When it comes to the Harvey County Free Fair, Newton's Billie Miller has had her hand in a lot of cookie jars (both literally and figuratively) helping with the annual event. For two-plus decades, Miller has volunteered her time organizing various exhibits, while she has been an exhibitor herself even longer (since the 1960s).
Growing up in Alaska, Miller noted things were a little different, as 4-H was more individualized. While she knitted sweaters and raised rabbits, it wasn't until she moved to Newton (to get married) in 1949 that she started to become more involved with the organization and, in turn, the local fair.
Exhibiting eventually turned to volunteering, as she helped when her daughters (two of her five children) became involved in 4-H, serving as a leader for beginner's sewing for eight years.
"It's kind of like driving a car. You can't just sit down and make a formal, you know," Miller said.
Helping children ages eight to 10 learn the basics of sewing, like how to use a machine and read patterns, evolved into helping some of the more experienced exhibitors. When her sister-in-law needed help in the baking portion of the fair, Miller was happy to lend a hand. Miller may have gotten roped into doing some public presentations in place of her sister-in-law (i.e. the donation of the commissioners' cookie jar), but she was willing to do whatever was needed helping the judges and exhibitors, too.
Miller was hooked and the avid gardener eventually got involved with the horticulture exhibits as well. After getting the certification to become a master gardener in 1993, she started volunteering her time as a superintendent, giving out ribbons, helping exhibitors set up their displays, entering them in the proper category and even tending to the displays and watering them if necessary, "to keep them healthy and alive, even though it was so hot."
"I enjoy it and just being able to serve other people and do something for someone else," Miller said.
After completing the 40 hours of certification to become a master gardner, Miller noted they are required to volunteer the same amount of time each year to keep that title current. Between the fair and other shows, helping with the shared garden previously and speaking around the community about gardening, she keeps pretty busy.
The 85-year-old Miller can't maintain the same pace she once did and will be cutting back on some of her responsibilities with the horticulture exhibit this year (though she will continue helping exhibitors get registered), but she can't quite quit the hobby she came to love at an early age.
"I always was interested in arranging flowers. When I was a little girl in Alaska, I can remember going out and picking wildflowers and arranging them carefully in a little corsage and giving them to my mother," Miller said.
While her parents were not involved in 4-H, Miller noted they encourage her and her sister in those areas. Growing up with a greenhouse in Alaska also encouraged that interest in horticulture and she looked forward to having her own garden when she moved to Newton, quickly adapting and learning the difference in climates after her first attempts to grow vegetables starting in June did not fare well.
On top of her gardening, which she keeps up as much as possible tending to some orchids and begonias, Miller worked at Designs by John for several years. Another hobby of hers, painting, also tends to focus on horticulture, as she noted flowers are one of her favorite things to paint.
Volunteering doesn't stop at the fair for Miller, either, as she is active at her church and also works as a receptionist at Grand Central twice a week, sings in the Golden Notes choir and helps make breakfast at the center sometimes as well.
"I've just always been involved with stuff," Miller said. "I love people and I figure, you know, if I can help somebody else...I just enjoy doing it."
Being involved in the fair is something Miller has taken joy in for a number of years now, and she will continue to do so this year, as she said she plans to have entries in the cooking, knitting and photography categories and encourages anyone who can to get involved.
"To me, that's one of the most important things is to come enjoy the fair and to bring things to show. It isn't a fair without people bringing their things," Miller said. "If they participate, they'll enjoy it more, too, and be inclined to encourage others."
Fair activities started Friday and will continue through Aug. 9. For more information, visit www.harveycountyfair.com.