Sue Griffiths says she remembers the first-time she showed a horse at the Mother Lode Fair 55 years ago like it was yesterday.
She was a hopeful 11-year-old at the time, showing what she then considered to be her Seabiscuit, but now jokes that it was one of the “ugliest.”
“I went out there and placed dead last, but it didn’t bother me, it was the greatest thing in the world,” she said. “My horse got a ribbon and that’s all that mattered.”
The fair, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has changed considerably since that time. Gone are the three-day horse shows and rodeos, and in their place are destruction derby and motocross, but the 66-year-old Griffiths keeps coming back.
Griffiths was born at Columbia Way Hospital, the daughter of Esther and Lee Allison.
She grew up in what she described as somewhat of a “bohemian” household. Her father was a coal miner and her mother an artist who also raised drop calves.
“She was the cattle queen,” Griffiths said of her mother. “One year my mom raised enough to pay the taxes, buy a new car and furniture for the house. She worked real hard.”
Griffiths’ parents split up when she was young and it was her mother that fostered her various interests in showing horses, barrel racing and raising livestock.
She fondly recalls the years helping her family haul their livestock to the fair, along with her mother’s various art exhibits that included paintings and sculptures.
“Oh what a mess that was,” she said. “Trying to get that set up and the livestock was always an adventure.”
She married her husband, Bob, when she was 20 years old and a year later moved into the home on Dane Lane where she still resides. They had three children, Roxanne, Robin and Tom, but have since divorced.
Griffiths said she worked a number of different jobs throughout the years, including a horse-riding instructor and PG&E employee, to help pay the bills and “support her habit” for showing horses.
She said her family would be on the road nearly every week at various equestrian events throughout the state from early summer to November, meeting trainers and breeders from all over the world.
The family would bring back the lessons they learned during their travels, but Griffiths said she probably would have never had those opportunities if it weren’t for her beginnings at the Mother Lode Fair.
“This is what started it all for us. Without it, we wouldn’t have gotten out of our own shoes,” she said.
Griffiths became involved with 4-H about 35 years ago and passed along her enthusiasm for competition to her children. Her children all took to raising different livestock.
“Roxanne had horses, Robin had sheep and Tom had cattle and goats,” she said.
One year, her eldest daughter Roxanne took home top honors at the fair for a three-foot-tall pony named The Bionic Peanut. Her other children also won various titles for their livestock throughout the years.
“It’s just amazing when you see your kids do these things and really achieve something,” she said.
Griffiths describes raising prized livestock as less of a hobby and more of a lifestyle. She said the family in some years made enough money off it alone to pay all of their bills.
The family has since stopped showing their animals at the fair, but Griffiths remains involved as a volunteer 4-H Club Leader assisting a younger generation with animal showing and other projects.
Her kids have moved on to other endeavors as well. Robin works as an agriculture teacher in Atwater and Roxanne at Tuolumne County Animal Control.
Roxanne’s son, Dennis Parks Griffiths, was the last in the family to show animals at the fair five years ago, and he recently joined the Air Force.
Griffiths’ son, Tom, is an aspiring graphic artist and has his own property now on Dane Lane where he also raises sheep. He said they have a close family, and has always admired his mother’s strong work ethic.
“She has always done everything,” Tom said. “She’s got the attitude that you don’t just quit, you put in the work and do what you have to do to be the best.”
Griffiths will attend the Mother Lode Fair for the 59th time in her life this year, assisting the kids she oversees in 4-H.
She said she’s concerned about the future of the fairgrounds, which is on a list of 29 California fairs in danger because of budget cuts, but is confident it will continue on the strength of volunteers and people like her who have supported it all of their lives.
“We need to join hands and we will make it work,” she said. “There’s nothing like a county fair.”