Remember the county fair?

Louise Oleson
Journal Managing Editor,
The Ramsey County Fall Fair was popular with area residents well into the 1990s.

For some, the county fair is as much a part of summer as anything else - blue skies, the buzz of honeybees, a meadowlark's song - but for others, like us here in Ramsey County, it's a thing of the past.

In Devils Lake it was called the "Fall Fair" and the last one was held in 1996.

According to Brenda Langerud from the NDSU Extension Office in Ramsey County there were a total of 318 open class exhibits (of which six were garden exhibits). The 1990s marked a steady decline in the number of exhibits with a high of 893 in 1991. In other words, the number of exhibits dropped by more than half in less than eight years.

"I remember from 1996, that one of the open class worker volunteers commented they had more workers present during the day than public coming to view the exhibits" Langerud said.

Richard Volk, farmer from Webster, is the Fair Board President, he remembers the 1950s when the Ramsey County Fair was very popular. "We really had the participation, then," he said.

But now, he says he thinks changing demographics has a lot to do with what's happened in North Dakota and many counties dropping the county fair or changing how they meet the needs of the community in a changing world.

"The school buses used to be full coming in from the country," he pointed out.

"Now, there are one, two, three kids riding those buses. We just don't have the farm kids like we used to have," Volk explained.

He also said the school district contributed to the decline because as sports grew more and more popular, school children had to choose between participating in 4-H and fair activities or participating in sports. That and dropping the FFA - Future Farmers of America - that was a part of the school system for many years. He said Norris Fagerlund, who was at the helm of that program for a number of years, was the one who helped many of the people now out there farming learn how to farm.

Then, participation at the carnival declined, as well. The carnival normally accompanied the Fall Fair and it got to the point that Murphy Brothers didn't even make $50 according to Volk, one of the last times they were here in Devils Lake. "In fact, Mr. Murphy sent us a check for $1,000," Volk said. "I think he felt sorry for us."

Increasing fees for insurance and rules and regulations from environmental groups weighed heavily on the Fair Board, as well. "It seemed as if you couldn't have a greased pig chasing contest without someone getting upset about it," he said.

In the 1980s Volk said he went to the county commission and asked them to guarantee the finances for the fair and though they agreed, he felt he couldn't keep coming back year after year getting them to guarantee the fair's finances. That was the end of it.

What has evolved

What has evolved from those beginnings are a variety of ways young people can be involved, according to Volk. 4-H participating remains strong in the rural area and they have 4-H Achievement Days in June where participants can show their projects and get them ready for entry in the North Dakota State Fair in July. That's been a real benefit for the young people who have won prizes sometimes in the thousands of dollars that they can use for college and so on, he said.

He said it was difficult for people to accept the change, but it has ended up being a good thing for more year-round activities.

Pizza Days

The Fair Board continues to support educational activities for all youth through their sponsorship of the annual "Experience Agriculture: Special Assignment Pizza" which annually educates 250 or more fourth graders on the importance of agriculture. This two-day event held each spring educates the youth about growing and milling grain, growing vegetables, making cheese and animal husbandry - all that contributes to the toppings on a pizza and where it comes from in the first place.

"As young people become more and more removed from the farm, they just don't know where all that stuff comes from," Volk said. He says it is an extremely popular activity that originated with the Farm Bureau. They allowed the NDSU Extension people and the 4-H leaders to take it over and turn it into what it is today.

Event Center

The Fair Board is continuing to develop the Ramsey County Fairgrounds located four miles west of Devils Lake on Highway 19. Using all volunteer help the board has developed a horse riding arena, playground, viewing facilities and a new event center on the property which was sold to them at a reasonable rate and no interest by area landowner Tommy Peterson. The most recent addition is a new sign and lights for night activities. The event center is also accessible and plans are being made to continue landscaping the grounds.

The horse show and equestrian events at the arena have become very popular and that popularity is growing all the time.

Now according to Volk that facility is available to anyone in the community for a rental fee to use as a multi-purpose facility. It's been used for graduation parties, wedding receptions and much more. It contains a large meeting space, conference room, kitchen, bathrooms with showers and office space. Jeri Steffan is the caretaker at the event center and can be reached at 230-2291 for booking details.

Volk said the 4-H Shooting Sports has also become very popular in the region with competitors from Ramsey County doing well at state and national competitions.

"The interest and participation in shooting sports has really increased, too," he said.

"Plus there are many local adults helping with those programs that stimulate interest in the community."

He sees a bright future for all these programs that have flourished in recent years.

He also sees potential for the future for the fair grounds. "There's been some talk about a Bull-O-Rama, but our facility couldn't handle that right now, but if interest continues, maybe someday we can invest in that heavier equipment and have that be a regular event, too. You never know," Volk said.

He's been a member of the board since the late 1970s, he said with a grin, not sure which year he began. "Then there were 17 board members and now we have only 7 members but they are all hard-working, good people and all volunteers."

Volk speculated that these other things that have evolved are more year-round activities and they may not have happened if the Fall Fair was still the main focus. He says it was a tough thing to give up, but good has come out of it, and that makes all the difference.