Cover Story

Virginia Offers Fun in 55 Flavors at The County Fair


by Audrey Hingley Contributing Writer



Blue ribbons, beauty queens and farm animals — all are images conjured up by the words, “county fair.” Talk to the exhibitors, officials and visitors involved in a multitude of county fairs that take place in Virginia between May and October, and other images soon appear: family, community and friends.

“The Prince William County Fair is a safe place for families to enjoy. Kids come first at the fair, both as spectators and exhibitors,” explains Mary Clarke of Purcellville.

Clarke, with husband Bob and family, has been showing Nubian dairy goats at the fair since 1969. Her granddaughters have continued the tradition, winning “Best in Show” honors many times.

Dating to 1949, The Prince William County Fair is one of nearly 60 county fairs held in Virginia. Fairs go way back in the Commonwealth: In 1665, a Colonial fair was decreed in Jamestown and Colonial “fair days” occurred in the 1700s. Virginia county fairs now include everything from racing-pig shows to top-flight music concerts; but most remain agriculturally based, even in areas where agriculture has been overtaken by development.

“We still focus on agriculture, even though Prince William County no longer has many farms left,” Clarke, the fair’s barns coordinator, acknowledges. “We draw livestock exhibitors from both Virginia and Maryland, and one of the changes we’ve seen in the livestock department has been the arrival of sheep bred for fleece instead of simply for meat.”

She adds, “County fairs have always been a meeting place for farmers, consumers and merchants, and the public has a chance to see who produces the animals that provide their milk and meat on a local level and learn about farm animals first-hand.”

Another important county fair component is volunteers. Over 1,000 volunteers make the annual Rockingham County Fair, a half mile south of Harrisonburg’s city limits, a reality. The fair attracts more than 75,000 people.

“Agriculture is still our main focus — look at where we are [geographically],” says Dennis Cupp, general manager since 1982 and one of only four paid staffers. “People call us an old-fashioned county fair ... they talk about the variety, the number of exhibits we have and our paved walkways within the fairgrounds, which are great for wheelchairs. We have a large livestock show and lots of free on-grounds entertainment.”

Big-Name Entertainment

The Rockingham County Fair also hosts big-name acts in its 7,000-seat grandstand area. Last year country hitmakers Trace Adkins and Randy Travis appeared; this year’s headliners are The Beach Boys, who nearly sold out the grandstand a few years ago. Cupp’s biggest marketing challenge is booking popular grandstand acts amid rising entertainer fees.

Margie Ann Dick, 74, is the matriarch of what Clarke calls “a three-generation family of exhibitors who do well at our fair.” Dick, who started exhibiting Holstein dairy cows at the Prince William fair as a 4-H member in 1946, has been secretary/treasurer of the Virginia Holstein Association for the last 30 years. For the past 15 years Dick has not shown animals, but as the fair’s dairy cattle superintendent, she takes in fair entries, keeps records and enjoys seeing that the younger folks have a well-run show.

“I grew up on a farm, and we had a dairy farm in Fairfax County from 1926 to ’62,” she explains.

Daughter Patty Leonard says, “Technically, we are a four-generation 4-H family, because my mother’s parents were the ones who got her involved in 4-H and made sure she got to the fairs. When my brother and I came along, she supported us, and I have three daughters who have grown up through 4-H and the county fair.”

Leonard said the “sheer fun” of showing animals through 4-H is what motivated her: “If you enjoy working with animals, kids can see their hard work pay off. They bond with the animals and at the fair they meet other kids and develop lifelong bonds with folks at the fair.”

Leonard, who grew up to marry a dairy farmer, long hosted farm tours for local schools. Opening the farm up for public tours and planting a corn maze seemed like a natural evolution, and in 2001 “Cows-N-Corn” debuted on the family’s 1,800-acre farm. Visitors can ride a hay wagon, learn firsthand about “cow life” and see the farm’s 300 milk cows.

The Caroline County Fair, dating to 1918, disbanded in 1969 as the face of rural America changed, but was resurrected in 1997 by the hard work of the Madison Ruritan Club. Sally Acors of Ruther Glen started exhibiting at the fair in 2007, entering food creations like canned goods, pickles, cakes and jams. She explains her late father Elmer Jackman was a bit of a gourmet cook; baking a chiffon cake using his recipe won her first-place honors.

“It was awesome and very emotional,” she recalls. “I just felt like Dad was there.” Acors  continues to enter fair competitions, last year earning 14 blue ribbons and six second-place awards.

Leonard says her family recently started going through “boxes and boxes” of blue ribbons the various generations have won, trying to decide which to keep. The spelling “blue riband” is still used in many English-speaking countries, and evolved into usage for first-place awards, particularly in county fairs.

4-H is a Key Component

A key component of most county fairs is 4-H, available for kids ages 5-19 and today the largest out-of-school kids’ organization in America, serving 6.5 million kids nationwide. 4-H’s foundation dates to the 1800s, with various agricultural projects aimed at rural youth. The first boys’ and girls’ club in Ohio in 1902 evolved into 4-H. 4-H programs are administered locally by Virginia Cooperative Extension, with over 140,000 kids participating in Virginia.

“I say we have cows, cooking and camp, but we have a lot more than that!” laughs Kaci Daniel, extension agent for 4-H youth development based in Orange County. “Here we have a dairy club, a goat club and three horse clubs, but we also have a ‘job shadowing’ career program and robotic teams who build robots and [display] them.”

