Nebraska's county fairs changing with the times

Fairgoers at the Washington County Fair in Arlington, Neb. See more photos from the Nuckolls and Washington county fairs at the end of the article. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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August 9, 2013 - 6:30am

It’s county fair season and across Nebraska fairs are in full swing, from the metros to the most rural areas. But those fairs are changing, to adapt to changes in the way people live.

At the Washington County Fair in Arlington, Neb. an engine roars, then dies down amid a billowing cloud of dust, as a contestant guns his tractor as far as he can go before the weight he’s pulling stops him.


Click the graphic below to see the property tax rates levied for each of Nebraska's 93 counties. 



We've been asking Nebraskans from across the state to post their county fair photos to social media - and to tag them #NEfairs2013. Below is just a sample of some of the responses we received via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. (See more at the bottom of this article.) Thanks for sharing!

Keep posting and using #NEfairs2013 and look for your photos to show up on our social media and website through the end of summer. 

4-H Horse English Show at the Lancaster County Super Fair, via Twitter; by Lancaster County Extension - Nebraska

"Neon Cowboy" at the Scotts Bluff County Fair, via Facebook; by

Future rodeo particpants at the Scotts Bluff County Fair via Facebook; by

Nighttime rides at the Lancaster County Super Fair, via Instagrammer @belgamerinadian.

Tractor pulls are quintessential county fair stuff – an offshoot of the state’s agricultural heritage. But a short distance away, the sounds are quite different, as kids from the Culture Shock Dance Center in Blair dance to hip hop.

Washington County Fair Board President Gary Lambrecht said it’s all part of trying to provide something for everyone.  “In the morning we have mud volleyball contest, the barbeque contest, the parade, a karaoke contest, a figure eight race and tough truck competition. It doesn’t matter what your love is. There is something down here that you can enjoy,” Lambrecht said.

He added fairs in places like Washington County, outside Omaha, have to change. “We’re becoming a more urban county. We have goats and sheep and all the acreage animals that are here – chickens.

“When I was a kid you came here and it was beef animals everywhere. Beef and hogs. Well, the beef and hog producers are getting less and less and less,” Lambrecht said. And who is coming in? “It’s acreage people. They’re raising vegetables. They’re raising wine. We have wine tasting here. Wine contests. We’re changing with the people. People live here, work in Omaha, things like that. The county’s changing. The fair’s changing as well.”

One hundred and twenty-five miles to the southwest, in Nuckolls County near the Kansas border, the challenges are different. There’s no big city near here – just farms and small towns – with the biggest being Superior with about 2,000 people. Angie Gardner, president of the Nuckolls County Fair Board, said it’s definitely getting tougher to find attractions that will bring a wide variety of residents to the fair.

“We have the carnival, which is a big pull for everyone, but especially those that live in town. A lot of older people that live in town will come out and look at the exhibits and the livestock. But younger people that live in town generally don’t go south of the concession stand” to see the livestock exhibits that are the traditional heart of county fairs.

And Gardner said it’s getting harder and harder to find carnivals. This year, the fair’s paying one from Texas $10,000 to run rides and other attractions for three nights.  There’s no big population base to pay for things like that or a rodeo, another popular draw. But Gardner said that’s not a huge concern. “We’re government, so we’re tax funded,” she explained.

Throughout Nebraska, fair boards, ag societies or the counties themselves use property taxes to help pay for county fairs, which state law requires them to run. In Nuckolls and Washington counties, it costs the owner of a typical house about $5 or $6 a year, or the owner of quarter-section of irrigated farmland around $30. Longtime Fair Board member and now Washington County Supervisor Steve Kruger said it’s worth it.  “It’s the one part of your tax dollar that goes back to have some fun with it,” Kruger said.

Back at the Nuckolls County Fair, kids are having fun getting ready for a turtle race. The turtles kids and their parents have found are placed in a laundry basket turned upside down in the middle of a grass circle. The basket is lifted, and the first one that reaches a circle chalked in the grass wins.

Five-year-old Riley Jones said his turtle did pretty well. “It almost won. Maybe it did win. Maybe it went across,” he said.

Katie Williams grew up in Washington County and now lives in Nuckolls County. She said while the two county’s fairs may be different, they have something in common. “There is a chance to show your pride in your community. And whether it’s a small community or a large community, it’s an opportunity for people to do that,” Williams said.

Nuckolls County Fair Board President Angie Gardner said agriculture and education, through organizations like 4-H and FFA, remain at the heart of the fair. “Here in Nebraska it’s – it should be -- very easy to make the point that without agriculture, our state is done,” Gardner said. “Our economy is agriculture. And what these fairs have always been intended to do is to promote agriculture. And keep the interest going, keep people informed, keep people educated about what we do, how we do, why we do it.”

In Washington County, Fair Board President Gary Lambrecht said while karaoke may have joined 4-H calves at the fair, in a sense, things haven’t changed all that much. “I think the original idea was to have something down here at the county fair for everybody,” Lambrecht said. “In the 1919 fair book, the first year there was a county fair here, they stated that they would have a baseball game every day, and a dance every day. And you know, with the music options that we bring into the fair, we’re trying to live up to those standards that they set nearly a hundred years ago.”

How well people continue to do that may determine the future of Nebraska’s county fairs.

Here's a slideshow of photos from reporter Fred Knapp from this year’s Washington and Nuckolls county fairs. For captions, click the icon at lower right to enter full screen mode:


Instagram photos and videos tagged #NEfairs2013:



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