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NORTH VERNON — While the 131st annual Jennings County Fair just ended Saturday, fair board members already are thinking about next year’s event and beyond.
Board president Rob Stephens believes former fair patrons with a “been there, done that” attitude might be lured back by new events and spectacles.
“If we can mix some new attractions with the old, we’ll get people thinking, ‘Hey, this is new and different. Let’s go check it out,’” Stephens said. “I don’t want to say what we’re considering right now. But I’ve asked a lot of people who haven’t been to the fair in 20 years what would draw them back, and I’ve gotten a variety of different answers.”
For a variety of reasons, making changes with broad public appeal won’t be an easy task for the fair board. For example, many traditionalists want the fair to retain its strong focus on farming.
However, Ken Salkeld, the Jennings County agricultural and natural resources extension educator, believes traditional perceptions handed down from one generation to another don’t always reflect today’s reality.
“When you talk to the kids, they’ll tell you we are an agricultural community,” Salkeld said. “But when you look at how many children we have in school, very few of them do any farming whatsoever. We now have a lot of people living out in the country that are three or four generations removed from the farm.”
While 4-H remains the largest national youth organization in American, Salkeld feels it has changed tremendously in his lifetime.
“4-H was originally established to better educate farm kids. It used to be cows, plows and sows. But nowadays, one of the largest 4-H clubs is in Indianapolis. And Chicago has the largest FFA chapter in the United States,” Salkeld said.
He believes the metropolitan appeal stems from both youth organizations focusing more on providing life skills and less on agriculture.
Undoubtedly, there are established attractions that have firmly secured their future with the Jennings County Fair. According to Stephens, the top two money-making events are the tractor pulls and mud slings. And in terms of attendance, the baby pageant and livestock auction draw in the most people.
But making decisions on new attractions will be tough because different generations come to the fair for different reasons.
Take Mersadi Johnson. The 10-year-old seemed only interested in the midway and considers herself a carnival ride connoisseur.
“I like the Cyclone,” the Jackson Elementary School student said. “But I won’t go on Zero Gravity because you don’t have seats. I tried it once. Not again.”
Mersadi’s 12-year-old friend, Taylor Losey, also has her favorite rides. But Taylor also wants time to check out the booths, walk around and talk with her friends.
“The fair is like an amusement park, but it’s not as crowded,” the North Vernon Elementary School student said.
While those in high school often seek out scary midway thrills, some teens like Austin Benton may not reveal to others what they really want from the fair. At first, the 17-year-old Brownstown resident said his biggest enjoyment at the fair is simply hanging out with friends.
And then, there are the grownups. Tony Luedeman, a 12-year fair board member, believes the top adult attractions include the livestock and the exhibits. But what does he enjoy most about the fair?
“Finding different places to eat,” the 59-year-old said. “My favorite food is at the New Bethel tent. But those funnel cakes? Oh, I’ve digested a lot of those.”
Luedeman pointed out a number of fairground improvements over the past decade. They include blacktopped walkways, graveled parking lots, electrical facility improvements and a new animal barn.
While also declining to discuss possible future attractions, Luedeman did admit that grandstand improvements likely will be considered soon.
“I think that might help us raise a little more revenue. But you’ve got to first make money or you can’t make improvements,” he said.
In determining its future, the fair board will have to give strong consideration to two of its most prominent patrons: the commercial exhibitors and elected community leaders.
For the past 15 years, Tom Carnahan’s wife, Mechelle, has owned a North Vernon business formerly known as Mechelle’s Jewelry and Repair. While Carnahan believes most Jennings County residents are familiar with the shop, they set up a fair exhibit to let potential customers know of significant changes in both their name and services.
“It’s now Mechelle’s Jewelry and Weddings,” Carnahan said. “We’re doing this whole range of services for weddings. But most of the reaction from fair-goers I’ve talked to is ‘I didn’t know you did all that.’”
And finally, the presence of candidates and local leaders will remain a staple of the Jennings County Fair.
“The politicians have to come to meet constituents and to learn how folks feel about specific issues,” said Vicki Strickland, Jennings County Republican Women president. “Most of the people I talk to are interested in what’s going on. They want to find out, or they wouldn’t even walk up to our booth in the first place.”
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