Everything was all set to go for the Arkansas State Fair's big 75th anniversary. Everything but the weather, that is. Fair Spokesperson Ralph Eubanks lamented, "We had to fight thunderstorms and high winds during the first few days of the fair, which really hurt our numbers. Attendance is so tied to the weather, and this year was no exception."
"Fortunately, it then cleared up with blue skies and sunshine. During our last six days we had fantastic attendance. We ended up with a ten-day total of 407,363. Although this was 8.6 percent less than last year's total, it was actually quite good considering our initial weather challenges."
A news release from the Arkansas State Fair Media Center explains that "ideal fall weather on the fair's final day brought out a crowd of 50,505," which "topped the fair's 2013 final day attendance of 45,996." General Manager Ralph Shoptaw concluded, "Overall, our 75th anniversary celebration was a success. Our patrons realize we can't control the weather, but when the weather did improve Arkansans came out in good numbers to support their state fair."
Seventy-five years is certainly a long time, but the Arkansas State Fair has roots that go back much further than that. According to the fair website, "Arkansas has held numerous state fairs and livestock shows" since the late 1860s.
Nevertheless, these early fairs often struggled with fundraising. After the Great Depression, "a group of businessmen, farmers, and educators led by oilman T. H. Barton began to dream of a new economy that was not dependent on cotton farming."
According to Eubanks, Barton's group suggested that "farmers begin to work less on cash crops and instead turn their attention to raising livestock. Generation after generation of Arkansas families have since brought livestock to the fair competitions."
Eubanks added, "We have a museum at the fairgrounds which covers the entire history of the Arkansas State Fair. We also just published a history book commemorating the 75th anniversary of the fair. It includes several pictures of Bill Clinton (as Governor of Arkansas) presenting blue ribbons to some of the folks who won livestock competitions back in the 1980s and early 1990s."
The Fair also has an incredible reputation for big-name headliners. THV11 reported on its "long history of providing great musical entertainment. Memorable acts from years gone by include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Tex Williams, Garth Brooks, and many more music legends." Eubanks noted, "It was also a tradition back in the 50s and 60s to bring in big-name TV entertainers. One year they brought in Donna Douglas and Irene Ryan from the Beverly Hillbillies. During that time period, they also had Fess Parker from the Daniel Boone series and James Arness from Gunsmoke."
Every fair would love to have headliners such as these, but many could not afford to do so. Eubanks stated, "Financing the big entertainment is very important for us because that's what people over the years have come to expect from our fair." He explained, "We make decent money from gate admission and parking simply because of the numbers we bring in each year. Our ride-band program also does pretty well. And then something that we have really grown to count on for probably the last eight or nine years is our sponsorship program."
"We have a very healthy and growing sponsorship program, and that brings in a lot of money. We have five sponsors every year. This year's sponsors were Coca-Cola, Electric Cooperative of Arkansas, Steve Landers Chrysler Dodge Jeep, Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Arkansas Farm Bureau."
Eubanks added, "We've been very fortunate over the last 10, 12 years to continue to grow with our attendance. We set our all-time record back in 2010 with 472,194 fair patrons that year, and we've been pretty much over 400,000 just about every year for the past 10 years." Marketing plays a hefty part in all this. Eubanks continued, "I would say that the majority of our advertising budget is spent in TV and radio, electronic media. We're in about the 70 percent range for that, with another 30 percent on print and outdoor. Social media, which is handled in-house, is also a growing piece."
Eubanks described an ingenious way to determine which new fair foods are the tastiest. Hold a "Tasty Tom" contest, and invite the media people in for lunch and a taste test. Then have them choose the winners of this year's Tasty Tom awards.
Eleven new culinary creations were voted on in 2014. Fried Peaches and Cream won hands down (and smiling lips up). Eubanks explained how it's made: "You take a fresh peach, cut it in half, pit it, then add funnel-cake batter, deep-fry it, then sprinkle that fried half peach generously with cinnamon sugar, and top it with a scoop of ice cream and a big bunch of whip cream."
Sorry to say that the Elvis Dog wasn't quite as popular. Eubanks admitted, "I think there were a lot of skeptics on that one!" Here's why: The Elvis Dog consists of "a hot dog with peanut butter and banana." This might have worked well for "The King," but for the rest of us it's a tough act to swallow.
THV11 reported that there were approximately 50 vendors on the fairgrounds, with another seven inside the Barton Coliseum. The cafeteria-style Big Show Diner was especially popular. It featured freshly-prepared, fast-serve foods such as "Mexican specialties and blue plate dinners including roast beef, hamburger chuck steaks, catfish, shrimp, chicken, pork chops, sandwiches, and a child's menu."
A promotion called "Lunch at the Fair" included free gate admission and parking from the hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays only. Eubanks explained, "People who can't spend five hours can take a midday break, still get to the fair and have a great lunch."
One taste of the treats, one look at the attractions, and many might soon be back...