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Larsons are Fair Persons of Year

By Staff | Jul 19, 2009

Each July, the fairgrounds come alive with blooming flowers, roaring engines, the smell of deep-fried foods and the sound of laughter. It’s county fair time.

Thanks to the efforts of the Faribault County Fair Board, it is a place where neighbors gather to be happy and spend the day.

Two board members who have contributed of their time and talents to make the fair ‘the great social event of the county,’ are being recognized by their peers as the ‘Fair Persons of the Year.’ They are Leroy and Joyce Larson of Kiester.

While serving as a board member, Leroy has helped oversee many building decisions on the fairgrounds. These have included the construction of the Faribault County Fitness Center, Historical Society Antique Machinery Shed, Oldfather Hall and the Paschke Building. In addition, his skill and passion for tending the flowers and shrubs annually enhances the beauty of the grounds. He also has assumed the responsibility of taking command of the parking and traffic issues during fair week, including the parking and pit passes for the demolition derby.

“I have heard just about every possible excuse why people think they need to be in the pit area,” he says while shaking his head.

Joyce’s focus during the fair has been helping with general office tasks and providing tasty refreshments, such as cinnamon rolls, cookies and bars, during the board members breaks. She says she also makes a lot of signs for the fair and gets stuck painting most of them.

“I’ve been kind of a fair person all my life,” says Larson who was recruited to the fair board in 1976 by Roger Oldfather. He has since discovered one must genuinely like the fair in order to stick with it. Larson also recognizes how it advances agriculture to some degree.

As a youth, he spent nine years as a Walters 4-H member. During this period, he served as the club’s reporter and president. Among his childhood 4-H memories are taking champion swine to the State Fair and ushering people into the grandstand to see Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, perform during a rodeo for 4-H members at the 1948 State Fair. He also vividly remembers 1946. This was the year there was no Faribault County Fair because of the polio outbreak.

He and his wife, Joyce, continued as Kee 4-H adult leaders for many years prior to joining the fair board.

“It’s a good experience for anyone who likes the fair,” says Larson of his years working with many dedicated and interesting board members from around the county. Among these have been Marvin Feist, Lester Paschke, Marlin Prange, Gary Johnson, Roger Oldfather, Melvin Sens, Harry Borglum, Marvin Redman, Dwight Hervey, Marlin Krupp and Quinton Strack to name but a few.

During the years with the board, Larson has learned quite a bit about human nature and what attracts people to the fair.

“People seem to be drawn to anything with a little danger in it,” says Larson. He also says people like noisy events.

“When I was first on the board, we had the National Tractor Pullers Association involved,” recalls Larson. “There were some really souped-up tractors at that pull. The more noise they made, the more the people liked it.” Thus, the popularity today of such events as the demolition derby, tractor pull and the revving engines of the supercross and I-90 Kart racers.

“When I started, there were lots of new car and implement businesses in the county. In fact, just about every town sold new cars and had an implement dealership,” recalls Larson. “So, our ‘Machinery Hill’ was filled with different brands of farm equipment. Now, we only have Hinkley’s Chevrolet-Pontiac-Buick in Wells who sell new cars and just a few implement dealers.” Other than a few gigantic pieces of equipment, the area once known as ‘Machinery Hill’ is now grassland or a home to food vendors and other displays.

Because of the county’s demographics…fewer people and businesses as well as a busier lifestyle…displays, vendors and exhibits are becoming more difficult for the fair board to obtain says Larson.

So are carnivals.

As for featuring big name entertainers, Larson says that is a thing of the past.

“With the county’s population steadily declining, there is no way the fair board could afford the caliber of entertainers we once booked.” Some of the celebrities who took center stage in the late 1970s and the 1980s at the local grandstand included Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Pride, Mel Tillis and the Judds.

