Why sheep shearing is more than a novelty at the DuPage County Fair
If you're looking for a thrill at the DuPage County Fair, grab a front-row seat on a straw bale and watch Amanda Manley demonstrate a rare skill around these parts.
Not to be outdone by the bronco-riding cowboys at the fair's rodeo, Manley can command an audience both young and old. And all she needs are electric clippers and an assertive attitude.
Manley is showing crowds how to shave the wool off sheep three times a day during the fair's five-day run that opened Wednesday and continues through Sunday in Wheaton. Organizers advertise her performance as "sheepshearing demonstrations," but that doesn't quite capture her riveting show.
Manley is dealing with a fussy, loud animal, and she's also using a tool with vibrating, sharp blades. What could possibly go wrong?
"Nothing is ever perfect, so there's always a chance that something will go wrong, but we do everything we can to prevent against it," Manley said.
It took "years of practice" for Manley to perfect sheep shearing. And it clearly paid off when she gave her first demonstration a few hours after the fair opened Wednesday morning.
With a steady hand, she worked quickly giving a young Cheviot lamb its first buzz-cut in the fair's "Ag-Ventureland" tent.
"I'm going to tip him up on his rump," Manley told her audience. "This way he can't move, and I can give him a good haircut."
Beyond the haircut, Manley educates crowds with some little-known tidbits about wool -- it doesn't burn; it singes -- and the sheep herd.
"Now they will shun the one that is sheared," she said. "And later today, there will be two shorn and one that isn't, and they will shun the one that is not sheared because it's different. It happens every time."
Though her audience is far-removed from the farm, it's not just a novelty to see Manley at work. She represents a new generation trying to preserve a 63-year-old tradition at the Wheaton fairgrounds.
"We need new people, new interest, a younger generation to help us with some of the planning and some of the future," said Jim McGuire, manager of the nonprofit DuPage County Fair Association.
Manley's connections to the fair run deep. She has fond memories of summers showing animals as a representative of the Whirlybirds, a Carol Stream 4-H club she joined at 14.
But this is only Manley's second year giving demonstrations after the retirement of the fair's longtime sheep shearer, Harold Davis, who stepped down from the gig two years ago when he was well into his 80s.
Turns out sheep shearing is such a small world that Davis himself trained Manley when she was 18.
As a volunteer at Kline Creek Farm near West Chicago, Manley heard about a class Davis was teaching in Macomb. She was his only left-handed student.
"So everything's backward," said Manley, who grew up in the Glen Ellyn Countryside neighborhood. "You had to mirror image it and shear backward."
It was no easy task, but Manley credits 4-H for instilling her work ethic and dedication.
"You have to be willing to follow things through. You have to be willing to keep going when things get hard," she says of the lessons learned from caring for 4-H animals. "Their needs come before your own needs."
It's a philosophy that she carried into her career. She's now a dairy goat herd manager at Langston University's Goat Research Center in Oklahoma. She's also working toward her master's degree in ruminant nutrition.
She hopes to inspire her younger followers at the fair, reminding them they don't have to grow up with a family of farmers -- Manley didn't -- to work in the industry.
"Keeping the fair going, giving people a chance to come in contact with agriculture and learn where their food comes from, how their food is grown is very important," she said.
She's so devoted to the county fair that she travels from Oklahoma to Wheaton and doesn't perform anywhere else. And in honor of her predecessor, Davis, she follows his simple advice when choosing which sheep to shear:
"Pick the small ones," she said laughing.
If you goWhat: DuPage County Fair
When: Continues 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday
Where: DuPage County Fairgrounds, 2015 Manchester Road, Wheaton
Admission: $10 for adults, $5 for seniors; $4 for kids, ages 3 to 12, and free for kids ages 2 and younger and military personnel with an ID.
Info: (630) 668-6636 or Dupagecountyfair.org