It is no secret the Redwood County fair has had its struggles during its history, but it appears in recent years there has been a revival of sorts, with attendance on the rise, and, according to Jim Sandgren, Redwood County Ag Society president, the reason he thinks the fair is seeing renewed interest is because it is changing with the times.
When it comes to summer schedules, there are certain events the public comes to expect, and one of those is the annual county fair.
In Redwood County, the county fair was first held Aug. 9, 1873, and since then, with the exception of 1946 when a polio epidemic led to calling off the show.
Over the years, the fair has been held in different locations, including downtown Redwood Falls, as well as at a location “west of the river”, but since 1912 the fair has been held at its current location. That land was originally purchased in 1886, but in 1905 that land was sold and the fair was again held downtown.
The fair itself is operated by the Redwood County Agricul-tural Society, and it is this group which puts together what happens each year at the fair.
The 2012 fair, held in late July, was the 139th annual event, and the fair today is certainly different than those held more than a century ago.
“Exhibits were displayed in various stores during the years of the street fairs. Livestock pens were in the southeast corner of Second and Mill Streets. Horse races and platform shows were held on Mill Street, and floral parades, by women, and livestock parades were popular features of those parades,” recorded Wayne Webb in Redwood: The Story of a County.
It is no secret the fair has had its struggles during its history, but it appears in recent years there has been a revival of sorts, with attendance on the rise, and, according to Jim Sandgren, Redwood County Ag Society president, the reason he thinks the fair is seeing renewed interest is because it is changing with the times.
Those changes became very evident in Redwood County a few years ago when the county fair board began making a concerted effort to create a venue that would draw in the crowds.
Sandgren said the first national act, Firehouse, performed on the free stage at the fair July 7, 2007.
Since that first national act, the fair has continued to raise the bar, with well-known groups Confederate Railroad, Saving Abel and the Kentucky Headhunters among the performers at the fair in 2012. Sandgren said times are definitely different, and he said it is so important to have a fair board that dreams big and looks to keep up with what is going on today.
The fair board joined what is known as the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, and a few years ago a couple of the fair board members attended a convention in Las Vegas to check out what potential shows it could bring in.
Sandgren said past presentations, such as the Human Cannonball and Dock Dogs were a result of that convention visit.
Sandgren said the current fair board is a good mix of more experienced members and younger members, adding in so many other counties the old regimes are still in place. That, he surmised, may be why some of those other area fairs are struggling.
One of the reasons why Sandgren said the fair has been successful is due to a strong 4-H program.
That 4-H program continues to grow, said Shelly Kooima, who is the Red-wood County 4-H program coordinator as part of the U of M Extension Service.
“The fair is the highlight of the summer for some of these 4-Hers,” she said, adding it is one time when some of those members see friends they have established relationships with over the years.
Kooima said the number of 4-H members who exhibit projects at the fair is on the rise, as there were more than 200 additional projects shown at the fair this year compared to 2011.
She also said approximately 20 more members showed at the fair this year compared to 2011.
More animals are being shown each year, and Kooima said that is likely due to the increased interest in the dog and horse programs which are offered.
“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.
One of the factors Sandgren and Kooima attributed to the success of the Redwood County Fair is the number of volunteers who spend countless hours doing what they can to help.
Naturally, said Sandgren, there is always room for more people who want to help. He admitted the fair board often gets to the point of burnout, as preparing for an upcoming county fair is a year-around job.
One of the issues for the local county fair is the reality some of its facilities are in need of repair or replacement, and Sandgren said finding funds for that is certainly a challenge. As an ag society, the fair board does have the ability to do a per parcel tax, but that must be approved by the county board first. A tax of just a few dollars per parcel, said Sandgren, could not only help fix the buildings, it could also mean having a free gate again and providing even more entertainment.
There may be a time in the future when county fairs go the way of schools and begin consolidating, but until then the Redwood County fair appears to be heading in a positive direction.
– Mike Christopherson of the Crookston Times contributed to this story.