Peninsula people keep Ninilchik fair a classic tradition

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

t's fair time again! The 49th Kenai Peninsula State Fair will be in Ninilchik starting Friday, with the animals, giant cabbages and cotton candy we've all come to know and love.

Those who attend the fair take all of its great entertainment for granted, but it's a big event that takes a lot of effort to put on and involves a lot of different people.

The fair has a new manager this year. Mary George has lived in Ninilchik for 10 years and has been involved in the fair for most of that time.

"I was a regular performer on the stage every year, for about five years, playing country and folk and bluegrass music, and I managed the front gates for the last two years," George said.

When the fair isn't going on, she makes sure the grounds are kept up, takes vendor applications and plans for next year. Some of the acts from Outside have a long waiting list, so they have to be booked far in advance.

Though the fair runs largely on volunteer help, the manager's job is a paid position.

"It doesn't pay a whole lot, but it's just a great opportunity to bring entertainment to the community and see it grow," George said.

George has helped bring some new entertainment to this year's fair, including carnival rides from the LaSalle Family Carnival in North Pole and the Budweiser Clydesdales, which will do one show per day and march in the opening parade.

"They're very weather-dependent," George said. "They have millions of dollars into their tack and brass and leather. If it rains, they don't come out. But of course we're hoping for good weather."

The Clydesdales ought to fit right in, rain or shine, because horses and other animals always have been an integral part of the fair. The majority of those animals are local beasts, brought to the fair by the 4-H Club.

Shirley Schollenberg has been active in the fair and in 4-H for many years. Schollenberg, whose family has lived in Happy Valley since 1959, has been around horses all her life. Her earliest memories of the fair involve horses.

"I rode in the first horse show they ever had there, that would have been 1966 or 67. There were just three horses in the show -- me, and two of my friends, and there was no arena. We held the show in the parking lot."

She still rides at the fair. This year, she and her daughter Katie will both be in the rodeo, putting their horses through their paces at barrel racing and calf roping.

Schollenberg has been a 4-H leader for 25 years and served on the fair's board of directors for 10 years. She said the fairgrounds benefit 4-H year-round. They use the grounds for their riding programs and an annual horse camp and recently bought the stalls in the horse barn. The money raised from their horse rides and concession stand help to pay for maintenance of these facilities.

"I've been to four other fairs in the state, and I like the Ninilchik fair best because it has such a local flavor," Schollenberg said. "There aren't a lot of opportunities for kids in our area to see farm animals, and the fair gives them that."

4-H Clubs do much more than just horses and animals, however. The Kenai Clovers Club members plan to enter a variety of items in this year's fair. Though it is a new club, they have been extremely productive.

Chris Watkins, the group's leader, said the members have put in a whole year's worth of creative activities to come up with their entries.

"We've done sewing and cooking and lots of crafts," she said.

The group held workshops on pottery, glass etching, quilting, "junk art" made from found objects, and birds.

"The kids kept bird journals, and they observed a pair of great horned owls who were nesting in one of the members' yards. They did batik with birds as subjects, and they built birdhouses," Watkins said.

The group also will participate in the 4-H Dog Show on Aug. 20. Watkins' own family will contribute produce that it grew at the city of Kenai's Community Garden.

"We've got cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, carrots, radishes, chard, potatoes. We'll enter whatever looks good by the 17th," she said. "We're already eating some of it, but it looks like the cauliflower will hold out."

Vegetables -- here come those giant cabbages -- are certainly a major attraction of the fair.

Delores Lindeman has lived in Ninilchik for 32 years and said her whole family has always entered their produce in the fair.

"My husband and I both grew up in Minnesota, and we always raised big gardens, so it's just a natural thing for us. What they want at the fair is beautiful produce, and we thought by sharing what we grow, it makes the fair better."

This year, she said her children and grandchildren will contribute 50 entries to the fair's exhibits -- not just gardening, but animals, crafts and sewing as well.

Involvement in the fair is a family tradition for the Lindemans. Lindeman and her husband have a horse and buggy that they ride in the parade, and she organizes a show of hanging flower baskets that are displayed throughout the fairgrounds. They help with setting up exhibits and cleaning up afterward.

"My own children are all grown up now, but my grandchildren enter vegetables every year. They started when they were just 2 years old. Being involved with the fair is something I wanted to pass on to them."

Organizing all those exhibits is a big job. Vicki Steik is master superintendent of the fair's exhibits, in charge of all the volunteers who take entries. She has been on the fair's board for 19 years, serving as treasurer, president and, currently, vice president. She said organizing the exhibits is stressful, but very satisfying.

"At fair time, we all get a little frantic because there's so much to be done, but you get one smile from one little kid, and that makes it all worthwhile."


James Watkins harvests spinach from a plot in the Kenai community garden. He and his sisters Hannah and Molly are growing vegetables for the family table and the Ninilchik Fair's competitions.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

She especially enjoys giving out prizes.

"There's a wonderful thrill people get when they win a prize, and everyone wins something here. It's great to see kids come in and say, 'Oh boy, I won a blue ribbon!' It lets the rest of the community see what talented people we have here."

Food also is an important part of the fair experience. Of all the fair's various food booths, the one that has been around the longest is the pie booth run by the Ninilchik Domestic Engineers (formerly the Ninilchik Homemakers Association.)

Roswitha Miller, a longtime Ninilchik resident, has worked in the pie booth every year for 20 years. She said the pies are baked fresh on-site in the fair's kitchen.

"We prepare the pies there and freeze them to keep them fresh. One person has to come every morning to bake them. It used to be, we'd bake them at home in our own kitchens, but the DEC has to approve the kitchen now, so we have to do it there."

Miller also has served as a superintendent, taking entries for crafts, art and baked goods exhibits. This year she will take entries for needlework and embroidery, as well as helping in the pie booth.

The Ninilchik fair started in 1951 as a function of the local Parent-Teacher Association in the basement of the school. The fairgrounds it occupies today was purchased in the mid-1950s. The original intention of the fair's founders was to make it an educational event, as well as entertaining.

That intention still remains at the booth operated by the Local Emergency Planning Committee. The committee, made up of several different agencies, including Alaska State Troopers and area fire departments, distributes educational materials to help people prepare for emergencies.

"This will be our fourth year, and I think it's been very effective," said Nikiski Fire Department Chief Billy Harris, who helps staff the booth during the fair.

"We hand out brochures and answer questions, and we give Safety Bear reflectors to the kids, so that when they walk on the school bus, if you don't see them you must be blind."

The committee has been in existence for 14 years. It was mandated by state and federal law. Harris said the fair booth has been very helpful in making people aware of emergencies, such as fires, floods, volcanoes and earthquakes, and how to be prepared for them.

As the fair approaches its 50th anniversary, it has grown to become a major asset to the community of Ninilchik.

"It pulls people together," said Lindeman. "Everyone loves to come to the fair and see people they haven't seen all summer, when everyone's so busy. It gives us a sense of unity."

"Our fair is so completely different from Palmer or Outside," said Vicki Steik. "We've had the opportunity to make it more like a big city fair, but we want to keep it clean and country and family-oriented. People can bring their kids here and feel safe about letting them go and have fun."

For those involved in it, fair time goes on all year.

"After it's over, everyone heaves a big sigh of relief," said Schollenberg. "We take a month to clean up the grounds, then we hold our annual meeting and decide how we can make it better. Planning begins right there for next year."

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