Clay County Fair marks centennial year
By KAREN SCHWALLER
SPENCER – The slogan of, “Come Home” was selected specifically to give Clay County Fair attendees the feel of what awaits them for the 2017 centennial edition of the fair.
This year’s CCF runs Sept. 9-17, and will celebrate its 100th anniversary with celebrations both before and after the nine-day fair run. CCF officials hosted a thank you celebration called “Fair on the Square” on Sept. 7 as a way to thank Spencer and the surrounding areas for their support of that large endeavor every year.
They will also host a birthday bash in the grandstand area on the last night of the fair, with acts to include a daredevil stunt show, comedian C. Willi Myles, human cannonball Jennifer Smith, and the Karl King Band-which entertained at the fair for many years starting in the 1920s. Other acts will include Sean Emery, who entertains with circus skills, comedy and showmanship, and opening the evening will be the singing of the National Anthem by choirs from three Clay County schools – Spencer, Clay Central-Everly and Sioux Central.
“While this birthday bash is a chance to honor the fair and its rich history, it’s also a chance for us to give back,” said fair manager Jeremy Parsons. “The grandstand (both the original structure and the current structure) has provided memorable performances for 100 years and we want to ensure that the next generation of performers has an opportunity to shine.”
Parsons said people from Spencer Community Theatre will be at the ticket gates that evening dressed in apparel from the first years of the fair’s history and speaking with guests using language of that era.
Tickets for that event are $15 for adults and free for children ages 12 and under, and are available online at www.midwestix.com, by phone at (515) 244-2771 or in person at the Events Center Box office on the fairgrounds. Parsons said $4 of each ticket sale goes back to support the performing arts in Clay County, including at Clay County high schools.
Other centennial marks will include the beginnings of what will become Centennial Plaza, located where the former Ag Building stood. This year it will be home to several educational opportunities including the Northwest Iowa Opportunities Hub, which will give fairgoers chance to learn about job openings in the area and gain hands-on experience regarding various area jobs.
What would eventually become known as the “World’s Greatest County Fair” began humbly when 180 people gathered during the World War I era and pledged $100 each (an amount equal to $1,800 today) to create a county fair. That was in July of 1917. By Oct. 20 that year, the Clay County Fair Association filed articles of incorporation.
Efforts got underway in May of 1918 to raise funds to build a grandstand on the grounds, and the very first fair was celebrated Sept. 24-27, 1918. A new grandstand would replace the original structure in 1931.
The fair increased to six days in 1935, and in 1936 the grandstand annex was constructed.
The fair opened with six new open stock barns for housing horses, swine and sheep. Specially constructed booths for educational exhibits were created by the school children of Clay County and were placed in the Ag Building.
Aletha Stuhr, of Every, was crowned the first Clay County fair queen in 1939.
World WarII suspended the fair from 1942-1945, and shortly after it restarted, the Smoky Mountain Railroad debuted in the KICD building, replacing the “featherless chicken” display.
Following a shortage of materials during war time, 1948 brought improvements to the fairgrounds, including new automobiles under the grandstand, and new buildings – including the indoor show arena (and its bleachers); 4-H swine barn, 4-H dairy heifer barn, 4-H dormitory, open cattle barn and National Guard housing. The former boys’ and girls’ 4-H building was remodeled for commercial exhibits.
That same year an air field was laid out on property to the north of the fairgrounds for the Flying Farmers group-men who learned to fly during WW II and were honored guests at the fair.
Significant improvements were made to the fairgrounds in 1952, including repairs to the historic east gate and infrastructure. A commercial exhibits building was constructed in 1954, and the fair increased to seven days in 1961.
Chuckwagon races were held for the first time at the fair in 1962, and in 1963 the fair attendance level surpassed the 200,000 mark for the first time. The PRCA Championship Rodeo, spearheaded by Bob Barnes, became an annual attraction beginning in 1966, and the first tractor pull took place that year.
The fair expanded to eight days in 1968, and a swine barn was constructed in 1969. When 1970 arrived, the girls 4-H and Textile Building opened, home to the 4-H auditorium, 4-H exhibits, open class textiles, crafts and art department, open baked goods and canned goods. The Floriculture building opened in 1974.
Singer Tennessee Ernie Ford came to perform at a fair during the 1970s.
“He flew in on a small plane to the Spencer Airport, and when the plane landed, all the executive members of the fair board came out to greet him coming off the plane,” said Dave Simington, current fair board president. “But when he came off the plane, he didn’t shake one of their hands, but went over to the fence where the public could come and see him, and shook every hand – because he knew those were the people who were going to be buying tickets.”
