Stumbling upon success
While the Clay County Fair in Spencer has a lot of reasons to boast success, there are also a lot of reasons why it should have been a colossal flop from its very beginning.
The fact that is has been anything but a flop is a testament to the men and women who, especially in 1917 and 1918, dared to roll up their sleeves to see that dream of a new and improved county fair come to life. The truth is, if you want it bad enough, you have to get other people on board with you, and you have to be willing to do the work.
Even if you are the Clay County Fair.
Those dreamers in 1917 and 1918 were just coming off of World War I. But they began the process of creating a new venue that would give the people in the Spencer and surrounding area a place to gather, socialize, shop, eat, show their livestock, be entertained and get away from all the pressures of daily living-which is amazing to me, given the financial status of most people at that time. Some must have haughtily thought they were only dream chasers.
But 100 years, millions of people and hundreds of thousands of corn dogs and nutty bars later, they could not have been more wrong.
The success of the Clay County Fair has always baffled me. It comes at a time of year when rural people are often beginning to harvest, children are back to school, the state fair has been finished for weeks and the weather is as unpredictable as a wandering gypsy fortune teller.
And yet, it has served as an official end to summer no matter what goes on – in scorching heat and in drenching rains. Even a terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 did not stop the fair. It dampened and sobered-up the spirit, but it did not ravage the core purpose of a county fair. It gave us a place to grieve together as one people.
Early on in that crisis, the fair served mostly as a distraction from the grim realities of life – and the massive loss of it. The fallout would eventually change the world – and each of us.
The fact that the people of 1918 envisioned a grandstand at all was futuristic thinking, and the idea that a new grandstand would appear in 1931 is nothing short of miraculous.
That same year, downtown Spencer had been destroyed with the careless flick of a lit firecracker into a barrel at a corner drug store over the Fourth of July. But once again, the Clay County Fair provided a distraction and gave people something else to focus on besides the grueling mission of rebuilding. They came together to accomplish two big tasks during the stark days of the Great Depression. It’s hard to imagine that kind of dedication to a county fair.
People have been married on the fairgrounds and had their wedding vows renewed there. On those occasions, they are standing on holy ground – the same ground to which they would someday bring their family.
I wonder what the Clay County Fair Association of 1917 would think if they saw the fair today. Manager Jeremy Parsons has led this epic wonder into its centennial year and says, “A lot can be accomplished when you don’t care who gets the credit.”
That is undeniably true in any arena of life in which we find ourselves.
Parsons also said, just before the centennial fair started: “It’s like my friend used to say, “Now we just unlock the door, turn on the lights and hope somebody shows up.”
Well, they have shown up – and in huge numbers, and under the best and worst of circumstances in the country and in their personal lives. For some, it simply cannot be missed.
I think the dream-based fair association of 1917 would be proud of this fair that was always meant to be successful, but never should have been.
But then, no one person ever really got the credit for the dream … or the work.
And so it goes for a county fair that worked hard to stumble upon wild success.
Karen Schwaller is a Farm News correspondent from Milford. Reach her by e-mail at email@example.com and www.karenschwaller.com.
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