Mid-State Fair

Creative competition at the Mid-State Fair

Rebekah Hahn, 13, and her brother Dylan, 10, with a few of their crafty creations.
Rebekah Hahn, 13, and her brother Dylan, 10, with a few of their crafty creations. The Tribune

It’s not about the ribbons.

It’s about creating something and sharing it with others. It’s about spending quality time with family while you sharpen your creative skills.And, yeah – it’s nice to get ribbons.

For those who enter their creations in the Mid-State Fair’s arts and crafts shows, ribbons suggest that someone else recognizes your hard work – and likes what you do.

Each year, the California Mid-State Fair features thousands of entries – there were over 10,000 last year, excluding livestock – as people submit everything from muffins and crocheted doilies to rubber stamps, wreaths and puppets. Some of the entries are created by newcomers. But others have been entering things in the fair for years or decades.

We decided to track down some frequent exhibitors – fairgoers who have won countless ribbons – and put them on display.

Stevie Hall

Oceano

Forget classic chocolate chip cookies. Stevie Hall of Oceano would rather focus on “the oddballs.”

Cinnamon stars. Austrian nut bars. Russian tea cakes.

“I try to dream up something that’s a little different that’s going to shock the judges,” she explained. “You can only eat so many thumbprint cookies that have strawberry jam in them.”

A Central Coast native, Hall has been winning ribbons at the California Mid-State Fair for her delectable baked goods and preserves since age 18 or so.

She first learned to cook as a child, alternating meal duties with her six siblings. Later on, Hall turned to baking as a way to vent stress.

“Whenever I felt frustrated, I’d make bread and pound it to death,” the retired nurse recalled with a laugh.

These days, however, Hall focuses mostly on cookies and candies.

She spends about three weeks each July whipping up goodies such as white chocolate apricot fudge, tangerine biscotti and almond brown sugar shortbread -- making three to four batches each day. (Exhibitors have to enter six cookies, or a half-pound of candy, per class, she explained, but it helps to have extras.)

The 65-year-old never makes the same recipe twice, opting instead to try new varieties from her massive collection of cookbooks and magazines. She then scrawls the instructions on note cards.

Hall’s creativity and cooking skills have paid off in the form of “hundreds of ribbons” stashed in drawers and envelopes. Last year, she brought home $200 in prize money.

“It’s fun. It’s something that I can do and do well, so I enjoy doing it,” said Hall, who plans to enter 50 entries this year.

Hall’s friends and neighbors don’t seem to mind her delicious hobby. After all, they’re the ones who receive countless plates of cookies. “You can see why I married her, huh?” Hall’s husband, Gordon, asked with a chuckle.

-- Sarah Linn

Rebekah and Dylan Hahn

Paso Robles

Siblings Rebekah and Dylan Hahn have an assortment of ribbons they’ve won at the fair. But most of their success has involved cookie jars.

“They’ve never gotten anything but first place on the cookie jars,” said their mom, Teesha Hahn.

Entering arts and crafts shows at the fair has been a part of the family since Rebekah, now 13, was just 5. Each year, they work on projects during the school year – they’re both home schooled – knowing that they will eventually show the pieces at the fair.

“When you do art in school, you don’t really do much with it when you’re done,” said Rebekah, who hopes to one day become an actress and writer. “But this has a purpose when you’re done with it. So it’s kind of cool.”

In addition to art, the kids have exhibited food, succulents and science projects.

“I mostly like the science fair projects,” said Dylan, 10, who hopes to one day become an engineer.

That affinity for science clearly impacts his art, which includes a space-themed derby car.

Included in the Hahn collection of art are cookie jars modeled after the animated characters Jessie from “Toy Story 2” and Shrek, bird houses and cars. Competing in the open junior contests, which feature three age groups, their pieces have won Best of Show, first place and second place.While Teesha admits to not being especially artistically inclined, her mother and grandmother were.

“So it skipped a generation,” she said.

Still, she sees the value in art and encourages the kids to exhibit at the fair.

“I think you have to have a lot of courage to put that stuff out there,” she said. “I know I always had a fear of rejection. I always liked to write, but I didn’t want anyone to read my writing because I didn’t want anyone to reject my writing. And I think by putting it out there, if you get third place – whatever. It’s okay. It’s just good to get yourself out there.”

At the fair, the grandparents come check out their exhibits, then the kids are off to see other exhibits, including the animals at 4-H and other art projects.

“There are a lot of cookie jars at the fair,” Rebekah said.

- Pat Pemberton

Joe and Jill Sabol

San Luis Obispo

Joe and Jill Sabol are simply dotty about dahlias.

The San Luis Obispo couple started growing the popular perennial back in 2000. Today, the two are among the county’s most devoted dahlia fans -- entering dozens of entries in the California Mid-State’s annual cut flower competition and scooping up awards.

“Dahlias are so varied and so beautiful, we want people to see them,” Jill Sabol said. “It just seems like a shame not to show them.”

Joe Sabol took up dahlia growing when he retired after three decades teaching agricultural education at Cal Poly. (His wife worked as a library technician at local schools.)

Their one-acre property is packed with multi-petaled blooms in shades of lemon yellow, hot pink, magenta and chocolate brown. They range from “Double A” blossoms the size of dinner plates to compact pompons no larger than two inches in diameter.

The Sabols try out new varieties each year, buying bulbs from an Oregon nursery and rooted cuttings from a Corralitos supplier. Then comes planting, staking, watering and pruning.

Snipping off deadheads daily encourages the flowers to bloom, the Sabols explained.

According to the couple, common challenges include harsh weather and pests such as spotted cucumber beetles.

“These dahlias do not do well in 110 degrees,” Joe Sabol said, presenting a problem for North County growers dealing with heat waves. “They have to work a lot harder than we do.”

The final challenge comes the night before the fair when the Sabols must select, snip and box up their favorite blooms. The next morning, they load their flowers into two cars for the trip to Paso Robles.

Although they’re reluctant to share how many blue ribbons they’ve won, the Sabols said they earn enough $5 first-place prizes each year to pay for gas, fair admission and breakfast.

They’re just happy to share their floral fixation.

This year, the couple sponsored a “dahlia challenge” for members of the University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners. “It’s a wonderful way for the community to show off that flower,” Joe Sabol said.

-Sarah Linn

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