This story ran in the July/August 2008 issue of The Iowan
Anatomy of a County Fair
The Inner Workings of Adair County’s Summer Showcase
Story by Terri Queck-Matzie, photography by Larry Reynolds, Stone’s Throwe Photography
Hot, sweaty days. Warm, balmy nights. The smell of manure mixed with diesel fuel. Kids with cotton-candy faces, teens in 4-H t-shirts, and old men napping beneath a shade tree. For more than a century, the Iowa summer landscape has been dotted with a welcome warm-weather tradition — the county fair.
There are 106 county, community, and regional fairs in the state, each claiming its own summertime ritual. The fairs are as old as Iowa itself — and as much a part of its history and culture as prairie grass, pigs, and corn. They offer a showcase for the latest agricultural advancements, a venue for the community to touch base with its rural roots, and an opportunity for youth to grow and learn.
From the Bottom Up
The Adair County Fair, held over four days at the end of July at the fairgrounds just outside Greenfield, dates back to 1892. In its early days, it was a place for farmers to gather, compare, compete, and explore. The fair was designed by its founders as an event with a mission: “the improvement of stock, agriculture, horticulture, mechanic arts, rural and domestic arts and everything relative there to.” In the 116 years since, the fair has produced a myriad of blue-ribbon winners and a mountain of memories.
For Dr. Deb Hall, Adair County ISU Extension Director, the fair experience means watching families work together, with siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles offering a helping hand and a word of encouragement. “The fair is seeing our many, many volunteers make strong connections with kids and seeing youth take on leadership roles, including partnering with adults to plan and carry out activities.”
Hall is a self-proclaimed fair lover. That’s probably a good thing since her entire office packs up shop and moves from the Extension office in downtown Greenfield to the fairgrounds for the duration of the summer event. From a room in the 4-H & FFA Exhibit Hall packed with trophies, laptop computers, and samples of food entries, she and her staff coordinate events and awards and record and distribute results — all with a smile and a snow cone in hand.
The Extension staff works throughout the year with 4-H youth, teaching them how to be a vital part of the community and a vital part of the ag scene. But fair time is show time. The temporary office is a blur of activity. Kids are in and out asking questions and double-checking details. Older youth help coordinate events. Younger kids feel their way through the maze of project specifications and schedules.
Public recognition, and the community support it helps create, is an important part of the picture, and Hall’s operation is nothing if not press-friendly. Award winner photos are prescheduled with local newspapers and all exhibit results are recorded onsite and emailed to papers for publication in special fair sections.
“The fair was the absolute highlight of my summer as a kid, and I still look forward to it every year,” says Hall.
So do many in the army of volunteers that makes the fair world go ’round in what appears to the outside observer to be a seamless operation. 4-H clubs paint and preen everything from fences to the horse arena in the months and weeks leading up to the fair.
Yearlong projects focus on major improvements, such as raising money to upgrade the horse facilities. Every club takes its turn cleaning up the grandstand after each evening’s event and working the concession stand near the beef show ring.
Betty Schultz runs the flower show, jockeying first-place lilies against red-ribbon mums for table space as each is meticulously assessed for color, style and quality. Sylvia Carr and Helen Herr oversee the judging and display of items in the 4-H & FFA Exhibit Hall, a job they have performed for so many years they have been inducted into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame.
Opening day of the fair is for them a blur of activity as more than 1,000 exhibits — ranging from dinner rolls to photographs to a diorama depicting farm safety — are checked in and arranged. There are judges to coordinate, kids to direct, schedules to keep, and innumerable questions to answer, often simultaneously.
Entries judged worthy of State Fair competition are moved to a separate room. Others, tagged with the appropriate ribbon, are displayed in a space designated for each 4-H club. By the time evening visitors pass through the gates, the hall is organized and ready for viewing.
Denna Mitchell has organized the Little Miss contest for eight years. It’s a job that involves precontest publicity, recruiting volunteer judges, registering contestants, scheduling interviews, and lining up 26 perfectly coiffed little girls between the ages of 5 and 8 on opening night of the fair.
“I enjoy talking with the little girls and seeing them all dressed up and their smiles when they get a corsage,” says Mitchell of her nonmonetary rewards. “It’s also fun to hear stories from the judges of some of their answers to our questions. They all deserve to win.”
For older exhibitors, the competition is real and the effort is ongoing. Project planning begins months in advance, as does the volunteer support.
