I was fascinated by the story behind the revived Amherst County Fair. Particularly, the work of inmate workforce members to prepare the area caught my attention.
The Amherst County Fair will always have a special place in my heart. This article for the Amherst County Guidebook was one of my first projects where I took my son as part of the research.
Before the event, I interviewed several people who planned and coordinated the event. Then, I actually attended the fair. I wrote this piece and added details from that experience.
Local Fair Renews Community Spirit
Originally Published in Amherst County Guidebook
Everyone wants to stand in a place like the Amherst County Fair during the late summer. From the elevated fairground, you can view miles of mountains and feel the rush of wind on your cheeks. The sun is a little too warm, but it’s welcome on your skin.
Here the greens are greener, the blues are bluer and your eyes open a little bit wider.
Maybe that’s why the fair attracted 15,000 visitors, according to fair organizers.
Young and old, families and friends, put down their devices to breathe in a little hometown spirit.
A Fair to Remember
Visiting the Amherst County Fair was an experience that started by bringing visitors back to the days of school field trips. They parked in an open lot at a short distance from the original fairground near Sweet Briar College. Assembling into a cheery line, visitors stepped onto sunny yellow school busses.
From there, the volunteer drivers chauffeured attendees to the front gate.
Again, friendly volunteers greeted everyone, taking their crumpled bills and stamping their hands with a bright blue stamp in the shape of the county.
Inside, visitors were immediately greeted with a meaty smell of barbeque. It was not the only food available, as signs boasted funnel cake, fried pickles and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Barbeque was just the most distinct, local flavor.
To the left of the gate, the sound of dance music attracted people to a small stage with hay bale seating. All of the rows were filled, with many more standing to watch Mike Klee and his Awesome AG Magic Show.
He used a young boy from the audience like a ventriloquist dummy. The boy stood in front while Mike’s hands performed tricks such as pulling scarves out of his sleeves. The audience laughed and gasped along with the boy, enjoying the up-close and personal play on familiar sleights-of-hand.
Continuing in a clockwise manner, that scent of barbeque grew stronger. Food trucks and tents were clustered together to create a foodie’s dream. As Templeton, the rat from the Charlotte’s Web cartoon would say, “A fair is a veritable smorgasbord!”
Nearby, two sounds competed: electric guitars and braying. One was an 80s rock cover band and the other was an assortment of farm animals on display from the local 4-H club. Both were welcome, and appropriate sounds, to serenade visitors as they viewed a gigantic American flag hanging from a tall crane.
As the flag flapped against that backdrop of mountains, a customized LOVE sign drew the eyes. The familiar shape was made from rustic items like a tractor tire for the O and corn stalks for the V. It was definitely Instagram bait and everyone took a photo in front.
From there, the fair was all fun and games with bounce houses and a Kid’s Zone for the little ones and nostalgic rides, local artisan booths and carnival games for children and adults. The mainstays were there, like bumper cars and a carousel. A giant ferris wheel rounded out the fairscape.
Bringing the Fair Back
None of this could have happened without the support of the community, according to Dean Rodgers, Amherst County Administrator. From the beginning, multiple people and groups joined resources to bring the Amherst County Fair back.
Fair Committee Members (in alphabetical order): Vanessa Angus, Don Austin, Jade Brooks, Sam Bryant, Wayne Burnette, Sara Lu Christian, Alyssa Elliott, John Grieser, Lori Hussein, Taylor Johnson, Jeff Kessler, Cathy Mays, Kelly Mays, Rich Meyer, Dean Rodgers, Anne Richards, Anne Marie Roberts, Dottie Rucker, Karissa Shrader, Karen Tanner, Jeremy Thompson, Stacey Wilkes.
According to Rodgers, the idea began as a way to combine several local events into one community-minded festival. It was over 40 years since the last fair and the county was looking for a way to refresh community pride.
Rodgers explained, “The county staff wanted to show the Board of Supervisors and people of Amherst that we can do really big things, and do it well. The fact that we had almost 250 volunteers willing to help demonstrates there is a lot of community spirited people who want to contribute.”
Indeed, volunteers and city workers created the backbone of the event under the supervision of Fair Director, Vanessa Angus. Angus explained that the goal was to, “…celebrate our roots in agriculture, showcase our businesses and local talent and bring the community together to celebrate all things Amherst.”
So, she brought together several key groups to ensure success. According to Angus, “The first order of business was to identify the appropriate departments that would be essential to making this a successful event. Those department leads would mostly comprise the 2018 Amherst County Fair Planning Committee. The professional knowledge and input of the Health Department, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, and Amherst County Public Safety was invaluable to ensuring a safe and logistically well-run event.”
Notably, Captain John Grieser, of the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, assisted as Logistics Manager for the fair by leading the team in preparing the site, planning the footprint and coordinating traffic, medical and other needs during the event. Grieser worked with several groups including the Amherst County Public Schools staff, Amherst County Building and Grounds, Amherst County Sheriff’s office and the inmate workforce members, Clay Thompson and Brian Drewry. He’s excited for next year saying, “We’re already looking at expanding it. It’s something we can continue to build on for our community. We want more agricultural exhibits, more rides and more to excite families.”
Overall, Rodgers was pleased with Angus and her team’s work saying, “I did all I could to support her as she marshalled the resources and did the heavy organizational lifting. She spent the past year meeting with other fair directors and county administrators, finding and contracting the midway rides company, soliciting sponsors and donors, selling the vendor spaces, finding the entertainers and getting all the logistics into place. It took a lot of people to get that fairground and event ready and she let nothing slip through the cracks.”
To Next Year and Beyond
Part of the fair’s success lies in the insurmountable buzz leading up to the event. In addition to an online presence on multiple websites and social media pages, local newspapers, television stations and radio segments covered the story.
Now, the fair poster, proudly displayed by many local businesses, has become something of a collector’s item.
It’s the first of, hopefully, more Amherst County Fairs to come.
Looking to next year, the Board of Supervisors can see that this year’s (2018) $60,000 investment paid off. The attendance, and boost in community pride, was unexpectedly high.
If it is approved for next year, the team that brought this fair to life can apply the many lessons they learned. These include:
- Changes to the fairground layout to optimize flow
- Adjustments to parking and money-handling
- Reducing the hours on Thursday and Friday afternoon
- Increasing the number of vendors
With the energy from this event, it wouldn’t be surprising if the community is once again gathering in late summer on that scenic knoll in Amherst, surrounded by family and friends.