Clay County Fair: Readying for a big show

-Submitted photo This is an artist’s conception of the new exhibit building under construction located on the east edge of the Clay County Fairgrounds.

SPENCER — It’s taken 100 years for the Clay County Fair to become what it is today, and it’s also taken some time to prepare to celebrate that milestone.

That centennial celebration will take place during this year’s fair, running Sept. 9 through 17. The theme for this year’s edition is simply, “Come Home.”

Jeremy Parsons, chief executive officer and manager of the fair for the past five years, said the centennial celebration has been the vision since he arrived in Spencer.

The plan, called the “Centennial Vision,” has been three-fold — renovating current facilities and construction of new buildings, and installing new infrastructure components such as water, sewer, communications and electric grids.

“We really started thinking about (the centennial celebration) in 2013, and it was a good excuse to clean up the grounds. So that year the fair executive committee established the ‘Centennial Vision,’ a multi-year, multi-million dollar make-over of the fairgrounds. We want to not only be ready for 2017, but beyond.”

-Photo by Karen Schwaller Visitors pass in and out of the Agriculture Building on the Clay County Fairground during the 2016 fair, getting their last look around before the building is razed this year. According to Jeremy Parsons, fair manager, the structure is outdated, fallen into disrepair, is not handicapped-accessible, and has been deemed too costly to repair. It is the second oldest structure on the fairgrounds.

Parsons said the first thing the board did was to renovate the historic main gate (Gate A) on the east end of the grounds. It’s an iconic and original structure that greets people as they enter the fairgrounds, and is currently the oldest structure on the grounds.

Renovation was completed in 2014, with sandblasting, painting of the fascia, new windows and trim. That area also received new asphalt and landscaping improvements.

New aluminum bleachers in the grandstand have been installed and the outdoor arena was renovated.

The Creative Living Center, 4-H building, Varied Industries Building and Industrial Building each received improvements and additions to its restrooms in 2016. A new 12,000-square-foot metal exhibit building, designed to hold 60 vendors, is located on the east end of the fairgrounds and is in the process of being completed for this year’s fair.

It will be called the “Tower Gate Pavilion,” because of the nearby towers at historic Gate A.

-File photo The midwayis shown at night at the Clay County Fairground during its annual 10-day run.

The electrical grid through “Food Row” was enhanced in 2016, and included work on the electrical, fiber, water and sewer areas. Parsons said the electrical capacity for the fairgrounds has been quadrupled with this renovation, preparing it for any growth the fair might experience not only there, but over all the grounds.

New overhead lights were installed down Food Row.

“We’ve invested about $1.5 million already just in the grounds in getting ready for the centennial, knowing that those projects will also be there for the next hundred years,” Parsons said.

The next area of interest, Parsons said, will be the new “Centennial Plaza,” which will also be up and located on the east end of the fairgrounds beginning in 2018.

It will be an open area at this year’s fair, but will eventually include benches, landscaping, and a family-friendly area for children to run and play, while adults and families can rest on the benches. It will feature permeable paving and rain gardens, which Parsons said would also help with storm sewer issues on that end of the fairgrounds.

-File photo More than 300,000 people will visit the Clay County Fair annually. The 2017 fair, its centennial year, can potentially be a record-breaker for attendance.

Signs explaining the conservation-friendly choices will educate fair-goers about the importance of water conservation and quality.

This area will come to life after the demolition of the Ag Building, which has become outdated and gradually fallen into disrepair, is not handicap-accessible, and has been deemed too costly to repair.

Demolition of that historic building is scheduled to take place sometime this winter or early spring. It is the second oldest structure on the fairgrounds.

The next 100 years

The Clay County Fair began in the summer of 1917, during World War I. At that time, 180 residents of northwest Iowa formed the Clay County Fair Association with a significant donation of $100 each. Parsons said it was significant in that the same dollar amount, with inflation, is worth $1,827.13 today.

Parsons said the biggest change he can think of at the fair is that people used to dress up to attend the fair “back in the day.” He said there have also been weddings on the fairgrounds — one on the grandstand stage during the 1930s.

Parsons is only the fifth fair manager. Others before him included Bill Woods (starting in 1948); followed by Myles Johnson, Jim Frost and Phil Hurst.

Parsons said the fair, which draws more than 300,000 visitors annually in nine days, has a place of importance in the lives of fairgoers.

“A guy from Storm Lake came into our office a couple of years ago and told us it was his 74th consecutive fair,” he said. “He told us he only had three dates on his calendar to celebrate — Christmas, New Year’s and the Clay County Fair.”

This year the official fair celebration will begin on the Thursday before the fair, with a parade from the fairgrounds to downtown. It will be called, “Fair on the Square.” It will be the fair’s birthday party, of sorts.

“The City of Spencer has done so much for the fair, and this is our way of taking the fair to them,” he said, adding that there will be a couple of the fair’s entertainers there, along with a couple of rides set up, and some free food to enjoy.

Parsons said all of the fair’s departments will do something to celebrate the centennial with a display or something similar that will celebrate 100 years of activities and exhibitions.

‘Come home’

“One of the things we’re doing this year is renting out private spaces so gatherings can take place,” said Parsons. “If you want your family reunion or a class reunion or a 4H club reunion–you can have that here this year. We’ve had good response to that so far. It’s all about coming home.”

Parsons said the fair’s ultimate goal has always been to bring families together. He said they want to establish relationships with fairgoers this year more than ever, in an effort to ask people to “Come Home” to the fair.

“The people’s connection to the fair is so strong and for our centennial, all we want is for people to come home–see what has been done and what we’ve been doing,” he said.

Overall, Parsons said the fair has been a staple in the lives of fairgoers for the last 100 years because it’s familiar and inviting.

“The fair is comfort,” he said. “People for the most part have positive memories of this place in the fact that once a year you can go to a place where you know you’ll have a good time or learn something or compete — that’s what it’s about. That combination of the tradition, along with education, with family memories and all of that, is why the fair continues to march on.”

He said the fair association and department committees work to provide fairgoers with something they don’t see in northwest Iowa all the time, and those unique experiences bring people back from year to year.

“Whether you’re going through a good or bad time personally, the fair is a good place to be,” he said.

Parsons said work on the fairgrounds will continue in earnest until fair time, with updates and upgrades on most all buildings, grandstand exhibit area, cattle and horse barns, livestock pavilion and the stables.

Work will continue on the infrastructure, including roads and streets, with a grand total of more than $3.3 million by the time all of these projects are finished.

Other projects the fair association is considering are updated entrances, a covered outdoor arena, a new “Grandpa’s Barn,” landscaping and increased signage.

Parsons said it will all happen, but for now they have to keep looking ahead and meeting needs.

“Anytime you do a celebration there needs to be some sort of legacy component,” he said. “For us, the legacy of the centennial will be a fairground that’s ready for the next hundred years, not as much in what we’re doing today.