Janet Sprute drove tractor and baked cakes from scratch while growing up on her family’s 100-acre grain farm between Moscow and Genesee.
That might not seem remarkable until she relates the part about doing both tasks by the age of 8.
“There were always things to do, and I was Dad’s tomboy,” Sprute said this week while taking a break from preparing for the Nez Perce County Fair, which begins today. “He taught me to drive the crawler tractor, and we were scraping manure around the barnyard, so I was driving slow. But I loved it.”
When Frank Sprenger wasn’t showing her the ropes of outdoor farm work, her mother, Helen Sprenger, was indoors giving her baking lessons. Helen wasn’t too fond of the oven, so Janet was soon in charge of putting bread, cakes, muffins and biscuits on the family table.
That affinity for baking continues to this day for the 78-year-old Sprute. More importantly, it led to her long association with county fairs, first as a regular entrant and eventually as a member of the Nez Perce County Fair Board of Directors. She’s still on the board after 25 years, making her the longest-serving member in its history and providing a fitting accent to the fair’s 75th anniversary Diamond Jubilee.
“I didn’t realize it was 25 years until (fair Secretary Jan Alldredge) said something to me yesterday,” Sprute said. “I’ve always enjoyed fair things, and coming to the fair. When I saw there was an opening, I decided to apply.”
Sprute has relished her duties in setting fair policy and procedure over that quarter-century, even serving as the board chairwoman for the last several years until Gwen Heitstuman took the reins. She gained a reputation as an organized, tough-but-fair leader who ran a tight ship, qualities learned all those years ago on the farm and while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in home economics from the University of Idaho.
Those qualifications landed her jobs in the university’s extension offices in the 1960s and 1970s, first in Kootenai County and then at Lapwai. She had to quit the Lapwai position after hurting her back while lifting a typewriter, but Sprute was far from idle. Her minor in business led her to tax work, first preparing returns for H&R Block customers, then a position with the IRS for a few years. After that, Sprute did tax prep on her own for 30 years.
Even though Sprute grew up in Latah County and started her association with fairs in Moscow, one of her first experiences with the Nez Perce County Fair came back in 1962 when she was an extension trainee between her junior and senior years at the UI. She learned about how fairs work, and how they are judged. But she also detected a certain level of disarray.
“It wasn’t nearly as organized as it is now,” she said. “You needed a tool, you had to hunt down the manager. He knew where the hammer was, and what we needed.”
One item that illustrates Sprute’s commitment to organization hangs around her waist while she’s on duty at the fairgrounds pavilion. The repurposed nylon belt hung with deep canvas pockets comes in handy to corral all the items required to keep things in shipshape.
“It’s kind of funny looking, but I have everything I need,” she said. “Phone, pen, paper, program, Kleenex, you know. It’s a garden belt, but it works for this.”
And she’s not only committed to order, but making the most out of a given set of circumstances. A prime example is the General Electric double-oven range she won as a finalist for the 1958 Pillsbury Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest, now known as the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Her recipe for coffee cake that Pillsbury renamed “Royal Dutch Kuchen” earned her the honor.
Sprute chuckled when talking about having to get a local repair shop to occasionally rewire the burners.
“They said I cleaned it too much.”
And she’ll use the durable appliance to whip up a batch of sourdough bread when husband Tom Sprute gets a hankering.
“I’m still cooking on it today,” she said of the electric appliance that has stayed with her through several homes and 55 years of marriage. “We moved it into the rental house a month after we were married and it’s been cooking supper ever since.”
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.
If you go
What: 75th annual Nez Perce County Fair
Where: Fairgrounds, 1229 Burrell Ave., Lewiston
When: Today 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Mark Chesnutt concert at 6 p.m.)
Admission: General (ages 13-59) $8, children 6-12 $5, 5 and younger free, seniors $6, per day. Four-day passes are also available. See npcfair.org for details.