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1 | FAIR 2010
Most years at the Washington County Fair, Stacey Haney set up an animal salon outside her blue and white Coachman trailer. She and her younger sister, Shelly, would plug a blow-dryer into a generator and style their children’s goats in preparation for the 4-H competition. This year, the salon seemed too much effort, so Stacey readied the animals at home. She’d spent the past two days up to her armpits in a blue kiddie pool of freezing water and Mane ’n Tail soap washing, clipping, and brushing two goats, two pigs, and four rabbits. Then, that August morning, she’d hauled them ten miles to the fairgrounds.
After registering the rabbits, she proceeded to Cowley’s lemonade stand with her eleven-year-old daughter, Paige. Thirty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, the Washington County Fairground was composed of two worlds. The lower realm contained the Tilt-A-Whirl operated by strangers, roustabouts who arrived from elsewhere. (Stacey’s son, Harley, who’d just turned fourteen, called it Carnyland.) The upper belonged to 4-H and agriculture—“ag”—types, many of whom, including Stacey’s family, considered themselves Hoopies, an insider’s name for the hill jacks or hillbillies who live in the borderlands of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia where Appalachia begins.
These two worlds met midway up the ridge at Cowley’s, where Stacey and Paige were waiting for lemonade when they spied two familiar figures trundling downhill from the horse barn. The square woman with frosted hair and the spare man with a snowy mane and a limp were Beth and John Voyles. They lived next door at Justa Breeze, a fifteen-acre farm where they trained horses and bred high-end dogs. The two families shared a fence and a love of animals. Beth treated her boxers like children. She cooked them angel hair pasta, zucchini, and meatball sandwiches, and dressed them in tiny leather jackets, flight goggles, and scarves for professional photographs. She framed the photos and hung them around the ranch house where she’d lived with John for the past twenty-eight years.
Say what one might about the Voyles, over the past year and a half, they’d proven excellent neighbors. While Stacey, forty, juggled full-time shifts as a nurse in the recovery unit of Washington Hospital and finalized her divorce from Larry Haney, the Voyles kept a quiet eye on her place. Their daughter, Ashley, often brought her new boxer puppy, Cummins, down to distract Harley when he was sick at home. At twenty-two, Ashley still lived at home and raced horses professionally. She’d also been teaching Paige to ride since Paige was two.
As Beth and John approached, Stacey could see that mascara was running down Beth’s ruddy face. Stacey guessed it was the muggy heat; the air at the fair was redolent with popcorn and musk, which mingled with the scent of baby shampoo from the Mane ’n Tail lingering on Stacey’s arms. A rash blazed on Stacey’s left arm, where it had been erupting on and off for months. Although she was a nurse, she couldn’t determine its cause. She studied the welts, and when she looked up, Beth was in front of her, her face smeared with tears.
Cummins is dead, Beth said. Poisoned.
Stacey’s head swam. In her mind, she scanned the farmhouses and trailers that wended their way from the top of the valley where she and Beth lived down McAdams Road to the base of the hollow called the Bottoms. She knew nearly everyone. Many families were bound by generations of helping one another farm and, more recently, survive the economic collapse of the past several decades.
No one would poison a puppy, she told Beth gently. Beth thought otherwise. The vet had told her that Cummins’s insides had frozen up, she said, crystallized, as if he’d drunk antifreeze. The vet couldn’t rule out cancer, either, but Beth suspected foul play. She also thought she knew where the poison had come from: she’d seen the dog drinking from a puddle of water left on the roadside after a truck came through to spray down dust earlier that summer. Wondering what the liquid was, she’d tried to follow with a glass Mason jar, but the driver stopped. Screeching his air brake on the steep dirt hill, he yelled at her to back away.
Later, Beth and Stacey would mark this conversation about Cummins’s death as the beginning of solving a mystery. But at the time, Stacey was sweaty and distracted. Paige stood by, crunching the sugar at the bottom of her cup. Stacey hugged Beth and watched her continue down the hill with John toward the field of neon. She wanted to get back to the trailer to check on Harley. She dreaded telling him the news.
