Holding a county fair during a pandemic isn’t easy to pull off, and changes have had to be made because of it, but the White County Fair board is ready for a return to the fairgrounds beginning with a parade Saturday in downtown Searcy.
Last year was the first time in more than 80 years that the White County Fair wasn’t held. It was called off because of COVID-19. Despite the delta variant of the coronavirus still whirling through the state, the fair board decided it was time for it to be held again at the White County Fairgrounds “for the kids.”
“We are very lucky to have a fair right now, considering we didn’t have a fair last year,” board President Alan Quattlebaum said. “I talked to a lot of the state fair representatives and senators at the Capitol about this, that we do not need to lose our county fair.
“The reason I say this is because the foundation of our kids in our county, a lot of it comes from right here because the reason is their mothers and fathers have raised them to have a responsibility to go out and raise an animal every day and then bring it to the fair and show it.”
Quattlebaum said state legislators “are behind us on this.”
“Why I got on the fair board is for this reason,” he said. “When we have a fair that goes and quits, it’s going to affect everybody. It’s just not affecting the fair itself. What it affects is the family that has an animal there that won’t have an animal. The person they buy it from to raise it ... where they go to the feed store to buy feed ... it affects that company, too, in itself.
“It goes around in a circle and what I’m trying to say is it’s just not about the county fair as far as the rides are concerned. It’s about our children in this county. That’s the thing I have always stressed and that’s the reason I got on this fair board.”
The parade for this year’s fair begins at 11 a.m. near the Searcy Public Library at Spring Street and Pleasure Avenue. According to Lt. Todd Wells of the Searcy Police Department, the fair will head northbound to Arch Arch, go west on Spruce Street, north on Spruce Street, then east on Race Avenue before finishing at Grand Avenue.
At the fairgrounds, where events will kick off Sunday at 2 p.m., Quattlebaum said “the pandemic has really caused a lot of issues ... as far as helpwise because in the past, the county has been very helpful in getting us help out here with trustees and people to help with the labor part of it, trying to keep this thing manicured and maintained and when the pandemic hit, they had to close the jail down and I understood that.”
White County Fair Board Vice President Steve Merritt said he did want to give credit to White County Judge Michael Lincoln and White County Sheriff Phillip Miller for all the years of getting trustees to work the fair.
“We are a nonprofit, we are not part of White County. We are all volunteers,” Merritt said. ... “We appreciate to the judge and sheriff for what they have done for us throughout the years.”
This year, the city of Searcy will be helping the fair out by providing from one to 10 community service workers, Merritt said. These workers will be picking up trash every morning, which he said will help greatly.
“The Complete In Christ guys, a crew of either four or six of them every night, will help us,” Merritt said, adding that these workers will be paid. He said he solicited for workers on Facebook but he said “you just couldn’t find them.”
Quattlebaum said Kevin Buckner is the only person – other than Buckner’s wife. Elaine, who’s part-time – that the board has full time to work on the fair facilities. “He and his wife do an awesome job of keeping this facility up. He has got a passion like I have never seen. You have got to run him off here, literally.”
To staff the fair with gate, security and other workers, Merritt said “you are going to be looking at 65 to 70 people. He mentioned the gate and security workers are paid as well as the those working the parking area. Merritt said the board has a lot of subcommittees that take care of getting the particular areas staffed.
In addition to issues with help, Quattlebaum said the board also had to cancel its annual Senior Day this year due to the pandemic.
“We to talked Unity Health about it and we felt like it was better to try to be safe, so what they are doing for us, to help us out, is, they are giving out masks,” Quattlebaum said. “They are going to have masks here. They are going to have hand sanitizer here and they are also going to have signs for us to put up on the buildings to come in and just try to be as safe as possible.
“We can’t tell anybody to put a mask on, we are not going to mandate because the state doesn’t ... . We just want everybody to try to be as safe as possible and come out here and have a great time.”
Asked what kind of attendance would be the goal for this year, Merritt said “Let me put it this way: On our best fair probably ever, we had around 75,000 people come through the gates for the whole week. We haven’t talked about a target [for this year]. We have less people that are actually exhibiting this year because of COVID reasons and the job situation is different, therefore, they may not be working their animals at home and some things like that.”
Quattlebaum said there may have been “some people who were reluctant to buy and raise an animal this year because they didn’t know if we were going to have a fair this year because last year we didn’t have a fair, but we did go ahead and have our animal show and auction and it turned out really good. The people came out and supported that.”
Merritt said what he thinks is going to affect this year is that exhibitors got out of the habit of raising animals. “So our numbers are down in the livestock barn, not bad but a little.”
