York County Bids a Fond Fair-Well

Pete Stathopoulos of Rock Hill stands outside the main building at the York County Fair Grounds on Monday. Stathopulos, 79, has been working the York County Fair for 50 years, but will be retiring after this year. The fair, in its 85th year, will not be held at the fairgrounds after this year, and no plans have been announced to hold the fair elsewhere.
Pete Stathopoulos of Rock Hill stands outside the main building at the York County Fair Grounds on Monday. Stathopulos, 79, has been working the York County Fair for 50 years, but will be retiring after this year. The fair, in its 85th year, will not be held at the fairgrounds after this year, and no plans have been announced to hold the fair elsewhere.

Proper proportion of pickles to liquid packed in Mason jars. Crocheted doll clothes. Precisely six stems of Nasturtiums per entry.

Those and other items will be featured when the York County Fair opens for the 85th time on Monday. When it closes a week from today, it will be for the last time.

At least, in its current form.

Winthrop University announced plans last year to purchase the fairgrounds property on Cherry Road from the American Legion. The purchase agreement called for this year's fair to be the last on Cherry Road. No plans have been announced to hold the fair elsewhere, and the fair's manager has said this will be his last.

For years, the fair offered a venue for local farmers to show off their produce and livestock and to educate consumers about agriculture. With the fair's apparent departure, several York County residents are exploring ways to continue showcasing local agriculture.

"Maybe the fair is evolving into something more year-round and multipurpose and more inclusive," said Ben Boyles, Clemson University Extension agent for community development in York, Chester and Lancaster counties. On the job four months, he said his charge is "to do any type of programming or project to improve life" in this area.

That includes joining forces with the York County Convention & Visitor's Bureau and a number of local groups advocating a York County agri-tourism exposition center. The County Council has approved up to $100,000 for a study to determine what kind of a facility is needed and where it could be located. Results should be available in March, York County council Chairman Buddy Motz said.

Interest still there

The council formed a committee when the American Legion sold the 15 fairground acres to Winthrop. The committee was moved to the back burner until recently, when a group of equestrians renewed the cause. About $1 million the county expects from the new hospitality tax made the study feasible.

"Our goal is a year-round facility that could not only serve needs of equestrians, but car shows and cattle shows," Motz said. "We still have the 4-H Club. It's a great activity for kids and an ideal project for a government to be involved in. There's still a large component of people interested in agricultural products."

That's important to our society's survival, said Jim Tucker, president and CEO of the 117-year-old International Association of Fairs and Expositions in Springfield, Mo. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Tucker was appointed to the Homeland Security office's commercial council.

"If you want to cause the slow, miserable demise of our society, you do something to jeopardize our food source," he explained. Less than 2 percent of the population produces agricultural products, and most shoppers don't know how to select the best quality produce, he said.

"We are very vulnerable because we have given that responsibility to such a tiny portion of our population," he said. "Having 98 percent of our population know something about the role of agriculture in our lives is very important."

Fairs wax and wane

Fairs came to the United States with European immigrants. Our 19th-century forefathers saw value in improving scientific advancement by identifying superior livestock and crop specimens.

At points since, fairs have ebbed and flowed, Tucker said.

The American Legion Frank Roach Post 34's World War I veterans founded the York County Fair with the sale of $100 bonds soon after the war.

It flourished for decades. Each fall, farm families eagerly anticipated the trip to town to display the fruits of their labor. Winthrop College girls and York County students were granted special days to attend and participate.

But fair facilities and interest began to wane in recent years. While North Carolina still has 40 fairs, South Carolina has only 16. Some, like South Carolina's state fair, still are thriving.

Winthrop sociology professor Doug Eckberg attributes what would appear to be the fair's demise not only to the dwindling rural, agricultural community but to mass-produced entertainment that has replaced the fair carnival.

"You can go to Carowinds," he said. "Large companies are building things much larger and more impressive than what we can put together for a small county fair. Now, people join baking clubs and watch cooking shows on cable TV. Things that were part of the community have been taken over by professionals."

Jimmie Pridmore, retired Clemson Extension agent of 30 years, said soaring property values have made farming less feasible in York County. Plus, mounting a fair requires numerous volunteers, and people just don't seem to have as much time anymore.

"I still see a lot of former 4-H kids when I go around the county," Pridmore, 78, reminisced of his students, now adults. "They remember me as a 4-H guy. Some tell me the 4-H helped them more than anything they did."

A fair renaissance

Tucker contends 9-11 prompted a rebirth. His organization has 1,300 members in the United States, Canada and a few other countries, and there are more than 3,000 fairs across the nation, he said.

The understanding of community often is broader and deeper when local government becomes involved in the fair, Tucker said. The 9-11 disaster revived interest in community institutions.

"People are concerned about what makes them a community," Tucker said, "and fairs are an opportunity to share moments that make us understand family and community and what matters the most. It's a community celebration."

While the York County fair may be ending, a local 4-H livestock show is thriving. Several years ago, when the American Legion barn became too decrepit for the 4Hers' livestock show, 4-H families organized their own.

The show grew so much that it had to move from the first farm that hosted it. This fall's show drew 150 kids and about 200 head of livestock.

David Deas' children have shown goats and dairy cows. There currently are 140 children statewide in the goat project, he said.

Mark Keith's children have shown goats, sheep and dairy and beef cows. His children have "aged-out" of 4-H, but he is still actively involved. Deas also plans to remain in the project when his teenage daughter graduates from high school.

"We'd love to see a facility the county could provide for us that would allow us to grow even more," Deas said.

What: York County Fair

When: 6-10 p.m. Monday (free admission, parking); 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday; noon-11 p.m. Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Oct. 21 (admission, parking each $1)

Where: American Legion fairgrounds, 155 S. Cherry Road, Rock Hill

Tickets: Ages 14 and older, $3; ages 6-13, $2; age 6 and under, senior citizens 62 and older, free; parking, $2; pony rides, $3; camel rides, $5

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