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Johnson County Fair ties new traditions with the old

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JULY 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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In a state known for its corn, pigs and cows, it's no wonder so many in eastern Iowa's farming community and non-farming community alike flock to the Johnson County Fair, where tractor pulls and livestock shows are tradition.

But the county is rich with art and culture as well fresh produce — and organizers of the 2012 Johnson County Fair, which will begin on July 23 at the Johnson County Fairgrounds, said they hope to represent this aspect of Johnson County's heritage as well.

"It's a great mix between the rural and the urban," said Brenda Christner, the fair's business manager. "I think Iowa City and Johnson County are really stepping ahead of some of the other counties and cities in the area by maintaining the fair [and] getting the whole community to come together in one spot."

As a county with an increasing urban population, Christner said, it is important for the fair to adapt to the times.

"We're trying to get more of the non-farm community people to come out, so we work to bring in things that reflect the change in the community as well," she said. "We've been switching out a few of the things we used to do to see if the community likes something different."

She said organizers draw inspiration for new events from other Iowa fairs as well as board members' observations of popular area activities.

"We look at what's happening at the State Fair or other places around the community," she said. "One idea we got from the State Fair is a corn box. Instead of sand, it's filled with shelled corn, and kids can play in it like sand. We also decided to have a bean-bag tournament, which we haven't had before. I mean, you drive down Iowa City and see people playing bags all over the place. We thought it would be of interest to the community."

But Christner said the new aspects don't replace the importance of maintaining long-loved traditions. The fair will still include the naming of a County Fair queen, animal shows, truck and track pulls, wood carving, carnival rides, extensive commercial exhibits, and numerous public contests such as a beef-chili cook-off and rubber-chicken throwing contest.

"Tradition does have a part of course, because a lot of what keeps us going are the things that are here every year, like the pork producers, cattlemen, turkey growers, and the Dairy Council," Christner said. "People come out to see the same things, so when things become popular, we continue to do them and maintain them."

Facilities manager Gary Shemanski said one of the continuing goals of the fair is providing a fun, educational atmosphere for the area's children, along with the fair's longtime partners, the Johnson County 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America.

"I really think involving the kids and their projects in the fair really, really teaches our young people how do certain things, to start a project and see it through to the end, whether it be a photography project, or an animal project, or whatever," he said.

Entertainment manager Charlie Isaacs said another staple of the fair is finding local entertainment for the talent show and featured performances. Along with a magician, the fair has slated the Eastern Iowa country band Lonesome Road to take the fairground stage.

"They have a good community tie," he said. "We're a smaller fair, so getting stuff from the community will hopefully bring in people from Iowa City and Coralville who have seen this band before. It keeps it fun and keeps it local."

Lonesome Road vocalist and lead guitarist Jeff Mattison said he believes the band's performance will please a whole spectrum of fair patrons.

"We try to cater a little bit to everybody," he said. "Mainly, we're a top-40 country band, so we try to stay pretty current. We also do some classic country and classic rock, so we have a little something for everybody."

An event he fondly remembers visiting as a child, Mattison said he and his bandmates look forward to returning to the fair.

"It's one of the funnest times of summer for us," he said. "In a lot of the bigger shows we play, we're usually in restricted areas, whereas here, it's more personal, and we can get out and interact with the crowd. It's a lot more freeing and comfortable when you can sit down and talk with someone you haven't seen in a while who might be coming out to a big event like the Johnson County Fair."

Like Mattison, Shemanski said he has a long memory for fairs, and he has seen firsthand the changes, both positive and negative, that have hit many of Iowa's county fairs.

"When I was a kid, I showed at a lot of fairs," he said. "I've been around the fair atmosphere a long time. It's a lot the same, but there are some aspects that have changed. It costs a lot of money to put a fair on, and there are a lot of fairs out there that don't necessarily have a lot ready cash to go out and do a lot of things without charging a lot for them."

Luckily, the Johnson County Fair has managed to avoid such a fate, Shemanski said.

"We are fortunate in this community to have a lot of support so we are able to keep our fair free," he said. "We don't charge for parking, we don't charge for any of our entertainment events. The only thing you pay for out here is your food and your carnival rides. And in that respect, we're unique."

Isaacs said that he believes the fair is special in more ways than one. He hopes to continue the fair's legacy of providing cost-friendly fun for patrons of all ages while breaking down barriers between the rural and urban communities.

"We're bringing down talent from the farming community to tour exhibits and allowing people from the city to see how farming takes place and really works out," he said. "Everyone here is really nice and down-to-earth. Most anything in town will cost you money, but here, you can come have an experience for free and see all your family and friends from the area."

And for Isaacs, family is the ultimate, lasting tradition of the fair.

"My grandpa was a manager years ago for the Johnson County Fair, so for me it's a family thing," he said. "That's what it's all about, family ties. When you come to the fair, you see generations — everyone's family comes out. It's a great time."


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