The State Fair of Virginia is
Moving to the Country!
Story by Audrey T. Hingley, Contributing Writer
From the sugary sweetness of funnel cakes and “elephant
ears” to the tantalizing smells of popcorn, French fries and other
diet-busting temptations, the intoxicating aroma of “fair food” permeates
the State Fair of Virginia.
Mix those heady smells with the unmistakable fragrance
of farm animals, hay and midway dust, and the conclusion’s inevitable:
Fall is in the air, and the State Fair is here.
After more than 60 years at its Henrico County
location, the State Fair debuts Sept. 24 to Oct. 4 at Meadow Event Park
on Route 30 in Caroline County near Doswell, about 30 miles north of
Birthplace of the renowned 1973 Triple Crown-winner
Secretariat, Meadow Park traces its roots as a working farm to the
1700s. Purchased by the late Christopher T. Cherney in 1936, Meadow Farm
became one of the most famous thoroughbred horse farms in the U.S.
before its purchase by the State Fair in 2003.
Times and population patterns may have changed, but
the agricultural roots of the fair remain. It seems fitting that the
fair’s new home features bucolic farmland and rolling hills, albeit in
the shadow of nearby King’s Dominion theme park and I-95.
“The components of what we do don’t change ... we have
a rural location but it’s extremely accessible,” says State Fair
president Curry Roberts.
State Fair President Curry
“Eighty percent of our attendees are from suburban or
urban areas, and the number-one reason they attend is for agriculture
and animals. They seek an experience they don’t get elsewhere.”
Roberts says the average fairgoer
spends six hours at the fair, adding that it offers something for
everyone in a family-friendly environment: “If you want to ride a ride
and look at a pig, you can do it.”
The new 360-acre location is only slightly larger than the fair’s former
315-acre site. But because the fair won’t share space with Richmond
International Raceway’s track, it seems much larger. Officials have paid
attention to the pastoral location, which includes 10 acres of preserved
wetlands with signage explaining wetland significance and grass parking
for 14,000 vehicles.
“We’ve worked hard to make sure paved areas can’t even
be seen from Route 30,” Roberts explains. D. M. “Maxie” Rozell Jr.,
director of safety and security for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative,
has been on Caroline County’s Board of Supervisors for a decade. He
says, “Fair officials have done everything we have asked them to do,”
and adds that the fair will generate revenue for the county from meals
and products purchased there.
a Centuries-old tradition
Fairs have existed for centuries: Evidence points to
fairs in ancient Mesopotamia and as early as 500 B.C. the Bible
records, “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of all
kind of riches: with silver, iron, tin and lead, they traded in thy
fairs” (Ezekiel 27:12, KJV).
A colonial fair was decreed in Jamestown in 1665 and
colonial “fair days” occurred in the 1700s in Virginia, but modern
American fairs trace their heritage to an 1810 Massachusetts fair begun
by farmer Elkanah Watson. The Virginia State Agricultural Society held
what would become the first State Fair of Virginia in 1854 in what is
now Richmond’s Monroe Park. Then a 10-acre expanse, the fair featured a
simple midway with a merry-go-round and animal exhibitions.
In 1859, the fair moved to West Broad Street near
today’s Science Museum of Virginia. Interrupted by the Civil War, the
fair returned in 1867 before falling into debt, resulting in no fairs
from 1896 until 1906, when businessmen formed the Virginia State Fair
Association (VSFA). The 1906 fair began on land that later hosted The
Diamond baseball field. VSFA (renamed the Atlantic Rural Exposition
Inc.) bought the Strawberry Hill site on Laburnum Avenue in Henrico
County in 1941, holding its first fair in 1946.
Today the State Fair is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3)
organization with a mission to celebrate Virginia’s heritage, including
its agricultural roots. It has 24 full-time employees, supplemented by
over 800 seasonal workers and 2,500 volunteers. The annual $8-million
budget includes revenues generated from the fair, the annual Highland
Games & Celtic Festival and the Strawberry Hill Races held at Colonial
Downs in New Kent County.
After selling its Laburnum Avenue property in 1999 to
Richmond International Raceway for $47 million, the fair paid $5.3
million for Meadow Farm in 2003. Roberts says the fair’s total
investment is $80 million, including land, infrastructure, new
construction and renovation costs. Stroll around the new site and it’s
easy to see the investment.
The foaling shed where
Triple Crown winner Secretariat was born was saved, erlocated
and will be renovated.
