017. Nichols was one of the beef superintendents last year, long after his fair debut in 1947. Aside from two years in the Army, he’s been involved in the fair and 4-H for seven full decades. He stepped away from beef show duties when his kids, Cory and Katy, were showing, but he says he enjoys making sure the show and the barn are run right.

“People know what I’ll put up with,” he says. “We get along pretty good.”

Like Clark, Nichols is an Angus fan. He showed Angus as a kid and grew up to raise purebred Angus on his farm in rural Tracy.

“The fair developed me into a cattleman,” he says. “You’ve gotta take care of ‘em.

“My wife said she wanted to come back in the next world as one of my cows ‘cause I took better care of them than I did her.”

Nichols also took care of things around the fair. He can’t remember what he won back in the day, but he sees plenty of rewards around the fairgrounds.

“It’s very gratifying to see kids that I’ve worked with through the years,” he says, “just seeing how they’ve developed.”

The Marion County Fair starts Friday and runs through July 19. Visit for daily schedules and show results.

To view the 2018 Marion County Fair Book, click here.


Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at

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