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Walker County Fair and Rodeo: Meeting grand challenges


By Linda Van Slyke

Photo courtesy of

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They say that everything is grander in Texas, sometimes even the challenges.  Walker County has certainly had its share of those.  The population of county-seat Huntsville includes large numbers of residents (23.9% per the 2010 census) who are "below the poverty line."
Wikipedia also explains that a 2007 community report "stated that over 50% of the Huntsville Independent School District (HISD) students are classified as 'economically disadvantaged,'"

and "over 18% of the students do not graduate from high school."
Although these percentages have been influenced by the fact that Huntsville is home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (e.g. "the prison population is included in the city's population"), it nevertheless indicates the grand chPhoto By allenges that Walker County has been facing.
Fair Solutions
Rusty Davis, President of the Walker County Fair and Rodeo, is not one to sit back and let the chips fall where they may. He was there back in 1953 when naysayers were warning that a new fair would surely fail.  He and that "new fair" have been going strong ever since.
Davis recalls, "About seven of us started this fair on the tailgate of a pickup with an idea. We knew that it didn't have to fail just because the older one had.  The time was then right to try again.  People saw the need and really got behind it.  It was a new and different era."
"Agriculture was my own major at Sam Houston State University.  I competed in the rodeo for many years.  My wife rode horses and ran barrels.  My kids competed also."
"We're all basically country folks.  There's a lot of cattle raised here, a lot of timber, and a lot of hay crop.  Some hogs, too."
Fast forward to 2015, and Davis now reports:  We had a real good year.  Our gross receipts were higher than they've ever been.  We grossed about a million.
That million may actually be seven million in terms of community impact.  Davis explained, "They say that a dollar spent goes through the county seven times.  If that's the truth, then that's a $7 million impact on our small agricultural community." 
The secret to such grand success?  Davis said, "Our community turned out in force to support the kids in our livestock sales.  These were people who own their own businesses, individuals, not a bunch of corporations.  These were the people of our own community coming out to support one another in a huge way."
Davis added, "Huntsville is the headquarters of the Texas prison system, and we have a couple of wardens that send us quite a few convicts throughout the year to help us mow, clean up the grounds, etc."
"Sheriff Clint R. McRae came up through the county fair, showing steers as a young boy.  He's now done a tremendous job as County Sheriff."
Davis continued," We give a lot of scholarships, a whole lot.  Those kids get a premium price for their animals, and some of that money is used for their schooling, or for next year's livestock or non-livestock project."
"We help kids from all over Walker County.  We have two other incorporated cities besides Huntsville, New Waverly to the south and Riverside to the east."  
"When you see kids today in broken homes, faced with the things they're faced with, if you can turn a child in the right direction, then it's been worth it all.  What we do is very wholesome, and  very family oriented.  It keeps kids out of trouble and their minds occupied."
2015 Highlights
Davis is quick to give credit where credit is due.  He stated, "We have an outstanding board of directors, along with numerous committee chairs and volunteer workers.  We recently hired a fair manager, Don Burton, and we have a couple of other part-time paid employees."  
"All the rest are volunteers, with in excess of 70 committees this year.  We're one of about three county fairs in Texas that are non-subsidized.  This was our 37thfair.  We had a huge debt load in the beginning, and have now been debt free as of 2008."
Davis spoke enthusiastically about this year's competitions.  "Out PRCA Rodeo was absolutely full both nights, Friday and Saturday.  Our Wednesday night barrel race was so crowded that you could hardly get in the parking lot.  We had about 130 racers on a Wednesday night!"
"The Tilt-a-Whirl and Ferris Wheel are always big favorites.  So are the funnel cakes, pizza and fresh-squeezed lemonade.  Some of our concessionaires have been with us 30-plus years, so that says a lot.  This year we also touched on beer sales and bought a three-day permit."
"One very special event in 2015 was our Easter Sunrise Service.  We held it right here at the fairgrounds, and people were also able to attend their home churches afterwards.  We have a lot  of cowboy churches in our area, and sometimes before an event one of the ministers might get
a group together for a short while."
"We also had a Kindergarten Day, a Senior Citizens Day, plus a Kids' Rodeo for those with special needs.  We put these kids on horses, and you should see the smiles on their faces when they get to rope a dummy."
"We also have an Academic Rodeo for town kids that don't have an animal. These children get to write essays or do something academic in order to compete.  We also have art, photography, baking, canning, and all sorts of supervised projects."
Davis concluded:  "If somebody wants to be involved in our county fair, we will be sure that there is something for them to do."  
This kind of "can do" attitude has made the Walker County Fair and Rodeo a rousing success, not only in meeting grand challenges, but also in providing wholesome and quality entertainment year after year.
The administration is already looking ahead to 2016.  Davis happily predicted, "With growth comes change, and I'm all for change in the right direction."

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