“I remember the year we booked Marty Robbins. He died very unexpectedly, but fortunately the agent we had been dealing with got us Mel Tillis as a last minute fill-in. While he (Tillis) was here, he went for a bite to eat at the Country Kitchen. Wearing a baseball cap and casual clothes, he fit right in and no one even recognized him” chuckles Larson.

Larson also recalls special criteria some of the entertainers added to their performance contracts. In the case of Charlie Pride, the fair board had to locate a pink Cadillac to pick him up from the Fairmont Airport. The Judds contracted for Cold Duck wine, coffee and a large cheese tray. Since it was close to 90 degrees the evening of their performance, Larson says the wine was consumed but the cheese tray was literally left untouched.

Then there was the show Tammy Wynette contracted to do but never honored.

“Like entertainers, if carnivals don’t want to show up, they don’t,” says Larson. “We pay up-front, but are at their mercy.” He adds how the carnivals can also tell the fair board what other food vendors they will allow on the premises. If their carnival sells a particular food item, they do not want competition from another private vendor.

Since the people like danger and noise, a carnival is a must to keep a fair vibrant. However, Larson says there are not enough carnivals to go around to all the counties in the state.

Challenges facing the board today are the expenses for entertainment, insurance and even the price of fuel.

Weather and the quality of the carnival are what can make or break a fair says Larson. Unfortunately, the board has little control over either.

Continued financial help towards the support of the fair has been set-up through bequests given by the late Elmer and Bernice Ehrich and Vera Steinberg. Their generosity will be recognized this year at a special awards presentation.

Probably the two most memorable events occurring during the Larsons tenure on the board was the lightning strike which caused the round barn to burn to the ground and the appearance of the Reminisce Hitch.

However, Larson says most of the 33 years he has spent on the board have been filled with fond memories.

As for the top drawing cards today, he says finding different activities that appeal to all ages is the key to the continuance of the county fair.

“We try to add new events to fit the ever-changing and different tastes of our audience,” says Larson. Because of this, the board has contracted for a different carnival (Minnesota Magic Midway, Inc.), added the St. Peter Rodeo, an Antique Tractor Pull, Draft Horse Pull, Extreme Screen Events featuring Guitar Hero and Rock Band Gamer, an outdoor movie at dusk, Open Class Amateur Wine Exhibits as well as a wine tasting and dessert contest. An old-fashioned basket social is slated for Sunday, the closing day of the 149th annual Faribault County Fair.

Probably the most social site on the grounds is ‘The Tent,’ says Larson.

“People like to sit under it because it is generally cool, even on the hottest days.”The Larsons admit they almost live at the fairgrounds during the week of the fair. A typical day for them runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Board members are already looking forward to an even bigger, better and memorable event in observance of the sesquicentennial of the fair in 2010.

“There’s always room for improvement and new ideas on the board,” says Larson. “One is never too good that you can’t be replaced.”

When he and Joyce are not busy attending the monthly fair board meetings throughout the year, Larson enjoys pruning, a task he can work at for hours without looking at a clock. He also is a history buff.

He recently donated a handcrafted replica of the village of Kiester, as it appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, to the town’s museum.

Made from one-quarter inch plywood, Leroy did all of the construction in the couple’s basement over a three winter period. Joyce then did all the painting.

It is my vision of what Kiester looked like when I was between seven and 17 years of age,” says Larson. During World War II, he says Kiester, population 650, had about 65 different businesses, including three grocery stores and four restaurants. These are all represented in his replica.

Speaking of history, Larson recalls when the Faribault County Fair was held the first week in September. It ran Thursday through Sunday with most 4-H members sleeping right on the premises with their livestock. The fair, he believes, was changed to July in the 1950s.

Just as Larson can tell a supportive fair-goer when he sees one, so can fellow board members acknowledge two of their own.

With over 50 years of dedication to the Faribault County Fair, the county proudly recognizes Leroy and Joyce Larson as the 2009 ‘Fair Persons of the Year.’

They truly have put their heart into promoting fair week…a time where neighbors gather to be happy and spend their day.