It was a blue-ribbon year for the West Alexander Fair.
In mid-January, the fair was named the 2016 Zone III Fair of the Year by the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs at its annual meeting in Hershey.
And that’s a really big deal for a small-town fair.
“We’re extremely excited,” said Niki Welsh-Ryburn, a member of the West Alexander Fair board of directors. “We were noted as one of the most well-rounded fairs in the state.”
There are 32 fairs of varying sizes among the 12 counties – Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Huntingdon, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland – that comprise Zone III.
Statewide, there are 107 fairs that are divided into four zones and judged each year.
Debbie Stephenson, chairwoman of PSACF’s Zone III directors, said there are six directors per zone, meaning that in Zone III, each director visits five or six fairs a year. Each director scores each of the fairs in the same categories, then files a report documenting any outstanding features the fair board has implemented to help promote agriculture.
“There is so much to take into consideration,” said Stephenson, who has served as a zone director for 16 years. The Ruff Creek resident also is the secretary/treasurer of the Greene County Fair Board.
“We look at the barns, livestock, displays, demolition or pit area, carnival and parking,” Stephenson said. “I like to take the fair queen around and get her opinion. Of all the fairs this year, West Alexander shined better than the rest of them.”
West Alexander also outshined the others in 1998, the first time the Fair of the Year award was presented. John Hunter, president of the West Alexander Fair board, recently found the photo of the fair receiving that award among a box full of newspaper clippings his 101-year-old aunt has kept through the years.
“We’ve done a lot of improvements since then,” he said.
And that was one of the many things that impressed the zone director who visited the West Alexander Fair last year.
“We’re a small fair, but we do make the slightest improvements every year so each of the families continues to come out,” Welsh-Ryburn said. The fair, which was first held in September 1906, has averaged 15,000 visitors the past three years.
In addition, West Alexander was recognized for its cleanliness and attractiveness, with the zone director noting that the “pristine grounds are always immaculately kept,” Welsh-Ryburn said.
Stephenson said the fair’s carnival is always “nice and clean,” and the people are “always a pleasure to be with.”
The board is a hands-on bunch, too, taking care of garbage pickup in the wee hours of the morning during the six-day fair and performing maintenance as needed. But they also get a lot of help from their friends.
“There are a lot of volunteers,” Hunter said. “That’s what it takes. A lot of people take a week’s vacation and are there every day. We’re really fortunate.”
In recent years, the board built a new eating area and upgraded the show tent, which, Hunter said, has made a big difference.
“They are right beside each other,” Hunter said. “Before when it rained, people just had to get in their care and go.”
The fair also partners with the McGuffey School District to bring in second-graders for a day at the fair in which the youngsters tour different stations and learn about the animals and the Future Farmers of America program, and it has partnered with local greenhouses, which donate flowers to decorate every barn, building and show tent.
“We reach out to the community a lot more than we did before,” said Welsh-Ryburn, noting, for instance, that Shorty’s Lunch now sponsors a hot-dog eating contest at the fair.
Members of the fair board are always looking for innovative ways to attract new visitors and competitors, as well as raise – and save – money to continue to make improvements. For example, the board “threw in the towel” on hiring big-name performers, Welsh-Ryburn said, opting to feature local talent instead.
“West Alexander is known as a family fair,” Welsh-Ryburn said. “We’re on a first-name basis with the exhibitors. It’s a very nice fair, a relaxing fair.”
Three years ago, the fair took a hit financially when fierce storms ripped through the fairgrounds. To compensate for the loss, the board, in conjunction with the West Alexander Fire Department, organized “Scare at the Fair,” which features three walk-through haunted exhibit halls that are open every Friday and Saturday in October.
The board also started a quilt raffle, fashioned from squares entered into the fair’s quilt contest.
“Quilting is a dying hobby,” Welsh-Ryburn said. “This allowed people who can’t produce an entire quilt to enter the fair.”
The squares are sent to a quilter, who pieces the squares together. The next year, the quilt is raffled off.”
And last June, the board launched a twice-monthly farmers market that featured local products, a crafters corner and “fair flea” market. Participants included area FFA students, who brought herbs, flowering plants and vegetables from their community greenhouses.
The board is actively trying to use the fairgrounds during the off-season, too, and the improvements that have been made have increased that appeal, with more people renting the property for special occasions, such as birthday and graduation parties.