I could hear him whisper to his calf on the breeze as I walked through the gates of the North Carolina State Fair in mid-October: Past the sights of the neon lights, the smells of food and the motion of the rides, the call and the pull of interaction between a boy and his project. In a reassuring way, a fair still matters, but like all good things, it takes some walking and listening.

Take a right or go straight inside the gate and you'll hit the midway: Parents pushing their kids in strollers; teenagers giggling among themselves; a little girl exercising independence of walking on her own.

I figuratively and literally kept walking this year, past the games and past the rides.

First stop was the tent highlighting exhibits from county agricultural fairs throughout North Carolina.

One entry told the story of Rudolph Ellis of Cumberland County. An entrepreneur in his teens, Ellis literally turned the on-farm economy around for his parents. When faced with low prices from his family's peanut crop, he developed a roasting machine as a 4-H project. The proceeds from the sale of roasted peanuts allowed him to purchase land and build a house for his parents.

Another entry, from Caswell County, told the story of a curing process that now shares its name with a type of tobacco. Abisha Slade perfected a process for curing yellow tobacco based on a discovery from his slave, Stephen, in the 1800s. All the exhibits caught my eye. Ones from Wilson, Wayne and Pitt counties come to mind.

Several lanes will take you through the fair. I chose the straight lane, observing as I walked. Trust me, I knew where I was going before I came in the gates. I'm just along for the feeling of fall in the air, despite the threat of rain in the sky.

Past the food wafting on the air, past the rides swirling in the air, I'm walking like a mule that sees the end of the row as the sun goes down. While I'm walking, I'm grinning. I'm remembering the hours and hours of smelling jam cooking in my mother's kitchen, the popping sound of jars of green beans sealing during the night, and the blue-ribbons from the county fair.

While this fair has a serious link to agriculture, it also has made contributions outside of agriculture. Dorton Arena on the grounds at the State Fair was first built to serve agriculture, industry and commerce. It was officially dubbed the “Cow Palace” when it opened in 1952.

The arena boasts the first permanent use of a cable-supported roof system in the world. The design gained an international reputation for using parabolic arches, a concave roof and suspension cables — a design used in sports complexes.

This is the granddaddy of an innovative architectural style. Take your cap off as you walk past, please.

Past the water fall at the front of Dorton Arena is the Jim Graham Building. Here's where I've intended to go all along. They probably put this building at the back of the lot to make the wait worth my while.

I wasn't disappointed. There's something about the smell of livestock. It's the same with the feel of grains and cotton and the smell of tobacco. Believe it or not, there's a cleanliness about the smell of livestock manure — from a distance. The smell clears your mind. The smell brought back memories of using bits of dried cow patties for fish bait when the worms ran out down at South Sauty Creek.

Past the stands, toward the back of the Graham Building — just right before you get to area where the livestock participants lodge their animals — I found what I was looking for.

He was the last in the line, preparing his Ayrshire calf for competition. Dressed in a white shirt and black jeans, the number 113 strapped across his back, Eric Corriher of China Grove, N.C., prepares his project for competition. He strokes the back of his calf and checks her ears.

During a lull, Little Lou nudges her leader, almost laying her head on the 6th grader's shoulder. Eric messes with Little Lou's ear the way you'd check the necktie of your youngest son. Both calf and tender are young and learning. Eric's acquainted with his charge like he would be with a playmate. Little Lou seems to know Eric, too. The calf has that half jesting, half serious look on her face as Eric leads her.

As I walk away, I'm smiling. This is what the fair is all about.