Daniel’s colleague, extension agent/agriculture Steve Hopkins, says over 150 kids participate in Orange County’s 4-H and emphasizes that county fair competitions are long-term projects. “The kids own and take care of the animal, learn about animal nutrition and care, and are taken through the entire process,” he says.

Mark Wahlberg, extension animal scientist with Virginia Cooperative Extension Service in Blacksburg, says most 4-Hers today do not live primarily on farms, although many live in rural areas. He notes, “The strong supporters of 4-H come from the traditional programs you see exhibited at county fairs.” 

A Tent Revival

In 1994, Isle of Wight held its first county fair since 1941 after a local committee worked to revive it. Fair manager Mark Furlo is also the county’s park and recreation director, noting there are a few “county-paid staff like me” helping with the fair, adding to over 100 local volunteers.

“Our fair is very agriculturally based, with livestock tents, field and garden tent and 4-H tent,” he says. “We have about 10,000 in attendance.”

The fair brings in national-level entertainment and acts like “Kachunga and The Alligator Show,” where “Kachunga” pits his strength against a 300-pound alligator.

“You don’t normally expect to see an alligator show at a county fair,” Furlo notes. “Our cornhole (a beanbag-toss game) tournament has a cash prize and is very popular.”

Joye Wood, administrative coordinator for the Virginia Association of Fairs, says fairs appear to be increasing in Virginia. She recently had two counties contact her for information, wanting to start their own county fairs.

Wahlberg says county fairs are a good way for people to gain exposure and appreciation for agriculture, adding, “The county fair is still a big deal in rural areas, and a really neat community experience. It’s real life, not some static exhibit.”

Clarke is more succinct: “Come see the fair ... let us show you what a great family event it is, and what a fun time can be had!”

2011  Virginia Fair Schedule

May 19-22     Powhatan County Fair • POWHATAN

June 6-11       Virginia-Kentucky District Fair & Horse Show • WISE

June 10-12    Celebrate Fairfax! Festival • FAIRFAX

June 10-12    Caroline County Agricultural Fair • RUTHER GLEN

June 30--July 10     Salem Fair • SALEM

July 5-10        Madison County Fair • MADISON

July 14-17      Fauquier County Fair • WARRENTON

July 18-23     New River Valley Fair • DUBLIN

July 20-23     Rockbridge County Fair & Horse Show • LEXINGTON

July 21-24     Orange County Fair • ORANGE

July 25-30     Loudoun County Fair • LEESBURG

July 25-30     Frederick County Fair • WINCHESTER

July 27-30     Bland County Fair • BLAND

July 29-30     Louisa County Agricultural Fair • LOUISA

July 29-Aug 6           Rich Valley Fair • SALTVILLE

July 29-Aug 7           Fredericksburg Agricultural Fair • FREDERICKSBURG

July 30-Aug 6           Dickinson County Fair • CLINTWOOD

Aug 1-6          Warren County Fair • FRONT ROYAL

Aug 2-6          Gloucester County Fair • GLOUCESTER

Aug 2-6          Greene County Fair • STANARDSVILLE

Aug 9-13        Augusta County Fair • FISHERSVILLE

Aug 9-13        Bergton Community Fair • BERGTON-ROCKINGHAM

Aug 9-13        Rural Retreat/Wythe County Fair • RURAL RETREAT

Aug 10-14      Arlington County Fair • ARLINGTON

Aug 11-13       Franklin/Southampton County Fair • COURTLAND

Aug 12-13      Newport Agricultural Fair • NEWPORT

Aug 12-20      Prince William County Fair • MANASSAS

Aug 14-20      Clarke County Fair • BERRYVILLE

Aug 15-20      Rockingham County Fair • HARRISONBURG

Aug 16-20      Tazewell County Fair • TAZEWELL

Aug 18-24      Dinwiddie County Fair • VA MOTORSPORTS PARK

Aug 22-27      Page Valley Agricultural & Industrial Fair • LURAY

Aug 23-27      Richmond County Fair • WARSAW

Aug 25-28     Carroll County Fair • HILLSVILLE

Aug 26-Sept 3           Chesterfield County Fair • CHESTER

Aug 26-Sept 3           Shenandoah County Fair • WOODSTOCK

Aug 31-Sept 3           Lee County Fair • PENNINGTON GAP

Aug 31-Sept 3           Highland County Fair • MONTEREY

Sept 2-10       Russell County Fair & Horse Show • LEBANON

Sept 7-11        Amelia County Fair • AMELIA

Sept 9-10       Mathews Market Days • MATHEWS

Sept 10           Charles City County Fair • CHARLES CITY

Sept 12-17      Washington County Fair • ABINGDON

Sept 15-18      Isle of Wight County Fair • CARROLLTON

Sept 16-18      Field Day of the Past • GOOCHLAND COUNTY AREA

Sept 16-24     Danville-Pittsylvania County Fair • RINGGOLD

Sept 17-18      New Kent County Fair • COLONIAL DOWNS

Sept 20-24     Patrick County Agricultural Fair • STUART

Sept 23-25     Chilhowie Community Apple Festival • CHILHOWIE

Sept 24-25     James City County Fair • TOANA

Sept 29-Oct 9     State Fair of VA • MEADOW EVENT PARK-DOSWELL

Oct 4-8           Halifax County Fair • HALIFAX

Oct 11-15        South Central Fair • CHASE CITY

Oct 18-22       Five County Fair • FARMVILLE

Oct 21-23       Stafford County Fair • MOUNTAIN VIEW HIGH SCHOOL • 540-869-7250 


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