Local cattlemen appear on the fairgrounds at the end of December, on what is by tradition the coldest day of the year, to weigh in calves, verifying each animal for exhibit, and mark its official “starting” weight. In the modern age, that task includes nose printing and DNA sampling, along with the traditional battle against a fierce north wind and snowflakes.
At the heart of the show is the fair board — a study in committee structure, with representatives from all parts of the county — whose 26 members contribute more volunteer hours than Fair Secretary Brenda Meisenheimer can count. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin compiling those statistics,” she says. She and her husband, Jerry, who takes care of year-round grounds maintenance, are the fair’s only paid employees, raking in a whopping $11,000 per year for their efforts.
The fair board, via its 37 separate committees, must orchestrate what is for them a yearlong event. No detail is too small to deserve attention. Whether to buy new tables for the exhibition hall is just as vital to the overall success of the operation as how hot it has to be before livestock can be released early or where to shelter 5,000 people in the event of a tornado. There are hand-washing stations to install to reduce exposure to E. coli and security to provide for quilts in the quilt show.
Monthly meetings throughout the year are peppered with discussions of finance, contracts, rules, and timetables, as well as with the organization of a multitude of volunteers. Earthmovers must be retained to prepare dirt tracks for mud bogs and tractor pulls.
Qualified groups must be found to man concession stands and carnival rides on a profit-sharing basis. Community members’ offers for assistance and improvements must be screened; someone wants to organize a Senior Citizens’ Day; someone else wants to plant a memorial flower garden.
This committed force of ordinary citizens — with an affinity for the fair and the youth of the community — must decide if only the Varied Industries building should be rewired this year or if the campgrounds should be upgraded as well. Should they allow a 4-H club to apply for a grant to add showers to one of the restroom facilities? Will they have to upgrade water service if they do?
Every detail of every rule and schedule in the 111-page Fair Book, the Bible for fair exhibitors that spells out criteria for the more than 200 exhibition classes, must be reviewed annually. Posters need to be designed and printed, and ads placed in local newspapers and radio.
Judges are hired. Entertainment contracts are signed. Bills are approved and paid. County money is requested. Work days are scheduled. Even major building repairs are identified — and often made — by fair board members.
Come fair time, board members become a nearly invisible army, trouble-shooting with expertise and attending to every on-the-spot detail. Periodically one can be seen coming or going from the secretary’s office, aka Fair Headquarters, on a four-wheeled Gator.
The small white building near the center of the fairgrounds is home-away-from-home for fair board members, with Meisenheimer adding information officer and dispatcher to her duties. A call from the exhibit hall sends board members to check out the sound system. Word from members working the front gate, reporting a backup in incoming traffic prior to the demolition derby, sends an entire second crew to open another incoming line.
Between Grandstand events, many of the worker bees can be found rebuilding the “track” as men driving Cats and moving barricades transform the site from a tractor pull stage to a rodeo ring.
The work of the fair board doesn’t end with the closing day of the fair. Board members work closely with the 4-H Youth Action Committee as participants assess each year’s fair and offer suggestions for improvements ranging from livestock exhibit policies to water hydrant upgrades. With action items in hand, volunteers begin the process all over again.
Memories Aren’t Cheap
It costs around $80,000 a year to put on the Adair County Fair. Add to that another $20,000 annually in ongoing expenses — insurance, salaries, utilities, and grounds maintenance — and the tab easily runs six figures.
The largest piece of the fair pie goes for entertainment; the Adair County Fair spends around $20,000 each year on Grandstand shows. The featured entertainment at the 1892 Adair County Fair was a balloon ascension and parachute descent by Prof. H.W. Williams of Michigan. The 2008 fair will feature Motokazie Supercross, Mud Bog races, a tractor pull, and a demolition derby — an annual favorite.
Entertainment options are previewed and chosen at the Iowa State Association of Fairs Conference and Annual Meeting held in Des Moines each December, an all-out convention/trade show where local fair boards come to pick their next summer’s offerings.
Carnival rides are booked early in the fall. With nearly all of the state’s fairs held during July and early August, calendar competition is tough. A cluster of six to seven rides costs the fair board $3,000 a year. They will recoup some of that expense through a profit-sharing arrangement with the school volunteers who man the rides.
The Iowa State Fair Association provides around $10,000 a year for every fair that participates in midyear conferences and meetings. Another $15,000 comes from the Adair County Board of Supervisors. Around $60,000 comes back to the fair board in fair income gained from gate receipts, parking fees, vendor rentals, and concessions.
More than 18,000 people passed through the gates of the Adair County Fair last year, seven times the population of host town Greenfield. That’s a lot of people coming, going, buying gas, groceries, and maybe even taking time to check out other attractions and shopping centers. Some 2.5 million attend Iowa fairs annually, creating a $200 million economic impact.
