By Sukainah Abid-Kons, contributor
The 2023 Rockingham County Fair was, above all else, predictable — in the best of ways.
The fair, which wrapped up its 75th year on Aug. 19 has grown twelve-fold since its humble inception, while withstanding a pandemic along the way.
I hadn’t been to the fair since high school, but going back after four years, it almost felt like no time had passed since the last visit. The layout was the same. Anyone who’s been just once can navigate the grounds with confidence for the rest of their lives. This year’s rides looked like the same ones that were there 10 years ago. The food options thankfully remained largely unchanged and the appearance, smell, and taste (divine, by the way), were as reliable as ever.
On Aug. 31, 1949, the first Rockingham County Fair opened at the former Linville Edom High School, north of Harrisonburg. There were no fairgrounds and no rides. The school’s gym housed the exhibit booths, “much to the displeasure of the school principal,” as Dennis Cupp described it in his description of the fair’s history, available on the event’s website.
The event lasted four days and around 5,000 people attended and was covered by The Daily News-Record, according to Cupp’s written history. In total, the fair brought in about $130 in revenue, as recorded in Cupp’s writings, which would be $1,669.74 in today’s currency when plugged into the CPI’s Inflation Calculator.
Today, Rockingham County hosts Virginia’s largest county fair and has been repeatedly recognized for its agricultural attractions, competition, and expositions. For the last 20 years, The International Association for Fairs and Expositions has awarded the fair first place in the “Overall Program for Competitive Agricultural Exhibitors” category.
In 2021, the seven-day event (now at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, of course) hosted more than 62,000 visitors, or approximately 8,800 visitors each day the fair was open. While revenue amounts are not available for 2022, tax filings from 2017-2021 show that the fair’s revenue was regularly between $1.5 million and $2 million, with the exception of 2020. Pre-pandemic, the fair’s record number of visitors was more than 92,000 people, which was recorded in 2015.
On the evening of Friday, Aug. 18, the fairgrounds were absolutely packed with people. To watch the livestock auction, one had to stand behind the bleachers — on tiptoes if one had the misfortune of being behind a tall fair-goer — to get a glimpse of the action. Many of the front-row spectators were there for bidding. In the quasi-stables connected to the auction room, I had to weave between people to get a glimpse of the cows, goats, and pigs — and talk to their owners.
At the end of one of the rows sat Gary and Roberta Keppel, who were watching the cow auction. Rebecca grew up in an agricultural family in the Shenandoah Valley and has been coming to the fair every year for more than three decades. Gary, who, as he put it, “married into the business” and has been accompanying his wife for more than 20 years.
In all that experience, Gary Keppel said he’s been impressed with the fair’s operations. Compared to other county fairs he’s been to, he said Rockingham County consistently has a high standard of cleanliness and sufficient space in the facilities. More than anything, the Keppels say the community aspect keeps them coming back.
Roberta Keppel, who started showing livestock at the fair when she was 9, said she met friends at the fair whom she still sees every year. The week is their time to reconnect and spend time together.
“You have friends that you might not see 51 weeks of the year except at fair week,” Gary Keppel said. “It’s a good gathering place.”
Roberta Keppel said while the fair hasn’t changed since she first came, she thinks it’s the educational opportunities that keep people coming each year. Families who don’t live near an agricultural area have a firsthand chance to teach their kids about livestock and where their food comes from. Children who show animals get to experience the process of raising them from birth to when they’re ready to be sold. It’s an experience that can really only be attained at an event like the fair, she said.
The Heritage Museum was one spot that evening that wasn’t packed with people. Perhaps larger crowds wandered through earlier because it would have been a shame for people to miss it. Along the walls were signs, trinkets, and tools from eras long passed. Farming tools from the early 20th century, agriculture signage from the ‘50s, and even a loom from the 19th century.
Sitting next to the loom was Misty Turner, who was volunteering for the first time this year but has been attending for years.
She’d participated in the community loom project, in which people who visit the heritage museum could help create a piece that would be finished up at the end of the week. Turner said the loom stays in the museum building year-round, and she’s enjoyed using it so much that she wants to visit throughout the year to work on projects.
Turner offered a theory about what prompts people to keep coming back each year, even if much of what the fair offers stays largely the same.
“Maybe it is because it doesn’t change, you know? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Turner said. She added that people know they can find their favorite thing year after year — whether that’s the tractor pull, petting zoo, or fried chicken.
My last stop of the evening was at the 4-H petting zoo, which had a line of people at both entrances, mostly families with young children who wanted to see the animals.
Supervising the attraction was Debbie Rhodes, one of the leaders of the Bridgewater 4-H Club. Like everyone I talked with, Rhodes has been coming to the fair for years. She said she started when her kids were toddlers.
Every year, the 4-H club will pair up with local farmers to have different animals throughout the zoo, allowing visitors to learn about and interact with each of them.
Rhodes said the educational opportunity that comes with visiting the fair is something that’s hard to come by.
“We have a lot of visitors who don’t know what each of the animals are,” Rhodes said. “I think they just don’t get much of an opportunity to pet horses or donkeys or cows or alpacas.”
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