There are precious few things in life that endure undiluted and unchanged. Children grow up, friends move away, and people pass, sometimes taking a town, its history, and traditions with them as they go. What follows, if anything follows, is often a strange and unfamiliar facsimile of what always has been. It’s why your high school gymnasium feels smaller than when you were a kid and why many entertainment options feel shallow and uninspiring, easily consumed through screens, and just as quickly forgotten.
The Sebastian County Fair, however, is one of those rare exceptions in life, an event that has shrugged off all but the most pervasive challenges to reach its one hundred tenth iteration in 2023. Here, the blue ribbons are just as bright as the midway, and the funnel cakes are as sweet as the pageant contestants looking for their moment in the spotlight.
It’s a fine thing, this fair, held annually in Greenwood, Arkansas. Not only for what it preserves of the traditions and culture of a place but also for the people who work all year to make it memorable.
Randy Mitchell, president of the Sebastian County Fair Association, is a man so enamored with the annual event that he’s been known to choke up just talking about it. Retired from a career in the retail business, Randy is one of the foremost authorities on the fair’s history and a living testament to its importance to the local economy.
“We did some research and went back through some of the historical society’s publications,” he says. “We do know that there were carnivals and fairs that were held in the late 1800s here in Greenwood and into the 1900s, but the first reference we can find was the election of the Sebastian County Fair Board in 1913. The fair has probably gone on longer than one hundred and ten years, but we pinpointed it down based on the election of the fair board.
“Prior to 1969, which is when the tornado hit the city center, I believe, the fair was actually located near where the courthouse sits now, where the old jail museum is. In 1969 the association acquired some property where we are now. Originally it was thirty-three acres, and they sold off approximately seven acres which then paid for the fairgrounds and made them debt-free going forward.”
Randy has been involved with the event for the past four years, which means he’s shepherded the fair through one of the most challenging events in its history, the COVID pandemic. While the fair was severely curtailed that year, certain elements, such as the Junior Livestock Show, were held. Slowly and steadily, the board has worked to resurrect attendance back to pre-pandemic levels.
“In 2021, we had right around 8,500 people attend the fair,” he says. “Last year, we had 10,073. We’re hoping for an even bigger turnout this year.”
This year’s fair runs from August 23 to 27, but those who can’t wait that long can get an early jolt of fair-related excitement with the pageant and talent show competitions on July 16. This event will be held at the Greenwood Performing Arts Center, with multiple scholarships and cash awards up for grabs.
“Whoever wins in the pageants will be representing Sebastian County at the State Fair in Little Rock,” Randy says. “The same goes for our talent show winners. Two years ago, our [talent] representative to the State Fair, a young lady named Elizabeth Merritt, who played the fiddle, went on to win the State Fair competition.”
The Sebastian County Fair opens on August 23 with junior livestock events in various categories, starting with a long list of animal judging to include beef, swine, goats, sheep, hogs, rabbits, and poultry. Gates to the carnival open at 5pm and, seeing as it’s Dollar Night, it’s a fun and inexpensive evening out for the whole family. Ride tickets are just $2 each or $25 for unlimited rides.
Also open that day will be the Home Economics building, displaying all the winners of the creative and domestic art in categories ranging from painting and photography to canning and handiwork. Randy noted with pride one tradition the Sebastian County Fair has kept alive that sets it apart from similar events in the state.
“What kind of makes us unique is we still give actual blue ribbons,” he says. “Some fairs have gotten away from that and give out stickers that go on the entries, but we actually do first, second, and third place awards.
“And those awards are not head-to-head competitions. The system that is used judges each entry on its own merit. So, the biggest percentage are first-place entries from which they gather up all the entries within categories and award Best of Show rosettes.”
The mornings of Thursday, August 24, and Friday, August 25, are School Days, where the fair plays host to area kids to expose them to different areas of the fair and fairgrounds. As in past years, seeing livestock up close is the most popular attraction for the more than 1,100 kids participating.
“We found that a lot of the kids that were there last year had really never been around livestock,” Randy says. “They’d only seen cows from the side of the road, and some didn’t know the difference between a sheep and a goat. We have student-led tours that take these kids around, and they explain all that to them. We also take them through our Home Economics building, which is another opportunity to show them where our food comes from, with regards to the crops that are presented.
“We have a new attraction coming this year called Cow Town, and they’ll do milking demonstrations. They also have a free petting zoo where the kids can actually interact with the animals.”
On both Thursday and Friday, the carnival opens at five o’clock. Thursday is the night of the livestock awards held at both the show barn and the rodeo arena, while on Friday evening, the rodeo kicks off with bull and bronc riding. The rodeo is free with paid admission to the fair.
Saturday offers a free Senior Day during the morning that features a brunch with a speaker and door prizes being awarded. The carnival gates open at one o’clock, and the 4-H Foundation will host Bingo from the stage at two o’clock.
That evening features the Junior Livestock Auction, a benefit where patrons “purchase” winning livestock with the money going to support the youth who care for the animals all year long.
“These kids have to buy their animals and feed them all year,” Randy says. “Not everybody makes the auction, but most do, and it gives them the opportunity to recoup some of the money that they’ve invested in their animal. Our auction is what we refer to as a premium auction, meaning people bid for the animal, but they don’t actually get the animal. They’re just helping to financially support that kid to go and show in Fort Smith at the Arkansas Youth Exposition and then on to Little Rock at the State Fair.”
Also, that evening is the second half of the rodeo competition, featuring mutton bustin’ and a ranch rodeo, the latter event expected to draw competitors from as far away as Kansas. In addition to that entertainment, the carnival will be open.
On Sunday, the fair’s last day, the gate opens at one o’clock, giving patrons one last chance to take a thrilling ride before the event closes for another year.
Musical performances will also add to the fun each day the fair is open. Wednesday night will feature Jade 18; Thursday’s performer is the Richard Rauch Band; Friday’s act is the Silent Thunder Band; and Saturday’s headliner is Nashville recording artist Gabrielle Gore. All concerts start at seven o’clock. On Sunday, Roll Cage Mary plays at two o’clock, and Jimmy Miller takes the stage at five.
Asked why such events as the Sebastian County Fair still matter, Randy collects himself before answering.
“It kind of makes me cry when I get that question,” he says. “First of all, the county fair is the culmination of 4-H and FFA kids’ hard work throughout the year. I believe both those organizations bring tremendous value to the kids and are a very positive thing for our county and for our community.
“It’s all about seeing the kids set up to succeed, and I believe that will carry on later in life. That not only goes for the livestock portion of it, but it goes for the kids that participate in the arts, in the pageant to be able to go on and compete for scholarships to further their education and for the kids in the talent show to have a showcase and get some exposure. I just want to see an old American tradition like a county fair continue to go on because I believe it impacts lives greatly.”
For a full schedule of events and ticket information, please visit sebastiancountyfair.com or find them on Facebook.