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Posted on: May 20, 2021

Behind the scenes with the Cleveland County Free Fair

Fairgrounds staff Sandy McClure, John Zedeker, Holly Rains and Fairgrounds Manager Bryan Jenkins.

Every year, families enjoy the Cleveland County Free Fair, but few realize what goes into the preparation for this event.

“Some of the planning is year-round, but the real preparation starts about March. The fair is always the weekend after Labor Day,” said Sandy McClure, Fair Board secretary.   

From crafts and food to livestock and games, there’s something for everyone. Stick horse races, baby crawls, a cow milking contest and wiener dog races are particularly entertaining, whether you want to be a participant or an audience member cheering someone on. The fair is also an opportunity to submit entries and win blue ribbons.

It’s an interactive experience hard to find in other entertainment venues.  

County Extension Director Brenda Hill-Alta recruits superintendents and judges for the arts, crafts and food exhibits, while the fair board members get the livestock judges.

“The superintendents are responsible for receiving the items and making sure they are in the right category so when the judges come in the next morning, they are ready to go,” Hill-Alta said. “We have over 40 superintendents who help with the fair. About 80 percent are Oklahoma Home Community Education members.”

Good superintendents must have knowledge about the categories they are working.

“If I know they are good in photography or needlework or canning and home preservation, I’ll ask them,” Hill-Alta said. “If they don’t know the product, it can be hard to put them in categories.”

While having good superintendents is important, it’s also key to find good judges.

“Sometimes it’s a big challenge,” McClure said. “You have to get your judges early before another county fair gets them because a lot of the fairs are around the same time.”

To ensure fairness, judges usually come from outside the county.

 “I try to use as many extension educators from other counties as I can find,” Hill-Alta said. “That way, they have no idea who our people are and they come in and judge those projects.”

Administration Assistant Holly Rains helps with activities like the car show and the baby crawl and helps find judges for those events. She also orders trophies and supplies, pays the bills and tracks the money spent on the fair.

The Commissioners Choice category was Rains’ idea. Commissioners look at all the entries and pick their favorites.

“I like it because the kids get to meet the commissioners and learn more about them,” Rains said.   “It’s an educational opportunity.”

While fairgrounds maintenance does a lot of the heavy lifting for the livestock arena and outdoor events, the OSU Extension Office helps with setting up the arts, crafts and food exhibits.

“Our office makes every table tent for the various categories so the superintendents know how the categories are organized,” Hill-Alta said.

Maintenance staff routinely set up for events at the fairgrounds, but preparation for the fair takes the work to another level.

“We start prepping in July, putting signs out for the fair,” said Maintenance Supervisor Larry Whitehead. “We clean all the buildings, wax the floors and start setting up which takes a week and a half or so.”

Cleveland County was not able to have a full fair in 2020 due to COVID-19 — there were no concessions and the fair wasn’t open to the public — only exhibitors and their families could attend.

“We felt really lucky that we got to do entries even though it was different,” McClure said. “We appreciate the county commissioners for giving us the green light to do what we did.”

As the 2020 fair approached, COVID made its way through the staff members, limiting how many people were able to work. While none of the staff were sick enough to be hospitalized, they had to self-quarantine, leaving a heavier burden on others.

John Zedeker had worked one fair prior to 2020, but as the day approached, found himself as the only member of maintenance not quarantined due to COVID.

“It was just come to work and do what needed to be done,” he said.

Everyone from fair board members to Fairgrounds Manager Bryan Jenkins pitched in to help wherever needed.

“Holly and I were out there helping with shovels or setting up rings,” McClure said. “The public really couldn’t tell, we just made everything happen.”

Normal job descriptions no longer applied.

“We’re a team, and if we were needed to scoop poop, we just did it,” Rains said. “The fair board is really good. They got here early, and they worked. They stayed until the last person left. They really made a difference this year.”

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