On the south side of Route 30, the central ticketing
area, parking areas, equine area, four new horse-competition rings and a
gleaming 143-stall horse barn dot the landscape. There are two concrete
pedestrian tunnels, including one under Route 30 connecting the north
and south sides of the site.
Jay Lugar, who handles media relations, says the fair
is not yet capitalizing on its Secretariat connection, although the
foaling shed of Secretariat, which is being renovated, was saved and
relocated near the new horse barn. Future plans call for a presentation
at the foaling shed.
“There is nostalgia about the property in the equine
world. The subsoil in the track [rings] came from Secretariat’s old
training ring,” Roberts explains. The site is like a small city,
complete with sewage-treatment plant, two large water tanks (one for
fire suppression, one for water needs during the fair) and an outdoor
festival stage for concerts.
The new 75,000-square-foot
Farm Bureau Center Exhibition Hall is located on the north side
of Route 30.
The north side of Route 30 includes livestock and
exhibition buildings and the midway. A new 75,000-square-foot Farm
Bureau Center Exhibition Hall provides exhibit space with two entrances.
Ten events have already been booked there for 2010.
There’s the new 10,000-square-foot Americraft
Pavilion. The Union Bank & Trust Hall, a 13,000-square-foot brick house
undergoing renovations, will lease space for special events like
weddings. Heritage Village, highlighting Native American, Euro-American
and African-American history in Virginia, will be adjacent to the site’s
North Anna River frontage.
Roberts says one of the biggest shifts in the fair is
open livestock competitions, explaining, “The competitions used to be
breeder-based ... now they are open to everyone.”
Numerous events for both adults and youths include
everything from arts and crafts to banjo and fiddle competitions. One of
the biggest competitions is in conjunction with the Virginia Egg
Council, with county fair winners coming to the State Fair to compete
with their egg-based dishes.
Scholarship Monies are Available to youths
In 1989, youth livestock auctions were stopped and
converted to youth competitions, many in conjunction with 4-H clubs and
the Future Farmers of America. Premiums and ribbons are still awarded,
but now young people earn scholarship money via 33 sanctioned
competition areas. A total of 2,074 scholarships, valued at over $1.7
million, have already been awarded.
“The scholarship [monies] can be used from high school
graduation to age 24,” Roberts says. Monies earned accumulate in an
interest-bearing account, with checks sent directly to students’
accounts at accredited post-secondary educational institutions. Roberts
says fair scholarships have been used for everything “from a diesel
academy to Carnegie-Mellon.” Some individuals have earned $20,000 in
scholarship money. The fair also offers some endowed scholarships and
special scholarships to Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and
Virginia Commonwealth University.
Each year, more than 15,000 school children visit the
fair via school programs, including many from urban areas who’ve never
seen a farm animal. In addition to the various animal competitions,
visitors can enjoy Young McDonald’s Farm, a display featuring a variety
of young farm animals.
are Now Included in Admission Price
Shows like the popular racing pigs are part of what
officials call “grounds entertainment.” Two new shows, a lumberjack show
and a balloon stunt show, will debut this year. In the past some
concerts required separate admission: Concerts this year, including hot
new country acts Randy Houser, Luke Bryan and Jason Michael Carroll and
soul music legend Percy Sledge, are included in the price of fair
Mechanical rides became common at state fairs after
the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Ferris wheel was introduced.
Today only half of fairgoers ever ride a ride at the Virginia State
Fair, but over 60 rides anchor the fair’s skyline.
Those of a certain age may recall the fair’s
sideshows. Shows featured in earlier fairs nationwide displayed
everything from multi-headed animals to “human oddities” like bearded
women who today would be recognized as people with unusual medical
conditions. The State Fair continues to have some sideshow acts, such as
the popular “world’s smallest woman” (29 inches tall), but Roberts says
some shows are judgment calls and admits that many of today’s “wonders”
are really illusions. The “world’s biggest rat” displayed at a Texas
fair in 1996, for example, was simply a type of rodent found in South
Changes in things like sideshows mirror other changes
in the State Fair today. You can still gobble up fried foods galore, but
health-conscious fairgoers can also find salads, chicken kabobs and
other healthy choices. Such options are indicative of a changing
Virginia, where visitors can experience a fair blending yesterday, today
and the future.
“Every state fair is a reflection of its own state,”
Roberts says. “In Virginia we have such a diversity of products as well
as amazing diversity in agriculture. Our audience has changed but the
reason the fair exists has not.”
Despite nostalgia, history and
changing times, in the end the fair is, still, all about people. As
Lugar says, “The State Fair is unique ... the fair is what the people of
Virginia make it every year.”