To supplement its coffers, the Adair County Fair Board holds off-season events like Mud Bog races and rents the 4-H & FFA Exhibit Hall for meetings and receptions, generating around $25,000 additional income. Donations and sponsorships, averaging slightly less than $25,000 each year, make up a fairly large chunk of revenue — underlining the need for community involvement.
Few of such details are on the minds of fair exhibitors. For them, the last week of July is about packing the needed gear to take care of livestock onsite, perfecting that brownie recipe, applying the last coat of varnish, and getting the framing on a photo just right.
Nor is the complex preparation on the minds of fairgoers, who will appear like clockwork to view the exhibits, see a Grandstand show, have a piece of homemade pie at an old-fashioned ice cream social, and visit with friends and neighbors.
Despite his awareness of the deeper implications of the fair, it’s the romance and camaraderie of the annual ritual that keeps bringing the Beef Show’s Lents back every July. “I’ve met so many people through the years,” he says, “old men, now, who were my mentors; young people who think I’m theirs. Those are valuable relationships.”
And that’s all most people need. There are old friends to see and new friends to meet. And a corn dog or two to taste. It’s fair time in Iowa. Let the fun begin and the memories continue.
From Cattle to Cake
“When I think of the fair, it evokes memories of showing dairy calves in 4-H competition,” says Iowa Farm Bureau Region 19 manager Guy Powell.
It’s a common memory. 4-H was added to the Adair County Fair lineup in the 1920s and has been an integral part of the event ever since with livestock exhibits mirroring trends in the agriculture economy. Adair County, population just under 8,000, has one of the highest rates of 4-H participation in the state. During the 2007 fair, 350 individual exhibitors showed 1,863 exhibits.
The youth emphasis is mirrored statewide, with today’s county fairs showcasing the wide-ranging talents of communities’ younger residents. “Today it’s great to see young people congregate at county fairs with all kinds of projects — from photography to cakes,” says Powell.
Adair County ISU Extension Director Deb Hall has also witnessed the expanding realm of talent and skill.
“In the ‘70s, exhibits in the 4-H building usually consisted of cooking, sewing, and refinishing. My friend Carol and I used to give our educational presentation to anyone who would sit still and listen, and the hay baling crew tried out my brownies on a regular basis,” recalls Hall, pointing out today’s diverse fair exhibits showcasing photography, welding, community service, and more.
“I am always awed with the incredible skills that our youth exhibitors have mastered in a wide range of areas, from taking a fabulous photo with just the right lighting to caring for an animal the entire year so it will be the right weight at the fair and look its absolute best when it goes into the ring.”
For Beth Baudler, the fair is packed with excitement and opportunity. And hard work. Baudler is a 14-year fair veteran who has exhibited everything from beef cattle to family genealogy. She has planted flower gardens, taken photos, created animal science displays, baked pies and angel food cakes, and created working exhibits with her brother.
The preparations last all year. The benefits last a lifetime. “The networking, the communication skills, the leadership opportunities — they’re all things that made me more confident,” says Baudler, who topped off her fair career by being crowned 2007 Adair County Fair Queen before heading off to Iowa State University to major in animal science. “And that confidence helped me to seek more opportunities.”
Ralph Lents of Menlo, one of the superintendents for the fair’s Beef Show, highlights the exposure to agriculture careers that could fuel Iowa’s future workforce. “Participation in fairs teaches kids skills they need to go to college and get out on their own, like responsibility and communication skills.”
Lents has plenty of fair experience on which to base his opinions. He lays claim to 48 years of involvement in the Adair County and other fairs and has served on the Adair County, Adams County, and State Extension Councils. The fair’s impact, he says, is wide-reaching. “It’s good for kids, ag, and the whole county.”
A Forum for the Big Picture
The Adair County Cattlemen’s Association raises money each year through a trophy auction where bidders lay claim to sponsorship of beef trophies. The money is donated to the Adair County Fair for upkeep and improvements to livestock facilities. “It’s nice to see something new each year,” says Brad Nelson, president of the Cattlemen’s Association. “We like to keep things modern.”
From show steers to commercial feeder pens that highlight rate of gain and the profitability of production agriculture, Nelson sees benefits for beef exhibitors. “The fair circuit showcases the beef industry and promotes beef production,” says Nelson, “but for the kids, it’s more than that. They learn about livestock and the cycle of life. It’s the realism of the big picture of food production.”