A closer look at the small details that make up summer’s biggest event
Ask any one person, and they’ll all come back with a different answer as to what they love about the Brown County Fair. For me it is two words: Martina McBride.
In the summer of 1997 Martina headlined the fair, and like every other twelve-year-old girl in the grandstand that evening, I was singing along to every word at the top of my lungs. Before the show started, we bought t-shirts with a blown-up shot of Martina’s profile and her signature in bright purple. I wore mine proudly, and still would if I hadn’t outgrown it. More than my adolescent love of girl power lyrics was the experience of just being at the fair. We got to stay out late, with our dad, who always listened to country music on the radio when we drove around with him checking fields, and now we were getting to see a real, live country music concert together. That is a once-a-year, or maybe a once-in-a-lifetime, experience that you just don’t want to forget.
There’s my fair story, what’s yours? Everyone has at least one, and we’ve collected a pile of good ones for you to enjoy in this article. But woven throughout all these conversations with board members, campers, and 4-H leaders is a common thread: The Brown County Fair is for families and is made possible by volunteers who put more time and attention into the event than required by most full-time jobs. Our fair is also free —free admission and free parking, thanks to an impressive number of local sponsors. In recent years, the fair has generated over $1 million in revenue and has made a net profit of about $60,000. However, the economic impact it has on the county goes far beyond these numbers. Aberdeen hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and stores have all reported an increase in sales during fair week. Not to mention, nonprofits can raise funds at the fair, while small businesses can meet customers and earn income through vendor booths and concessions.
Currently, the wait list to attend as a food vendor or exhibitor is a mile long, and with good reason. While some fairs take a percentage of the earnings businesses make, the Brown County Fair does not. Vendors pay the annual fee for their booth up front and then keep all their profits. Variety is another factor we can all appreciate. If you sell hamburgers at the fair, you won’t find yourself surrounded by five other burger joints. Likewise, attendees won’t see a lot of the same things over and over again as they browse the midway and Expo building. To top it off, there’s the grandstand events. In the late ’80s, the fair decided to add big names in entertainment to their evening lineups. This switch increased attendance significantly, with headline concerts bringing in about 8,000 to 10,000 music fans to each show. Holding its own, the rodeo often sells out on both Monday and Tuesday night as well.
By putting together these seemingly small details, the Brown County Fair has become the hit of the summer. But when looking at the big picture, it’s easy to forget all the little things that make it happen, so we hope the following stories will inspire you to take a closer look at this event we’ve all come to expect every August. Go into some buildings or barns you haven’t explored yet; talk to the people you see showing their projects or volunteering. Who knows? You might even experience your next fair story.
Once a Fair Person, Always a Fair Person
Most every adult who has a heart for the fair is simply a kid who grew up, but not so much that they forgot the magic of fair week that they felt as a child. George Casanova might be the perfect example of this. In the 1940s, he showed Hereford cattle at the Brown County Fair with his brother and sister. Back then, the fair was a three-day event, and the livestock stalls were tucked into an old wooden cattle barn that sat where the current cattle barn is today. George recalls his first camping experience at the fair. “Above the stalls was a hay mound, and that’s where my brother and I slept for those three days, just above the cattle that we showed,” he says.
Fast forward to 1990, and George joined the Brown County Fair Board shortly after his retirement. He started camping at the fair again that year and has ever since, though now it’s at the campground in a 5th wheel with his family. About his decision to join the fair board, he says, “I retired in 1989 and knew I had some extra time and that the fair was a big event for Aberdeen, so I volunteered for one year and then served on the board from 1990 to 1995.” He acted as fair board president in 1993, and says the position was a full-time endeavor. “People don’t realize how much work goes into running a fair this big, it takes a lot of hours. Leading up to it we would put in 40 to 50 hours a week, visiting with service clubs and promoting the fair.” It paid off. That year, 226,000 people walked through the admission gates.
George left the fair board in 1995, but his volunteer work was far from over. A lifelong photographer, he spent the next 20 years taking backstage photos of the entertainers at the fair, including the meet-and-greet pictures between the musicians and the fair board members. One memory that stands out in his mind is meeting country music legend Neal McCoy in 1995. It was a hot day when Neal pulled up backstage at the fair, and consequently, the auxiliary a/c on his bus went out. The first person he approached for help was George, who called a friend that came over right away and got the cold air up and running pretty quickly. Neal thanked George for getting his a/c repaired and invited him onto his bus for a beer. Several years later, in 2006, Neal McCoy returned to the Brown County Fair. Before his show, he waved down a board member to ask if George was on the fairgrounds because they needed to repeat that beer together. George was at the fairgrounds, and they did have another beer. “Here’s an artist that travels all over putting on concerts, and many years later he remembered that. A lot of these entertainers are down to earth and fun to visit with,” George says.
