Gridley farmer Dick Cassady has been part of the brains behind the Butte County Fair for four decades
Dick Cassady, looking country-classy in a cowboy shirt and burgundy boots, glances around the Butte County Fair midway on opening night in search of what used to be his favorite ride: the hammerheads. They’re there, he sees, but they’ve been re-dubbed The Ranger.
The first time Cassady spent a day at the Butte County Fair, when he was just a little boy growing up in Gridley, the carnival and livestock were stuck in a park downtown. Later, after World War II, the fairgrounds were created. “There was a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round and some bumper cars,” remembers Cassady, now 73. “But nothing as exotic as these rides.”
Cassady, whose family grows rice and prunes, was reared in Gridley, about a half-mile from the fairgrounds. His father was, too. In 1961, Dick Cassady joined the Butte County Fair’s board of directors and didn’t resign until 37 years later.
Patricia Conkin, the fair manager, says that even though Cassady has technically retired from the board of directors, he’s still counted on to help bring it all together. “He loves the fair. It’s in his blood,” she says.
“I don’t have any official job,” Cassady says. The only time I’ll ever retire is when I can’t get up and put my boots on.”
During a walk through the grounds, several people recognize Cassady, from folks strolling by the food booths to the candy vendor in Farmers’ Hall. “Hey, Dick, how’s it going?” asks one. “Dick, where are the horses?” queries another.
“That’s the fun of being in the fair business. People are always friendly,” Cassady says. Melvin Richins, the current fair board president, claps him on the back. They went to school together.
It turns out that the night before, a Tuesday, Cassady was at the fair weighing hogs until 10 o’clock. “I’m just as busy as I would have been if were on the board,” he shrugs.
It was hogs, in fact, that first led the Cassadys to fairs.
Starting in 1939—the same year as the World’s Fair in New York, which he also attended—Cassady, his father and his older brother, Marvin, raised hogs and showed them all around the state. (Marvin Cassady is a director for the Silver Dollar Fair in Chico.)
“We’ve just been in fairs all of our lives,” Dick Cassady says.
“The origin of fairs was the betterment of livestock,” he explains. By exhibiting their hogs, the Cassadys gained a reputation for quality hogs, which they could then sell for breeding purposes. “It was fun for us, as kids, growing up in it,” he says. “We used to sleep right in the hog pens.”
When the price of gas and food was lower, he says, “a $15 first prize was quite a lot.” Then, “when the price of hogs went south, we got out of the business.”
(Cassady served in the Korean War, as a cook in the artillery. He went to the University of California at Davis for a year, “and then came home to farm.")
Nowadays, he says, it’s mostly children and teenagers showing and selling animals they’ve raised through 4-H and Future Farmers of America. That’s a good thing, teaching discipline and responsibility. “I always tell people, children won’t go astray with a livestock project,” he says. “We’re lucky up here in our area where we have ample space. I feel sorry for kids in the city.”
But it’s still the hogs that Cassady gravitates toward in the livestock area. “Pigs have changed styles since we were showing them,” he observes as 4-Hers lead their charges toward the judging area. “They wanted fat and lard on them, and now they want them lean.”
Cassady even met his wife, Jane, through the fair. He had been widowed and made friends with Jane as she owned a concession stand selling things like hot dogs and cotton candy.
Between them, they have eight children and 22 grandchildren.
The Cassady name is still big in Butte County farming. His son, Ralph, recently served as president of the Farm Bureau.
A walk through the fairgrounds turns out several incidences of the Cassady name: benches dedicated to family members and even the Cassady Arena.
“Oh.” Cassady looks up, modestly. “That’s named after me, for being on the board.”
In Farmers’ Hall, which doubles as the high-school gym and rests near the crop duster air strip, the top part of the walls are lined with agricultural and fair memorabilia. There are rice sacks and a couple of posters uncovered when an old building was torn down: “Butte County Northern California Rice Exposition Sept. 3-4-5-6, 1914.” There’s supposed to be a picture of Cassady’s parents’ old ranch, with a 20-mule team, but we can’t find it.
Cassady chairs the Biggs-West Gridley Water District. (He ran for election after disagreeing with growers who chose to sell part of their water allocation during the drought of the 1990s.) He’s also on the board of Red Top Rice Growers, a drying cooperative.
He is naturally concerned about the economic downturn farming has taken. “I’m not very optimistic, but we’ve had highs and lows before,” he says. “It’s not very encouraging to the younger generation, that’s for sure.
“Without my children, I probably wouldn’t be farming today. Without their help, it would be tough,” Cassady says. “Agriculture will turn around. It just takes a few years.”
That’s another goal of the fair: to educate people about agriculture and where their food comes from. “Most of the time, they think you go to Safeway and pick it up,” he says.
Even though his family got out of livestock long ago, Cassady still pays the licensing fees to keep up the brand displayed on his belt buckle: Rafter C Bar.
Cassady has no clue how many hours he’ll spend on the fair this year, but it’s been a second home to him. “It’s always exciting to come to fairs. You never know how it’s going to be until they open the doors and it all falls together.
“I always look forward to the cattlemen’s barbecue on Friday,” he says. “And corndogs are a very important cuisine.”
Cassady also reveals that he hasn’t given up his competitive streak: "A couple of years ago, I brought some jelly in. I didn’t win, but I got two thirds and a second."