Union Democrat staff

The mercury is expected to rise into the high 90s Friday and hit the century mark Saturday and Sunday, so it must be time for the Mother Lode Fair.

Sure enough: Gates at the fairgrounds swing open at noon Friday for a sizzling three-day run. And that's a good thing.

The fair and hot, sunny weather go together like the event's traditional mascots, the old prospector and his donkey. The event's directors aren't going to fight it anymore.

Two years ago the Fair Board moved the Sonora festivities to late June, but the warm weather followed. So now, and into the foreseeable future, the fair has returned to its traditional July dates.

We wouldn't have it any other way: Midsummer is the perfect time for Tuolumne County's showcase event.

Scary carnival rides, topflight musicians and nonstop internal combustion action (motocross, truck pulls and the traditional Sunday night Destruction Derby) at the arena are only part of the show.

Add to this an array of deep-fried delights along the midway, a juggling fireater, a yodeler, storytellers, kids' pedal-tractor races, a cowgirl on stilts who does rope tricks, and a bunch of barkers who offer lifesize stuffed-panda prizes and promise you just can't lose.

Want real winners? Mosey over to the livestock barns (cooled by misters and fans), where 4Hers and FFA members show off cattle, sheep, goats and pigs they began raising months ago in hopes of winning a top bid at Saturday's rousing Junior Livestock Auction.

Hot under the collar? Try an ice-cold beer, a chilled lemonade, a snowcone or shake.

Or head over to the fish camp, where the California Department of Fish and Game invites youngsters 12 and younger to dip a line in cool water - and catch (then release) some 500 planted trout from the Moccasin hatchery.

Or catch hypnotist Barry Jones, who just might convince you it's 35 degrees out and have you shivering before his show is over.

Or step into one of the Mother Lode Fairgrounds air-conditioned exhibit buildings, where you can inspect the very best Tuolumne County has to offer.

How much of the very best? This year 717 exhibitors have produced 1,862 entries including photographs, paintings, preserves, needlepoint, quilts, dolls, baked goods, flower arrangements, chickens, rabbits, hogs and much more.

When it comes to community involvement, you can't beat the fair (This year's theme: "Catch Big Fun," with homage to angling). The midsummer celebration is backed by dozens of local sponsors.

On Saturday more than 100 generous bidders could pay close to $200,000 for cows, pigs and sheep raised by scores of Tuolumne County youngsters. And none of it could happen, swears longtime Fair Manager Jan Haydn-Myer, without a corps of more than 100 volunteers to keep things moving.

"It's about passion," said Haydn-Myer, as volunteer crew hung hundreds of prints shot by scores of inspired photographers in the Fairgrounds' Manzanita Building. "Passion in every direction."

And with that much passion, of course the Mother Lode Fair is going to be hot.

But here's what's cool about this year"s fair: It's cheaper. General admission has dropped from $15 to $8, and those over 62 will pay only $6.

The price of admission doesn't include rides, but if the white-knuckled daredevils among us go to the fair's office by 5 p.m. today, they can buy $10 passes good for a day of unlimited rides.

"I think people who come down here will be glad they did," said Haydn-Myer, who after 30 years with the fair and 12 as manager knows what's cool and what's hot.