Fair goes on despite year of obstacles
Putting together the state’s largest county fair is no easy task in a normal year. But then add in what has transpired over the past year for officials at the Steele County Free Fair, it nearly becomes overwhelming.
Despite a year filled with obstacles and hurdles, the Steele County Fair kicks into action today (Tuesday) and runs through Sunday in Owatonna. And chances are the regular fairgoer won’t notice a thing.
However, behind the scenes it has been anything but normal for the past 12 months. The fair has lost nearly 90 years of experience with the departures and deaths of several key players.
Just after last year’s fair, Terry Wiese, one of the fair’s long-time superintendents, died after a short battle with cancer.
Within a month of Wiese’s death, veteran publicity director Todd Hale announced his retirement after more than 25 years with the fair. Hale has been replaced by Wayne Steele.
In October, fair manager Jim Gleason came down with brain cancer and was forced to step down in January. His replacement, Scott Kozelka, didn’t come on board until April.
To add even more difficulty to the fair’s operations, long-time office helper Sharon Stark died in May. She logged in 56 years of service to the fair by taking care of much of the computer data work of fair exhibits and entries. Her duties are being split by two people in the office.
“It’s hard. Difficult,” said Dan Deml, fair president when asked about the losses the fair has experienced this year. He said this year by far proved to be the most loss the fair has felt in one year. “We’ve had some important people to replace,” he noted.
The fair has been fortunate in having Deml’s wife, Vicki, who has been with the fair for more than 20 years in the office, to work behind the scenes to keep things operating. Her sidekick, Sharon Klein, who has 12 years with the fair, has also played a key role in keeping things going.
But the hardships encountered by the fair have allowed others to step up and help out. “We all work together,” Deml said. “It’s not rocket science. We just pitch in and get it done.”
As Deml closely monitored things behind the scenes throughout the year, he felt like the fair was running behind and playing catch up for most of the year. That feeling has finally subsided for Deml. “About a week ago I felt everything is coming together,” he said. “I felt we were on top of things. I feel we’re ready.”
Through the turmoil of the past year, the fair has managed to assemble several new things for fairgoers to enjoy this year. Some of them include Autocross event in the grandstand Thursday, a new butterfly exhibit, renovations to the Children’s FFA Barnyard, new entertainment and a revamped area for children.
Impact Motorsports Promotions, the company that has been presenting the ever-popular Demolition Derby, suggested they bring another one of their thrilling acts to the fair—autocross. It is a competition in which drivers navigate through a defined course.
A circus will be offered on the midway this year. The high thrilling activities will be featured at 1 p.m. Tuesday, 3 and 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and Sunday and 2, 5, and 7 p.m. Saturday.
Though the fair is actually much older, it is marking a century on the current fairgrounds. Deml pointed to a barn quilt that will adorn the grandstand as a way to commemorate the 100thanniversary.
“We do the best we can to keep up the facilities,” Deml said.
Deml expects the impersonators of Danny Devito and Jack Nicholson to be a hit this year. They will be cruising around the grounds for six hours every day throughout the fair.
Asked what continues to make the fair such a success year after year, Deml said it boils down to one thing—the psychology of being a free fair. “There is something about free that brings people back day after day,” he says.
Deml also credits the wide range of entertainment and activities as being a big draw for people to attend the fair. “We try to have a variety of something for everybody,” he said. “It’s the combination of everything, especially a strong 4-H program and livestock,” he added.
While Deml admits “it’s hard to keep your arms around everything,” he insists the fair is not trying to do too much. “We have a lot of good people with a lot of experience,” he said.
As the fair kicks into action once again, Deml said he mostly likes watching people enjoy themselves. “It’s just the satisfaction of seeing a popular event coming together and people enjoy coming to it,” he said.