According to Pete Sutton, General Manager of the Clay County Agricultural Fair, "Clay County, Florida is a special place. It has great people and they have a passion for what they believe in. The fair was actually started that way."
Back in the early 1970s, a group of forward-thinking community leaders "all shared the dream that it was important that Clay County's rich agriculture heritage was worth showcasing forever for future generations to enjoy.", according to the fair,s website. From then on, there was no stopping them.
When asked the secret of continually attracting such a high level of volunteerism, Sutton replied: "It becomes personal. They enjoy what they do - if they didn't, they would quit because they're not getting paid. They have pride in what they do, and their reward is seeing other people enjoy it."
And attendees certainly have enjoyed the fruits of this volunteer labor... During this year's fair, 45.11% (a 4.91% increase from last year) of the 21,201 ticket-buyer zip codes that were keyed in were from outside Clay County. Add to that a special visit from the Midwest Fair Association (a select group of fair managers from all over the United States), and it's obvious that the Clay County Agricultural Fair is gaining more and more national recognition.
Sutton described the Early Florida Village exhibit as "the pride of our entire fair." He said that Sarah Lynn Boe, "one of our earlier board members, got the vision and shared it." The website explains that this village began in 1991 with "a replicated cracker-style house constructed by Clay High School students." Sutton described this style of architecture as basically "four walls and a porch."
From these humble beginnings grew an amazing display of Clay County ingenuity. Sutton said that the village more resembles a "Clay County family reunion" than it does a museum. Original structures such as "the homes of pioneer Clay County families" have been donated to the exhibit, and Sutton reported that sometimes family members "will sit in rocking chairs on the porches and talk to guests [fairgoers] about how times used to be."
But you can't have a village with just houses... Over the years, many additions followed. The website states that in 2003 "a replica of an early church" was built. Now fair visitors could also enjoy "choirs, quartets and stringed instrument groups singing and playing familiar gospel tunes," as well as the opportunity to "browse through books, photos and other memorabilia dating back as far as 1850."
Sutton explained, "Each year we've tried to add something to it as the village continues to grow. This year we've added a live-demonstration saw mill since timber is very popular in this county." Trees are actually run through this saw mill, and then the lumber is used to build more of the
village. Talk about wise recycling!
Of course, food is a vital part of any community. The website reports that in 2004, "Master Gardeners from the Clay County Extension Office have volunteered items for planting a small garden with vegetables and flowers. Some vegetables are even started from heirloom seeds." Many of these plants are "good examples of what could be found growing in the gardens of early pioneer settlers." Sutton added, "The village also has free food samples, which are very popular - things like black-eyed peas, cabbage and corn bread." Those with a sweet tooth can then head over to either the Syrup House (for the making of sugar cane syrup), to the Apple Shed (for the making of cider and jelly), or to the Honey House.
The Clay County Agricultural Fair is also very proud of its entertainment. Sutton explained that over the years they've had formerly up-and-coming stars (who are now legends) such as Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith. This year they featured Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers. Dustin Lynch (of "She Cranks My Tractor" fame) was another of 2013's popular acts.
Down-home music certainly reflects this year's overall fair theme: "Country Pride... County Wide." So did the Lawnmower Races, the Washboard Willy Jamboree, the Duct Tape Contest, and the Hog Calling Contest (not to mention the Husband Calling Contest - you can't make this stuff up)...
Those with any voice left (after all that Calling and Calling) were then able to shriek with delight over the Midway thrills. Deggeller Attractions, which Sutton called a "great, great company" provided approximately 40 rides - some of which challenged even the hardiest of stomachs. These stomachs were soon appeased by this year's favorite, by a wide margin, according to survey results, fair food: funnel cakes.
As for the Midway revenue? It was up 28% from last year. In fact, 2013 was a banner year in a number of ways. Total fair attendance was 103,367, a 5.33% increase from last year. Plus, two attendance records were broken this year: a Sunday record with 14,603 attendees and a Single Day record with 23,199.
Many folks were kept in the loop by an effective National advertising campaign. Sutton explained: "We spend most of our money on the electronic side of marketing now. We don't spend nearly as much on print." One look at the fair's Facebook page bears this out. There are photos galore, as wellas follow-up entries such as one commemorating Nurses Week in honor of medical fair partners such as hospitals and individual volunteers. To date, there are almost 15,000 "Likes."
When asked about plans for 2014, Sutton said: "We analyze everything we do at a fair, and if there are problems we fix them." The emphasis has been on making the event as safe and efficient as possible. Capital improvements have been a priority; the parking lot and fair walkways were recently expanded. Next year's dates are April 2nd through 12th and the daily fair schedule complete with sponsors, prices and promotions are already up on the website.