BELMONT — Nearly 20 volunteers showed up Sunday for a work day at the Belknap County 4-H Fairgrounds, helping spruce up the grounds for the 68th annual Belknap County 4-H Fair which will be held August 13-14.
The fair’s new president, Fran Wendelboe of New Hampton, said she was encouraged by the turnout and is hoping that the fair can build on that and rekindle the enthusiasm that it needs to face its many challenges.
"We’ve got a great location and are making improvements, but there’s a lot of work to be done,’’ says Wendelboe, who came on board as president of the fair in March, replacing long-time president Wendy French of Northfield.
Wendelboe said that despite the best efforts of French, her husband, Fred, and other long-time volunteers, the Fair has "hit a bump’’ and needs to regroup and rebuild itself.
Nearly 50 people showed up at the March meeting at which Wendelboe was elected president with many pledging their strong support for keeping the fair going despite declining attendance and the lack of a midway show as an attraction.
A key theme which emerged at the March meeting, which was attended by 4-H State Program Leader Wendy Brock, was the sharing the workload and developing committees so that board members are not doing all the work and becoming overwhelmed or burned out.
Wendelboe says that focusing on the things that the fair does well while maintaining its agricultural roots is the best recipe for rebuilding the fair and keeping its long tradition alive.
The fair got its start in 1943 as a dairy fitting and showmanship competition at Lombardy Farm on Parade Road in Laconia during World War II. Interest in the fair, sparked by Lillian Walker, owner of the farm, grew rapidly and it was later moved to Opechee Park in Laconia, where it was billed as the 4-H Food for Victory Fair.
At the first fair, War Bonds were sold to buy bombs for the war effort and the drive was so successful that the following year the goal of raising bonds to buy an Army training aircraft was established.
The War Bond fund drive went statewide and by the time the fair was held in 1944 enough money had been raised to buy nine training aircraft.
Following the war, the fair moved to the Belknap County Recreation Area, returning to Opechee Park in 1950, where it was held until it moved to the former Royal Smith Farm on Mile Hill Road in 1977. The farm was at one time home to 240 dairy cattle.
"We’ve always been a small fair, just two days now, focused on kids and agriculture, and that’s what we’re going to continue to be. We’re going to have pony rides and lots of entertainment, but the focus will be on a things like the steer pulling competitions, goat and sheep and dog shows as well other animals raised by the children,’’ says Wendelboe.
Over the last 10 years or so the fair, which had billed itself as "New Hampshire’s biggest Little Fair’’, had attempted to go to a three-day format in order to boost attendance for its midway rides. But that format didn’t work out as attendance, always dependent on good weather, continued to decline despite attempts to add new attractions, like an antique tractor pull.
She says that the fair hopes to build a new indoor concessions space, which can be rented for monthly indoor flea markets, as well as rebuild the roof of the Arthur Harris barn, which now has several large holes in its aluminum roof.
"We’ve got to find other ways to use the property and generate revenue. Fortunately we’re able to use it for boat storage during the winter months and that’s been a big help,’’ she says.
She says that one of the virtues of the small size of the fair is that it provided a friendly, welcoming environment for first-time exhibitors in animal showmanship, giving them the experience and confidence they need to move on to larger venues like the Hopkinton and Deerfield fairs.
Among those helping out Sunday was Elizabeth Baker, former owner of a Meredith nursing home who now lives in Gilford. Baker, 82, supervised the planting of flowers which had been donated by Beans ‘N Greens, Lowe’s and Agway at the caretaker’s residence on the fairground property.
"I hope more people get involved. We’re the only 4-H Fair in the state and we really need people to show up and help us keep this fair going,’’ said Baker.
Another volunteer was State Representative Dennis Fields of Sanbornton, who brought along his own riding lawn mower and was tackling hayfields better suited to being handled by a farm tractor with his small mower.
"It takes about three passes to get it mowed down right, but it is getting done,’’ said Fields, who is president of the Belknap County 4-H Foundation.
"For me, this is all about the kids involved in the 4-H programs. My reward is seeing that smile they have after exhibiting the animals they’ve spent so much time working with and training,’’ said Fields.
And he’s confident the fair will experience a rebirth of interest. "Each year we’re going to do something a little better and raise more money to support it,’’ says Fields.
Dana Chase of Belmont, a member of the fair’s board of directors for seven years, who volunteered to become the fair’s building and grounds manager, says that fairs are in his blood.
He says his dad was a Cooperative Extension educator in Lancaster and that he grew up going to the Lancaster Fair every year. He became an electrician after attending Laconia Vocational Technical College and built a home in Belmont, where his daughter became involved in 4-H programs.
He has been coordinating the work of volunteers in rebuilding some of the farm buildings at the fairgrounds and when he was laid off last summer spent time rebuilding the front of one of the barns.
"It will look nice when we get it done,’’ says Chase, who said that Sunday’s good work day turnout was heartening to him. "It makes you feel that what you did is worthwhile, that these barns are going to be rebuilt and that this fair will be around for a long time,’’ says Chase.
CAPTION: Ganza Timsina, 18, and Gyatri Subedi, 18, both originally from Nepal and seniors at Laconia High School, plant flowers at the Belknap County 4-H Fairgrounds in Belmont under the direction of Elizabeth Baker, 82, of Gilford, another 4-H Fair volunteer. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)