Harley loved Cummins, and he was so sick. Over the past year and a half, his stomach had churned with an undiagnosed illness. He’d missed most of seventh grade sitting at home in a recliner watching his dog, Hunter, play with Cummins on the living room floor. Harley had gone from being a shy and handsome basketball player who shambled easily through life to a listless stick figure. At six foot one, he was 127 pounds. A few days earlier, when Harley weighed his goat, Boots, for competition at the fair, she’d weighed nearly the same as her master.
Stacey hoped that this year’s 4-H competition would lift his spirits. She and Harley had ambitions for Boots. Instead of being skittish, as most goats are, Boots was friendly. Harley’d spent every day with her since he was home, which may have been why the brown and white Boer goat enjoyed people. When Harley went up to the Haneys’ ramshackle barn to feed her, Boots slung her hooves over the wooden pen to lick his face.
With Boots, Harley had a chance at winning a large prize, maybe Grand Champion Showmanship, Stacey thought. She loved the fair and spent most of the year preparing for it, phoning in to goat auctions through the winter and trying to make sure she got her kids the best goats and pigs she could for $150 to $200, which wasn’t a lot. Other people spent $600, and she’d heard of a family that paid $5,000 for a pig they hoped would win Grand Champion.
“Even if I could spend five thousand dollars on a pig, I wouldn’t,” she said. It was flashy and wrong, and went against the spirit of the 212-year-old fair, which had helped to pattern their family’s lives for three generations. Her father, Larry Hillberry, whom everyone called Pappy, grew up poor on a small dairy farm nearby. He’d attended but didn’t show animals. “We couldn’t afford to. We ate them all,” he told his grandchildren. Pappy was twenty when he went to work in the local steel mill and then left for Vietnam, returning two years later with feet too riddled with warts from wet combat boots to stand at the steel mill’s assembly line. Forced by the condition of his feet to take a few months away from the mill, he came courting at the fair. He played bingo, winning a set of blue-trimmed Corningware dishes for his soon-to-be bride, Linda. A year and a half later, on November 18, 1969, Stacey was born.
By the time Stacey and Shelly, a whip-smart hellion who came along two years later, were old enough to participate in 4-H, the steel mill where Pappy worked was shuttered. With Pappy out of work, the family scraped by. He took every odd job he could find, chopping wood and putting up hay, and Linda, along with a generation of Amity women, left the house to work as a housekeeper, but it still cost too much to let the girls show animals.
Stacey was thirteen when she went to work. She mucked stalls and sold ice cream at the family end of the bar in the Amity Tavern. As soon as she could drive, she got a job as a seamstress in a men’s store in the Washington Mall. At seventeen, Stacey graduated from high school and left home for good on a full scholarship to beauty school. It didn’t hurt that she was striking, with large blue eyes below a thicket of black lashes. At nineteen, she was married and cutting hair at Someplace Else Salon, where her elderly clients encouraged her to go back to school and join the throngs of young women entering the health care industry. This wasn’t just Stacey’s personal narrative; this was the story of the region. With steel gone and coal on its way out, communities were turning to “meds and eds,” hospitals and universities, now the largest employers. As a nurse, Stacey, in scrubs, would have a demanding but stable place in the sterile halls of a postindustrial landscape.
With two small kids, Stacey preferred cutting hair to the midnight shifts, but steady work as a nurse allowed her to give Harley and Paige the middle-class trappings her parents couldn’t afford, the fair first among them. Paige and Harley’d been showing at the fair since they could walk. At five, Harley won first place with his eggs. As the kids grew, their full involvement in country activities also marked a return to Stacey’s vision of her family’s history. She wanted farming to be once again a way of life rather than the expensive hobby it had become.
As the goat show began, Stacey stood by the ring’s steel railing and waited for Harley’s number to be called. She scanned the crowd. In front of the silver bleachers, filled with the usual shaggy-haired ag folk in Carhartt overalls and trucker hats, she spied a small group of clean-cut outsiders wearing blue polo shirts that read RANGE RESOURCES. They sat close to the ring in red plastic chairs. Stacey knew who they were: gas executives had recently arrived in the region with the shale gas boom.
Copyright © 2018 by Eliza Griswold