County fair has seen plenty of changes through years
In more than 80 years of existence, the Leavenworth County Fair has seen a lot of changes.
From its humble beginnings as a venue for local farmers to display the best of what they had raised that year to a venue for modern 4-H’ers to showcase things such as their rockets, the fair has been a gathering point for some very talented and hardworking individuals in the county.
None knows this more than David Todd, longtime fair board president. Todd said he and his family have been involved with the Leavenworth County Fair for more than 45 years.
“I was a 4-H’er and I showed at the county fair when I was young,” he said. “In my family, my grandmother was a 4-H leader in the county; my mother was then in 4-H club and a club leader; I was in 4-H and my kids were in it, too.”
Todd said, through the years, the biggest changes he has seen really come from the farmers — more specifically, the farms themselves.
As time went on, he said the county got more developed and farming was pushed to the side.
“In the older days, in the days when I first started on the fair board, the majority of the board members were farmers and self employed,” Todd said. “Today, almost everybody on the board has a full-time job and they farm or they also have a full-time job and run a business. There are few guys on the board that are still 100 percent farmers.”
He added that the horticulture and crop exhibits aren’t as extensive as they used to be and the 4-H kids are showing smaller animals, which can be raised more easily on small farms.
“You see less and less family farms these days,” Todd said. “Kids that are showing live on small acreages and they only have either a couple of goats or a couple of sheep. The ones that have a little more ground might have a steer or a heifer, but probably the majority doesn’t raise them anymore. Many families buy a project club calf, a feeder pig and they have it for six, seven, eight months.”
Russ Davidson, with the fair board, agreed. He said the county once had many dairy farms and showing dairy cows was a big part of the fair. Now, he said, there are only a handful of dairies left in the county.
Despite the loss of family farms, the fair continues to get bigger and bigger.
Todd said he remembers when there were only 35 to 40 pigs in a show, but now it’s common to see anywhere from 100 to 200 pigs showing.
Even more common now is the sight of goats during the fair. Todd attributes it to the fact that goats are easy to raise in smaller acreages.
“Our goat projects have gone from next to nothing to a pretty darn good size for the fair,” he said. “I bet we’ll have 40 or 50 goats at the fair this year.”
The money 4-H’ers receive in premiums also has gone up through the years. The amount each receives depends on many factors, including the economy, but Todd said last year premiums were starting at about $200 for cattle.
Richard Parker, also with the fair board, said that is one change he hasn’t really liked through the years.
He said premiums used to be only around $30, but now with the higher cost of raising animals like a steer on a small plot of land and with the higher amounts of money at the auctions, he said it seems like more and more 4-H’ers are simply showcasing animals they just purchased for show.
“That isn’t what a fair was about,” Parker said. “You used to bring the best of what you had to the fair. You didn’t just go out to buy animals. You used the best of whatever you raised. It was always your own stuff.”
While some of the exhibits at the fair may change and the fairgrounds itself might change, there are some things that have remained.
For as long as anyone can remember, Todd said, the parade, the turtle races and the carnival have been an integral part of the Leavenworth County Fair. And as far as the carnival is concerned, Todd prides himself on having one of the safest in the state.
“Our carnival has one of the top safety ratings that they can possibly get,” he said.
This also extends to the other non-4-H related items of entertainment that have been available at the fair. He said for the mud run fair organizers have taken extra precautions to keep spectators safe.
“We want to make sure that we are doing what we can for a safe show, but at the same time provide good entertainment to our customers.”
While some events, such as the mud run and the demolition derby, as well as the non-motorized competitions, such as the horse pull, have drawn more people to the fair each year, some past ideas haven’t been so successful.
At one point the fair board had decided to add a country music concert to the agenda. Todd said in 2005 the fair board paid Warren Brothers a good amount of money to hire a recognizable band to provide entertainment to the fairgoers.
He said they didn’t have a venue that was ready for the band and an audience and it didn’t work out.
Davidson and Parker agreed that their first — and possibly last — attempt to become a big country music destination was a big flop.
The fair has had some hits and misses with entertainment, but it was the big hit the fairgrounds took during the May 11, 2000, tornado that really sticks out the most in Todd’s mind.
On that day more than a decade ago, a tornado ripped its way through the city and the Leavenworth County Fairgrounds, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.
Todd said the tornado caused around $700,000 worth of damage to the grounds.
“When that thing hit, we had less than 90 days to go until the fair,” Todd said. “It was a big, big task to try and get the fairground up in some kind of shape before the fair started and we were able to do it. There has to be a lot of credit given to the community and especially to all of the people in Leavenworth County and all of the people involved in 4-H and FFA that pitched in. There were hundreds of volunteers that helped clean up the mess and make it so contractors could come and rebuild as many as they could.”
Because many people in the county came and helped, the fair was able to go as planned despite the damage.
It is that spirit of cooperation and the people in the county who make the fair such a big event each year and what keeps Todd around.
He said the people are the reason why he takes a week off work to help get the fair ready. And it’s the relationships he has developed with the residents of Leavenworth County that he has kept for more than 40 years — even if he only sees them for one week out of a year.
“There’s something neat about that,” Todd said.