Another concession the board had to make was in regards to music.
“Headliners are a tough gig to get,” Merritt said. Quattlebaum added, “They are too expensive.”
Merritt said the board is saving about $20,000 by not having a headliner. Instead, there will be area performers.
Monday night will be classic and Southern rock music. Tuesday night will offer gospel music with The Representatives, a quartet. Wednesday will be country music night.
All of the music will be under a tent “in the middle of things” on the midway, Quattlebaum said. Chairs will be set up. “What’s good about it for the families if they are just walking around, they can just sit down and listen to music or just rest under the tent. The parents can say, ‘We are going to listen to music and will be right over there sitting down.’”
Although some areas will be adversely affected by the virus, Quattlebaum said the fair was able to bring in its first Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo.
“Thursday is the Young Guns Shoot Out Youth Rodeo, timed events for youths ages 6 to 19. It is the very first time we’ve had it,” Quattlebaum said. “It is a qualifier for the Patriot. If I’m understanding it right, there is only like six of them in the United States. We couldn’t get barrels because they were already full but all of our other timed events will be here. You are going to have a lot of kids from all over the county that are going to come in.”
Merritt said the fair will be boarding horses this year, too. ‘We never board horses for people during the fair. There are a lot of opportunities we haven’t had before.”
Quattlebaum said, “These people are coming out of Tennessee and places like that. The PRCA Rodeo on Friday and Saturday nights ...t here are three of them in the state of Arkansas and ours is going to be the largest one. We have more rough stock riders than we have ever had come in here. This means bareback and saddle bunk riding. We are going to have professional people coming in here that are trying to make it to NFR [National Finals Rodeo] in Las Vegas. They are coming in and getting points, so we are going to have people coming in from all over the country.
“This is a big deal for us because it’s our first year to do this. We have wanted to do this for a long time. I am telling you this is going to probably be a big step for this fair board. It’s going to get bigger next year.”
He said he was told the White County Fair had more entries than any other PRCA event in the state. “In the juniors right now, we have roughly 60 entries. We have all the way to next Wednesday night to get the entries in. It is going to be big!”
Merritt said the Junior Patriot Series finals will be held in Fort Worth.
The top rodeo clown in the United States will also be featured at fair Friday and Saturday nights, Quattlebaum said. “Gizmo McCracken. He is actually out of Missouri. He’s the No. 1 clown in the world. That’s a big deal for us. We got him because we know how big the rodeo industry is and we know how good our fair is.”
Also new this year There will be a petting zoo , Merritt said, Cockrills Country Critters from Austin. Camel rides will also be part of the fair, he said.
Carnival rides will return, but “the ferris wheel has changed,” Merritt said. “PBJ [of Marianna] has actually rebuilt this. They have spent a fortune on it with safer gondolas.” He said there will be more than 20 rides from kiddie rides to big kid rides.
Merritt said, “We still have big kids too. We have 5th Quarter Friday night.” Armbands will be $20 from 10 p.m.-1 a.m.
The demolition derby also will return, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, and about 75 vehicles will participate, Merritt said.
“We have always sold pit passes for the derby area,” Merritt said. “We actually put bleachers inside the arena now so those that have a pit pass can actually have a good place to sit now. Before they were in there they didn’t have a good safe place to sit. We will wind up selling a lot more pit passes because of that.”
Turning to inside attractions, Quattlebaum said the exhibit hall has been redone with fresh paint. He said quilts, vegetables, plants and arts are just some of the things fairgoers can see when they come out to this part of the fair.
“Our mission is actually education,” Merritt said. “Youth education through ag education, livestock showing, 4-H, FFA [Future Farmers of America], through the homemakers extension club. There will also be some service-oriented people inside that building that don’t sell products per se.”
Quattlebaum said he is in his fourth year on the fair board (and Merritt is in his 15th year), and he said your heart has to be “into doing it.”
“The first year, I got up that Sunday morning – I went to bed at two in the morning, got up at seven – and here you are cleaning up, the fair is over with,” Quattlebaum said. “I am standing out there tired and I see a little girl walk out of that barn with two ponies and those ponies are taller than she is. She walks by there and I said, ‘Can I ask you a question?” and she said, ‘Yes sir.’ I said, ‘Sid you have a good time at the fair?’ and she said, ‘I had the time of my life.’
“That’s what you want these children to do. I don’t care if it’s in the equine barn or the livestock barn or it’s down in the education building, kids have got a passion for things they do and we need to support them. It doesn’t matter if they are drawing a picture or their raising vegetables or they’re making quilts. It’s education! And, that’s the most important thing about this fair. the respect, the discipline, the yes sir, no sir, all that comes around.”