Cover Story

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 Richmond.

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 Roberts

“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.

Concerts 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 admission.

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 American jungles.

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.” 


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