The six Culver kids start planning their Burnet County Area Fair projects months before the summer event, which is set for June 4-5 this year. They study each year’s list of divisions and categories and circle the ones in which they are interested: one eye on doing something they’ve never tried before and another on returning with their tried-and-true favorites, their jams and jellies. Even those, however, can take an unexpected turn.
“They did a jalapeño fig one year,” mother Jessica Culver said. “And a rose jelly, too.”
All homeschooled, the Culver clan is named in the order of the alphabet from oldest to youngest: Addison (known as “Big A” to his friends), 16; Bryson, 15; Carson, 14; Davidson, 12; Evelynne, 10; and Francene, 7. Dad Adam also works from home, a large one-story house with land for animals and gardens in a subdivision by Inks Lake west of Burnet.
“These two are taking over as our gardeners,” said Jessica, pointing toCarson and Davidson.
“It’s fun to work out in the garden,” said Carson, who perks up with a smile at any mention of horticulture.
The task is especially satisfying when you take what you’ve grown and preserve it, Davidson added. He enjoys experimenting with different flavors and recipes for the canned goods, which include pickles and relishes.
“There’s a few times when you taste something and it turns out perfect,” Bryson said. “That’s really exciting. It’s fulfilling to know you made something really good.”
Not all of their fair entries are food. Addison made an industrial apron of waxed canvas and leather one year that any blacksmith would be proud to wear. He won a blue ribbon. The five oldest children made aprons that year, while the youngest made a bag.
“You don’t think of sewing as a guy’s thing, but they actually enjoyed using the sewing machine — it is a machine,” Jessica said. “You press the peddle, it goes fast. It’s dangerous. You can get stuck by a needle. They loved it.”
Art is another favorite. The girls have excelled in both button and patriotic art. Francene, the youngest, dipped her fingertips in green and blue acrylics to create an amazing bluebonnet painting that won a ribbon one year. Bryson built a barbed-wire tornado sculpture that someone offered to buy after it won first place. Mom wanted to display it at home, however, “out by the ponies,” where it was recently run over by a tractor.
Most of what they produce is practical.
Patriotic items, such as table decorations and serving trays, are Francene’s speciality. She has won every year in that category. Whatever she makes, she uses at an annual dinner for veterans sponsored by the Culvers’ church, Chapel of the Hills in Buchanan Dam.
“I’ve won Patriotic twice,” she said, which means this would have been when she was 4 and 5 years old since the fair was canceled last year when she was 6.
Mom usually has some input on project decisions.
“Sometimes, I put things on the list I would like,” Jessica said. “One year, I put a chair on the list. Addison made a chair. One year, it was a picnic bench.”
Both items are now in use on the back porch.
Jam and jellies remain the most popular because of the creativity involved in developing the flavors. Addison’s award winner is his Midnight Blueberry Delight. He passed on the recipe — complete with cooking lessons — to Evelynne.
“When we make that one, we don’t use any pectin,” Evelynne said. “We cook it slow and long, without a lot of sugar, so it’s really just thickened blueberries.”
Davidson, the overall jam champion in the family, created Sugar Plum Fairies plum jam. He mixes the fruit with Christmas spices like cloves and cinnamon for a holiday-themed treat that never fails to impress the judges.
Satisfaction is not all tied up in ribbons.
“I just like experimenting with Mom on flavors and recipes,” Davidson said. “I’m happy when I get an award, but it’s just fun. You get to experience how to make stuff, and it’s not too much work.”
They especially love to experiment with figs, of which they have plenty from their own enormous tree. Figs and strawberries, which are picked at Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls, are frozen each spring for the next year’s jam making.
Because the 2020 fair was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, they set aside a few jars of tomato jam and Bam, Bam, Blackberry Jam, Davidson’s prize-winning creation, for this year. While Davidson is commonly believed to be the top prize-winning Culver, no one’s really sure. They win so many awards, including coveted championships, that they can’t remember from year to year who won what.
Having the most wins has not necessarily made Davidson the most competitive — or so he claims.
“Oh, yes, he is!” the rest chimed in when he demurred.
“That’s why he has first pick on the jam he wants to do each year,” Jessica said.
The girls might have the upper hand in that coveted category this year. Grandparents Diane and Bob Culver, who live across the road, found a sweet sale on raspberries at H-E-B in early April. Evelynne and Francene have been busy learning new canning techniques, including how to strain seeds from the fruit for a smoother, more palatable final product.
Carson and Davidson have been distracted by a new project. An experimental homemade incubator successfully hatched a few chickens and turkeys they are now raising. That led to building a bigger, better incubator to increase production. The entire enterprise could end up as an entry in one of the five Storyboard categories.
“I expect they’ll find a way to make it a project for the fair,” Jessica said.
Of course, there’s always the junior livestock show next January.
The Burnet County Area Fair is June 4-5 in the Burnet County AgriLife Auditorium, 607 N. Vandeveer St. in Burnet.