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One summer afternoon in the small town of Cape Flattery, Ma and Pa Kettle prepare for the big summer fair. Ma hopes to win the bread- and jam-making contests to best her rival, neighbor Birdie Hicks, and to win enough money to send their daughter Rosie to college. Rosie comes home and informs her mother that college is too expensive, and that she has been trying to get a job but no one in town will employ her because they fear Pa, an inveterate "moocher," will "borrow" their goods. Pa overhears Rosie question why he is a failure, and Ma points out that any man who can support fifteen children without working is a success. Inspired by Rosie's words, Pa determines to acquire her tuition money by trying to get hit by a car in order to collect insurance, but succeeds only in causing a traffic jam. Walking home afterward, he sees Clem Johnson's old, plodding horse Emma and buys her by offering fifty percent of Ma's winnings in the fair contests. Friend and local merchant Billy Reed then approaches Pa to collect money Pa owes him, and when Billy shakes his tin of candy, Emma rears, prompting Clem to whisper to his friend Ed that Emma was once bitten by a rattlesnake and now starts whenever she hears rattling. At church that weekend, Clem's son Marvin is taken by Rosie's beauty. When the hoarse minister asks for someone to preach for him, Pa accidentally volunteers when his son's slingshot hits him. Pa delivers a moving sermon explaining that God would want everyone to work less and borrow more. Later, at the contest registration, Ma mistakenly signs up for the horse race instead of the jam competition. Ma's jam wins the contest, but she is disqualified when the judges see her entry form. As Pa and his Indian pals, Geoduck and Crowbar, attempt to train Emma for the race, Ma tries out her bread recipe inadvertently using cement powder Pa has poured into the flour jar, and is bewildered by the loaves' weightiness. When Geoduck and Crowbar send for an Indian medicine man to enliven Emma, the medicine man brings a good-luck rattle which, when shaken, sets Emma racing through town. Encouraged, Pa buys a harness from Billy in exchange for the other half of Ma's expected contest winnings. On the morning of the bread contest, Ma is completely dejected about her rock-hard bread and gives two loaves to Geoduck and Crowbar, who throw them into the horses' hay. She is slightly heartened to hear from Marvin that his father's horse, Peter J., is a champion that will almost certainly beat Birdie's entry, Dixie, and Ma spreads this news throughout the fair. When her bread, made this time with real flour, wins the contest, she credits the good-luck rattle and gives it to Pa for the race. She is frustrated but not surprised when first Billy and then Clem claim her entire winnings as their payment. As the whole town bets on Peter J., the horse eats the cement-laden loaf of bread in his hay and, by the next morning, is too sick to race. The townspeople hear of this and switch their bets to Dixie, but when the race begins, Pa shakes the rattle and Emma blazes her way to the front of the pack. In the stands, Billy explains to Ma that Emma winning will bankrupt the whole town, and she fashions a slingshot out of her garter and shoots a pebble at Emma, slowing her. Dixie wins, and although Pa is downhearted that Rosie's tuition has been lost, Billy thanks Ma. Soon after, however, the sheriff arrests Ma and Pa after he finds the cement loaves in the hay, and Birdie insists that Ma and Pa tried to fix the contest. Geoduck and Crowbar, and then Deputy Sam, try subtly to help Ma and Pa escape from the jail before Birdie raises a mob to attack them, but the Kettles are too naïve to realize that they are being helped. They remain in jail, fearing a hanging, until the sheriff calls for them to join him, Billy, Clem and Birdie. Billy explains that he has revealed Ma's act of generosity in allowing Dixie to win, and Birdie apologizes and gives Ma the prize money. Billy then informs them that he has sent a sample of Ma's jam to a grocer who now wants to carry a whole line of her preserves. Although Pa is still sad that he did not win the race, Ma explains that she could not let the townspeople lose their money, because then he would have no one from whom to borrow.