Even though he’s rubbed elbows with well-known musicians, George adds that it’s not the brush with fame that motivates volunteers like himself. “Our fair is successful because there’s free parking and free gate admission, and because it’s a family fair. There are activities for little kids all the way up through their grandparents. That’s what makes the volunteers willing to do what they do, because of all the fun they see people having together at fair week.”
More than Cows and Cookies
If you aren’t stopping to talk with the young farmers in the ag barns at the fair, you’re missing out on one of the best parts of the whole experience. They might look busy as they bustle about grooming their animals or cleaning out stalls, but asking them questions and showing interest in what they do will absolutely make their day. JoAnn Donley, a master gardener and longtime 4-H volunteer, explains, “When I was in 4-H, our club was famous for putting out farmer’s benches (also known as bales of hay) around our livestock area. People would come and sit, and we’d end up talking to these adults who’d ask us questions about our cows. My favorite fair memory is interacting with the people who came and sat on our benches.”
Brown County alone has 325 members in 4-H. The fair is also Achievement Days for the area clubs, which compared to a sports world is basically like tournament time, and the kids bring the best of their best to show. Becca Tullar, 4-H youth program advisor for Brown County, encourages fairgoers to engage with the 4-H presenters. “These kids have stories about how they got their animal, or what they feed it, and they want to share about it because that’s their passion.” JoAnn adds, “They’ve often been a part of their livestock’s life since its birth, and them bringing that animal to the fair is a culmination of a lot of time and effort. To stop and talk with them about their 4-H project so they can share their knowledge would be a gift you’d be giving to these youth.”
Contrary to what many think, 4-H isn’t just about livestock or only for farm kids. Becca says, “I like to say that 4-H is more than cows and cookies – it’s for every hobby you might have. If you have a hobby, I can find something for you to do with that in 4-H, whether that’s building rockets or showing your pet dog. And it’s a great way to make friends.”
It’s not About the Prize Money
More camping areas are being added to the fairgrounds all the time, but if the wait list for food vendors and exhibitors is long, it could be argued the wait list for a camping spot is much longer. That’s because the campers who are there are having such a good time that the turnaround on the 800 or so available spots is rare.
Debbie Eisenbeisz and Donna Nash, both from Mansfield, are close friends who camp near each other in the Cottonwood Campground. They talk about camping at the fair with a lot of laughter and good memories. Campers keep their same spots year after year, and Debbie says, “The part we enjoy the most is you don’t see a lot of the people you camp beside all year, and then when the fair starts it’s like the camping family is back together again.” She tells a story about how she and her late husband made friends with a new camping neighbor. “My husband was giving him a bad time and said, ‘You know, the initiation for new people to the campground is that you have to bring us all steaks.’” The next day, the new guy was firing up the charcoal grill and topping it with steaks for everyone. Debbie laughs, “It was awesome, and he’s camped beside us for years now. It’s wonderful to make these memories with people you know and with strangers you’ve never met before. There’s just a special bond that campers have at the fair.”
Every year, the fair chooses a new theme for the campgrounds and hosts a competition for the best decorated site. The winner receives free camping for the following year and second place gets their spot at half price. Debbie and Donna, who have both won the contest in the past, say they put months of thought into planning their decorations. It’s not for the free camping, so much as the fun of it. Donna says, “Most of the times that I’ve won I’ve always spent more on putting it together than I’d pay for my camping spot to start with, but I do it because it shows that I’m proud to be at the fair and having fun while I’m here.”
“Just” a Volunteer
After being on the fair board for 18 years, Stu Swenson says he’s now “just” a volunteer. In terms of volunteers, though, he doesn’t stop at doing just the minimum required. “I knew how much work and time the fair board put into the event before I started, so I knew that if I joined, I wanted to give 100 percent,” he says. These days, he’s part of a small group of former board members who want to continue helping with the fair and, “Hopefully still be home by 5:30 every day,” he laughs. For a guy who put in almost around the clock hours during fair week for many years, the time he puts in now seems easy. Yet the fair is never too far from his mind. When we spoke with him in May, he was cleaning out the flower beds at the fairgrounds and planning what to plant in them, already thinking about how they’ll look in August. “There’s so much stuff that can be done prior to the fair that’s really fun,” he says. And having fun while working is what it’s all about. “I used to be pretty quiet when I started this whole thing,” he jokes. “But now I’ll heckle the campers and tell them if they pay me in cash they can have their spot for half price, or that they can work off their camping fee if they come do this painting project for me. It’s just a lot of fun to meet all the people that are at the fair; the amount of people I’ve met doing this is just unreal.”
Stu’s volunteer time at the fair has spread into other areas of his life. He also helps put up the Living Christmas Tree and with the 4-H Rodeo Association. “Once you start doing volunteer work, and it’s enjoyable to you, you’re going to find other things to do as a volunteer,” he says. // –Jenny Roth