What kind of image does that conjure up in your mind? In Minnesota and probably in states across the nation, the images vary widely.
If you call a metropolitan area home or are largely confined and content in suburbia, it might be that you simply say, "Huh?" when talk of county fairs comes up. Or maybe, if you call a big city home, images of smelly animal barns, toothless "carnie" workers, lame rides, and food that puts your cholesterol level through the roof pop into your head.
But in rural Minnesota, for many of the very same reasons that metro-area folks might think a county fair, in the most positive sense, is an event that is simply not considered, and, in the worst sense, is something to be reviled, county fairs are embraced, they're held near and dear to the hearts of many. A summer without a county fair? Why, that just wouldn't be summer! We love to check out the animals in those smelly barns and see if any 4-H kids we know have taken home any significant hardware. We love to banter with the carnival workers who are trying to get us to invest our hard-earned money in games of chance in which we have little chance to win much of anything beyond a stuffed animal that practically fits in the palm of our hand. Many of the rides might indeed be lame, but there are still plenty on hand to make us more than a bit queasy, assuming we dare ride them. And the food? Who wants to eat a healthy salad at a county fair?
It's fairly easy to find county fairs in Minnesota that have existed for more than a century, in some cases well over a century. Certainly they've changed drastically through the generations, and some are probably quite a bit smaller or scaled-back than they once were. But don't for a second think that these slices of Americana are on their way out. Sure, there's the isolated case where over-worked fair organizers have finally thrown in the towel, but a quick scan of the Minnesota Association of County Fairs website (mfcf.com) shows that county fairs continue to be a major economic force, not to mention a great source of summertime entertainment.
Last anyone checked, Minnesota was home to 87 counties, and yet the MCFC lists "95 county fairs and going strong" in Minnesota. So something must be going right.
Even with several county fairs in Minnesota not listing their attendance figures for 2011, approximately 2.5 million people attended county fairs in Minnesota last year. You don't have to be a math wizard to know that amounts to approximately 1 out of every 2 Minnesota residents attending a county fair in 2011. (Sure, some of the more devoted fair-goers probably attended many county fairs, but why nit-pick?)
Page 2 of 4 - So there are the carnival rides, there's the food, maybe a beer garden, too, there are the grandstand events that charge admission and the smaller-scale, often more quirky events that are free of charge, and there are those smelly animal barns.
Talk to anyone about how Minnesota's county fairs are doing these days, and what the future might hold, there seems to be an underlying concern about 4-H programs in the state. The question seems to be, are there still enough kids engaged enough to be in 4-H, and are they going to keep taking care of these animals, or doing these other projects that they enter in all these fairs?
The answer appears to be a "fairly" resounding yes.
"County and state fairs not only make great memories, they help 4-H youth grow into successful adults," said Dorothy McGargo Freeman, state 4-H leader. It's not about just entering prized animals or various projects in fairs, either, she added, 4-H kids play a critical role at many county fairs, leading tours, conducting workshops and doing hands-on demonstrations.
The Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, passed by Minnesota voters as an amendment to the state constitution in 2008, is even being invested in county fairs. While there was some debate over whether or not voters had county fairs in mind for state taxpayer money investment when they voted yes, in 2011 each county fair was allocated around $7,800. That money was distributed equally to each fair to "enhance arts access and education and to preserve and promote Minnesota's history and cultural heritage," according to a Minnesota Public Radio story. The other half of the $2.8 million Legacy Fund investment has been appropriated to a competitive grant program for county fairs that can be used to upgrade facilities or boost programming.
So how's your county fair doing, and what might the future hold? Minnesota newspapers owned by GateHouse Media, in Crookston, Granite Falls, Redwood Falls, Montevideo, Sleepy Eye, St. James and Cottonwood, and Devils Lake Journal in North Dakota, are asking just that, and what accompanies this story are some answers.
Yellow Medicine Co.
It was at best a mix up and at worst a blatant stiff, but either way the result was the same as the Yellow Medicine County Fair was robbed of its carnival this year.
They were able to work out a deal for a few rides and as a last resort purchased a few inflatable attractions. Still, the Midway of the fair grounds looked strikingly empty.
