Saunders County Fair

PREP TIME: Members of the Saunders County Agricultural Society and 4-H families gather on Saturday morning to clean up the fairgrounds in preparation for the 2020 Saunders County Fair. (Staff Photo by Jason Unger)

WAHOO – The 2020 Saunders County Fair will take place after all. But it will look and feel a little different than years past.

Members of the Saunders County Agricultural Society, which oversees the fair, and the Saunders County Extension educators who govern the 4-H end of things have been sweating it out since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area.

For months, the ag society, also known as the fair board, kept working diligently on plans as the virus spread and local cities and the governor began shutting down public events. Knowing full well that they may not be able to have a public gathering of the size that a fair would normally be, they continued on with their plans anyway.

The state put Directed Health Measures (DHM) in place to curb large gatherings in the beginning of May. If they stayed in place, the fair would be in jeopardy. Luckily by late June and early July, the DHM were relaxed in phases so that by the time the fair would take place, many of the events could happen.

One thing that was a constant in all of the discussions and meetings was that the fair board and extension educators wanted to try their best to have some sort of fair for the 4-H members in the county. They all agreed that the real reason for the fair was for the kids.

Extension Educator Cole Meador and the staff at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center (ENREC) came up with three options for holding the 4-H end of the fair. The first option was to keep the fair the same as it has always been, which was highly unlikely. Another option was to hold a virtual fair, where no one would attend in person. That would require more manpower and money than the regular fair, Meador told the fair board.

In the end, the option to develop a modified fair was the one that everyone settled on. Meador and his staff worked tirelessly to keep the schedule as close to previous years as possible, all the while making sure events were spaced out enough in time and distance to provide a safe fair for the kids, superintendents and judges.

Some events were moved to new locations on the fairgrounds like the ATV and tractor driving contests, which relocated to the rodeo grounds.

The pandemic forced the cancelation of a few of the regular events 4-H fair events, including herdsmanship, the swine carcass contest, livestock judging, the round robin championship and the public fashion show. The best dressed critter will be held online only.

In years past, 4-Hers were required to bring their animals for the full week of the fair and house them in the barns on the fairgrounds. This year, the extension staff is encouraging the families to “show and go,” or show out of their trailer. They can bring the animal right before its show and take it home immediately after.

Meador said families can use the barns, but must keep empty stalls between them and other families. The wash racks will also be spaced out for social distancing.

The static 4-H exhibits will be spread out in three buildings instead of just the 4-H building. The commercial and open class buildings have been enlisted to house the exhibits. The buildings will be set up so people can see the exhibits but not touch them. And people will be encouraged to stay six feet apart as they walk through the buildings. The food exhibits will be judged by appearance only, as tasting is not allowed.

Spectators are welcome at the 4-H events, but the bleachers will be marked off so people can social distance. People are also encouraged to bring their own chairs.

For the first time in the fair’s history, events will be streamed live online. Meador said all of the animal shows and contests will be livestreamed. Photos of static events will be posted online as well.

Aside from 4-H events, one of the fair’s big draws is the carnival midway. This year, the rides and games have been shut down because of the pandemic. The Saunders County Amusement Association, which owns and operates the rides, made the difficult decision in the interest of safety for the kids and the volunteers who man the rides.

The pandemic also claimed the Wahoo PRCA Rodeo, which precedes the fair. It will be the first time in 66 years that the rodeo, put on by the Wahoo Saddle Club, has not taken place. The club is already planning for next year, however.

Another casualty of the pandemic was the fair parade. A highlight of the eight-day fair, crowds normally line the streets of downtown Wahoo to view the floats, horses and vehicles. But the state’s directed health measures prohibit parades where people gather to watch. Open class contests have also been scrapped this year.

On the other hand, one of the most anticipated events of the fair is still planned. The 1980s rock band 38 Special, known for hits like “Caught Up in You,” will be on a double bill with country band BlackHawk on July 31.

The concert committee has been working for a year on this concert, anticipating large crowds for the classic rock sound of 38 Special and the country tunes from BlackHawk. The state had placed restrictions on concerts in the months leading up to the fair. But the guidelines were relaxed just a few weeks before the event. The concert committee received approval from the local health department.

The concert will take place in the “pits” area south of the rodeo grounds. Ticket sales are limited to meet the social distancing requirements.

The motor sports events also remain on the schedule for 2020. The figure 8 race, demolition derby and tractor and truck pulls will take place on the same days they normally run. There are some modifications to meet the social distancing and other guidelines, and organizers suggest everyone purchase tickets in advance, because they can’t guarantee there will be tickets available at the door on the day of the show.

In fact, fairgoers should be warned that any event that requires a ticket could be sold out, so early ticket sales are encouraged.

A detailed schedule for the 2020 Saunders County Fair can be found in the Saunders County Fair Guide inserted in this week’s paper, and online at saunderscountyfair.com.

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