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Can Wilson County Fair hit 500,000 mark?

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 Going to the fair?

The Wilson County Fair opens at 5 p.m. Friday and continues through Aug. 29 at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center at 945 Baddour Parkway.

Gate admission: ages 13 and older, $7; ages 6-12, $5, ages 5 and younger, free. Season ticket: $30. Carnival ride one price: Sunday-Thursday nights, $18; Friday-Saturday nights, $20. Opening day: buy one $20 all-day ride pass and get second pass for $10. Rides open at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday; at noon on Saturday and at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Amusements of America brings 75 rides including the Extreme, a high velocity spin ride, and the Avalanche roller coaster that takes four riders to a car through two dips and two spirals. For more info, call 443-2626 or go online to www.wilsoncountyfair.net. 

Fair rocks on through efforts of hundreds of volunteers

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

The gargantuan Wilson County Fair may not be the greatest show on Earth, but it would certainly do the late, great promoter P.T. Barnum proud. 

When a brand new Wilson County Promotions took over the event in 1979, the 30 fair board members saw 12,000 patrons pass through the turnstiles. Attendance figures for 1989 were 59,015, and in 1999 just over a quarter of a million people enjoyed the event. Last year, 466,119 folks attended the Wilson County Fair, which has turned into one of the Southeast Tourism Association’s Top 20 events.

The reason for the fair’s success is reflected in this year’s theme, “Celebrating 30 Years of Volunteers.”

Indeed, that fair board that numbered 30 in 1979 has swollen to 300 members, and more than 600 volunteers will help guide the big eight-day event that starts Friday night and runs through Aug. 29 at the James E. Ward Agricultural Center.

Three men have provided the leadership during the past three decades to take the fair to its present status: President Hale Moss, Vice President Nelson Steed and Treasurer/Publicity Director Randall Clemons. All are quick to share any credit with the hundreds of volunteers who have served through the years.  

“We have great volunteers,” Clemons said. “It takes a lot of people to do all of this and we have been blessed with wonderful volunteers who give of time and energy to make this happen.”

Moss, who became president of the fair in 1983, said that beside all the hard work, part of the Wilson County Fair’s success has to be its location.

“We have a phenomenal 260 acres a mile off Interstate 40 with ample free parking, and those kind of things are a big, big plus for us,” Moss said. “It’s easy to tell people how to get here from Nashville. And there are a lot of folks from places like Carthage, Hartsville, Alexandria and Woodbury that funnel into Lebanon. They come here for doctors and shopping, and that has played a big part.”

Clemons, who remembers one night at the 1979 fair when the gate receipts were only $300, attributes today’s big numbers to good planning, creative thinking and borrowing a few ideas from the old Opryland theme park.

 Five new fair highlights  Darryl Worley concert: 7 p.m. Monday at the covered arena.Gunfight at the OK Corral: Western gunfight reenactments at Fiddlers Grove:7, 9 p.m. Friday; 2, 9, 10 p.m. Saturday; 2, 9 p.m. Sunday; 7-9 p.m. Monday-next Friday “Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree”: midnight Saturday: WSM Radio show live from the pageant stage.Sam Johnson’s Big Aerial Show: nightly on the Volunteer Stage: aerial artists, jugglers, acrobats and an 85-foot sway pole act.Fiddlers Grove introduces six new buildings: grist mill addition, founders court and pavilion stage, Fiddlers Grove Opry Pavilion, old Wilson County courthouse popcorn stand, cobbler shop and a hearse and carriage house. 

“When we began, Opyrland was at its peak, and we were a short distance away,” Clemons said. “We saw from the beginning that if we didn’t do something different from a normal county fair, we probably would not be successful. That is why we have so many stages with so much musical entertainment and so many different things going on. We have ride-one prices every night because of Opryland where you could pay your admission price and ride all day.

“We firmly believe there has to be something new each year. We have so many volunteers that take a special interest and are always thinking of something new that we can do,” Clemons said about the fair that attracts hundreds of thousands from Tennessee and fans from a dozen states nightly.

Steed coordinates about 125 volunteers, who, among other tasks, direct traffic and parking. 

“My group kind of takes care of the stuff outside the fenced area. We handle the parking lots and security,” Steed said. “There’s a great deal of putting up and taking down and getting ready for the fair.

“We’ve got the biggest part of the Lebanon Police Department that does the traffic and handles direction on the roads. The Walter J. Baird Booster Club helps with the parking.

“There has been a world of change since I became involved, but what has not changed is the enthusiasm of the volunteers that put on the fair,” said Steed, whose two children once helped him at the fair and now his four grandchildren are also part of the team.

The biggest obstacle Steed worries about for the fair each year is an element he can’t control. “That’s the weather,” he said.

With opening day on Friday evening, Clemons entices fair guests to come on down for the debut.

“We have a parade this year that honors the past 30 years. It will be larger than before and has some unique things in it such as a hearse pulled by horses and floats. Also our opening day is a time when people can come and buy a ride-one price and buy a second one for half price. Everything is fresh, and you get to be the first one to see it all,” Clemons said.

This year’s fair will honor “Old Timers” Alvin McKee, Mrs. Howell Ricketts and Frank and Carolyn Dudley, and Sunday afternoon will see the release of The Wilson County Fair: Tennessee’s Big County Fair, written by Brenda Moss and James Jordan. The book covers fair history and stories about the structures in Fiddler’s Grove and Wilson County century farms.

Wilson County’s first known fair was held in 1853. In 1919, a two-day fair took place beside the old courthouse on the Square. From 1920 until 1974 the fairground was located on Coles Ferry Pike, and since 1975 the fair has been conducted at its present site. The Lebanon Jaycees operated the event from 1973 until 1978, and in 1979 a group of citizens formed a non-profit charter and called it Wilson County Promotions with its goal to organize the Wilson County Fair and use the money generated from the fair to improve the agricultural center.

For Moss and Clemons their fair roots go back to their schooldays when both were involved in groups like 4H and Future Farmers of America.

“I grew up in Mt. Juliet and going to the Wilson County Fair on Coles Ferry Pike where we showed cattle and hogs. It was a big deal,” Moss said. “When I got involved in 1979, I wanted the Wilson County Fair to be what I remembered it being. That upbringing and background made an impression on me as a youngster, and that has been a driving force behind my involvement in the organization.”

Beside the great location of the fairgrounds and the hundreds of volunteers, Moss credits the programming of the fair, which features everything from beauty pageants and agricultural exhibits to pig races and to lawn mower racing, to making the Wilson County showplace so popular.

“If a fair is going to be successful moving toward the millennium, it’s going to have to be like a huge mirror. We must hang on to agriculture but also reflect the community. The demolition derby, cat shows, photography shows. These are things that engage people and things they are doing in this day and time as hobbies as well as teaching the story of agriculture. I think those are the combinations of things that have made the fair successful,” Moss said.

The gargantuan Wilson County Fair may not be the greatest show on Earth, but, hey, they’re not done yet.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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