Pennsylvania has more than 100 county and community fairs each year, according to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, and about 6 million people attend those fairs.
Part of Ed Nehrig’s job is to get as many of those folks as possible to the J.S. Mack Community Center during the last week of August.
Nehrig is the general manager of the Indiana County Fair and he routinely visits other fairs, always looking for something new and entertaining to import to his home fair.
One idea he’s kicking around now is whether oxen could be added as a new class of animal for judging or even for pulling contests at the fair. It makes sense. When settlers arrived 250 years ago in what is now Indiana County, teams of oxen undoubtedly helped skid felled trees out of the way to create the first farm fields.
Certainly during the final week of August, and through the other 51 weeks of the year, the Indiana County Fair is never far from Nehrig’s thoughts.
“It’s a year-round thing,” he said.
The fair doesn’t happen each year just by having a few people show up at Mack Park when the calendar page flips to August.
Since last summer, fair directors have spent time repairing the scale inside the race track used to weigh farm tractors before pulling contests. The old milk tank in the dairy barn was replaced and was just recently calibrated. Some paving work was done that will make it easier for patrons in wheelchairs to move around the fairgrounds.
And getting the fair’s headline performing attractions — this summer it’s rising country music star Craig Campbell on Monday evening — begins months in advance.
“We start working on it in January,” Nehrig said, and usually by March or April, with the help of a booking agent, the directors have a performer under contract.
All the preparations trickle down. Assisting the 15 fair directors are approximately 64 department superintendents who in turn recruit hundreds of volunteers to help set up and stage competitions, exhibits, demonstrations and entertainment during the eight-day fair.
But no matter how much careful planning and detailed preparation goes on during the year, one factor is still beyond the directors’ control: Mother Nature.
“The weather is the most important factor as far as paying bills goes,” Nehrig said. “We’re at the mercy of the weather. It’s an outdoors event.”
Again this year, sponsors will provide what Nehrig termed a “significant contribution” to the cost of staging the fair.
“Our sponsors are very good to us, and very loyal,” he said.
Rental fees paid by vendors and the gate receipts from the approximately 54,000 people who attend the fair each year round out the finances needed.
The state budget for this year also included a small increase in funding for the state’s fairs. Nehrig said the 151st Indiana County Fair will be eligible for up to $29,000 in reimbursements from the state.
Oxen probably will not get any attention at next week’s fair, but dogs will be making a big splash.
Performing for the first time at the fair will be the K9s in Flight Doggy Dock Show and High Flying Frisbee Dog Show. Up to nine canine athletes that have appeared on The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet and in more than 200 American cities will showcase their Frisbee-catching skills and leaping abilities over a 13,000-gallon water tank.
The dogs starring in the multiple shows Monday through Saturday are all rescued or adopted from shelters, and the show emphasizes the importance of and the need for pet adoption.
After the shows there will be time for the audience to meet the canine athletes and pick up a few tips on training their own pooches to be better Frisbee players.
Contributing to the fair’s truly local flavor again this year will be the dozens of musicians and other performers from around the county brave enough to get up on the free community stage along the sidewalk leading to the Carter Avenue entrance and near the lower edge of the oak grove.
“It’s pretty tight this year,” Stacy Peel said of the lineup of acts ready to perform on the free stage. Peel is coordinating the community stage entertainment and will herself perform again this year. As of last week, 18 solo acts and groups, ranging from gospel to jazz, had reserved stage time of 30 minutes or longer. The acts generally entertain during the late afternoons and evenings.
A few stage times are still open and can be reserved by calling Peel at (724) 422-1592 or Malcolm Forman at (724) 422-5469.