Some of those who were unaware that the YMC Fair Board had a long held contract with a carnival company that changed hands without their knowledge this past year, expressed frustration with this turn of events. A few others, who had not heard how many times board members tried to contact the carnival nor about the lengths they went to come up with the items that did make it to the Midway, acted a little upset.
Page 3 of 4 - The most perturbed of all, however, were the members of the Yellow Medicine County Fair who work and sweat to bring the $77,000 exhibition together while placing any perceived deficiencies square on themselves.
Said fair board president Miranda Evenson, "I hope that people are frustrated with us this last year, We were frustrated as well," "To have worked so hard all year and to have it crumble in your hands..."
Of course, all of this is another way of saying that the Yellow Medicine County Fair is doing wonderfully––because although some event planners and goers got upset, they were upset for the sole reason that they care. And that level of care creates success.
Held on the eastern outskirts of the county at the Canby Fairgrounds, the Yellow Medicine County Fair remains one of the increasingly rare county fairs that continue to offer free entry.
"Free" is a good thing for the YMC operation, says fair board vice-president Mark Westfield. It works. It incentivizes people to travel from a distance and provides some free entertainment in an increasingly expensive society. It is a big part of the reason attendance continues to be so good, he notes.
Because admission is free there is no way to take an official head count, but year-to-year Westfield and other board members say the numbers appear to remain steady. Numbering sixteen in all the group meets most months of the year, working to make this year's fair better than the last.
It's a tricky thing. With limited resources for advertising and events that appeal to varying audiences, each decision must be weighed carefully in accordance with current trends.
"When I started in 1995, the board didn't want demolition derbies because they believed they lost money," said Westfield. "Now, though, it's one of the fairs most popular events. Noise and mud is the big thing to draw people," he said.
Since arriving on the board three years ago, Evenson has added a youthful dimension as the group's youngest board member at age 30.
"I get cut down a lot. I have different ideas. Sometimes they look at me like I'm crazy," she said. But the Board couldn't have thought she was too off the wall, or they wouldn't have made her their president.
More likely, the board recognized a good thing when they saw it. They know that it is because of Evenson that the fair has a new webpage and has become relevant on Facebook, and they know that without Evenson they may not have been the recipient of nearly $30,000 in grants.
The two grants both derived from Legacy funding programs mentioned earlier in the article. One of the grants is comprised of the $7,800 that is distributed equally to all fairs. The other, a competitive grant, through which Evenson requested and received $20,000 toward the construction of a Heritage Center, which serves as venue for multiple events, from the Bramble Park Zoo Show to the Pezihutazizi Dancers.
Page 4 of 4 - Thus far only about a $12,000 portion of the grant funds have been received, but they are included the fair's $77,000 gross income for the year. Had the board not had to make the last minute purchase of the inflatables, they would have likely finished a few hundred in the black.
"We lost a little, but that wasn't bad," said fair board treasurer Julie Saltee. We had a lot of extra entertainment this year with the Heritage Center, so I was pretty happy how it came out."
Typically, "we just hope to break even," said Westfield.
In a state where fair budgets range from as little as $10,000 to hundreds of thousands, the budget of the YMC Fair is large enough for the board to put on a good show. And they do, according to District 7 Director of the Minnesota Federation of County Fairs, Steve Storck.
"Overall, things are going good there," said Storck. "They have a very good 4-H and a lot of local volunteers ... It seems to be doing well for a small town fair."
Storck tries to get to a few of the fairs in his district each year, but with a coverage area of 19 counties –– the most expansive of the nine districts –– it isn't easy. It was just by chance that he strolled through Yellow Medicine's.
He too noticed the vacant Midway and that a few kids looked like they would have had a bit more fun with a carnival ride. Unfortunately, carnivals are becoming harder to come by for smaller fairs as the number of carnivals available has dwindled. Transportation and other expenses account for some of these departures, but stricter more arduous state regulations in Minnesota also comes into play.
Next year, Evenson and the board intend to find a carnival to compliment the abundance of the fair's other attractions. With the dedication of the board and avid fair-goers, it seems like they'll come up with something.
"Everyone needs to know that we're working hard for next year," said Evenson. "We hope you'll come and join us."