He remembered comedian Red Skelton performing in 1975. He said Skelton arrived one week before the fair, stayed at the Tangney Hotel and went into the local businesses and talked to people and hung around. He ate dinner at Stub’s House of Plenty and talked to people.
“When it came time for his show, he worked those people and places into his act – it included Fostoria, Langdon, Everly. It all went into his act. It was pretty cool.”
A new administration building was built on the fairgrounds in 1976, and in 1981 came the addition of the K-Cafe and Branding Iron restaurants. The purchase of the Pullen farm north of the fairgrounds allowed for expansion of the farm machinery show, relocation of the Midway to the west end of the grounds and made for a north parking lot.
Simington said the farm crisis of the 1980s impacted the fair, as it struggled to keep going as the agriculture community suffered. The fair board eventually approached the Pullen family to renegotiate a purchase price.
“The Pullen family was very, very gracious and renegotiated a price, so the fair still has it today,” Simington said, adding that it would have been difficult for the fair to make some of its payments during that time.
Simington said the original fairgrounds consisted of 40 acres, and today the fair sits on 100 acres, and own another 160 acres north of the grounds, which they use for parking. Simington said once they moved the free parking to the north, they could begin expanding commercial exhibit opportunities on the grounds.
He remembered a time during the 1950s when fair officials took measures to protect the fairgrounds from a serious fire threat.
“It was really dry, and back then they didn’t keep the grounds manicured like they do now,” he said. “They mowed before the fair, but the regrowth came back. Most of the parking was on the fairgrounds at that time, and a lot of people smoked back then. The fair board was so afraid of a fire starting in the parking lot with all those cars there, so they burned off the fairgrounds, and then it didn’t rain until after the fair was over.”
Simington said fairgoers went home with black ash up to their knees, but he said they didn’t complain.
The Chop Shop opened in 1983, and the fair suffered tornado damage in 1984. A Tent for the Arts opened in 1987, and the Varied Industries Building opened in 1992 with the 75th anniversary celebration of the fair. The fair’s attendance level surpassed 300,000 for the first time in 1995, and the fair increased to nine days that same year.
Grandstand seating was replaced between 1996 and 1997, and the KICD building was demolished in 1999 and replaced with the current Depot building, which houses the Smoky Mountain Railroad.
Following several years of no fair queen contest, it re-started in 2004, and the Regional Events Center opened that year. The fair realized record rainfall that year.
The racetrack was rebuilt in 2007 to a 3/8 mile clay track, and the first World of Outlaws sprint car race was held. Grandpa’s Barn was constructed in 2011, and an all-time fair attendance record was set in 2013 with more than 334,000 fairgoers. That same year, a Guinness World Record was set for the largest practical science experiment with 771 participants.
Most recently, the Tower Gate Pavillion was constructed in 2016, in time for the centennial edition of the fair.
The CCF has had only a handful of managers since its existence.
“From 1917 to 1947 the position was part-time and was shared with the Spencer Chamber of Commerce,” said Parsons. “Following the fair’s hiatus during WWII, the fair grew and created a need for a full-time secretary/manager.”
Past managers have included Ben Nelson, 1947-1948; Bill Woods, 1948-1974; Myles Johnson, 1974-1994; Jim Frost, 1994-1999; Phil Hurst, 1999-2011, and Parsons, who stepped into the position in 2011 and holds the lead position in its centennial year.
“Planning for the centennial fair has been a two to three-year project because we wanted to use the opportunity to make some significant improvements on the grounds,” said Parsons. “We wanted to make sure the grounds are ready for the next 100 years.”
Parsons said the fair board saw a greater vision than a simple centennial celebration.
“We wanted to create a legacy we didn’t want this to be a nine-day party and then it’s over,” said Parsons. “Capital improvements are things that will stay with us – the barn quilt challenge, for example, stays with us, etc.”
All Clay County 4-H groups created barn quilts to hang on all of the livestock buildings.
He takes his job as fair manager very seriously.
“It’s a great honor,” he said, adding that he’s only the fifth person in 100 years to have the full-time job. “…it really is the World’s Greatest County Fair, and so many people depend on it to be a highlight for them and their family, so we want to always make sure we’re putting on an event they can be proud of. It’s as humbling as it is challenging.”
Parsons said he hopes they put the centennial edition together successfully.
“If we did the centennial right, we have the opportunity to take the fair to the next level – set it up for the next 100 years,” he said.
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