by Jim Boyle
Jenni Axelson’s first memories of the Sherburne County Fair are as youngster going to the annual community gathering with her family.
She fell in love with it as a child and felt a pull later as a young woman.
In addition to the rides, music, grandstand events and fairgrounds atmosphere, it was a chance to reunite with old friends. Once married and raising a family of her own, she started volunteering at the fair.
When the gates swing open on Thursday, July 20, for the start of the 2017 Sherburne County Fair, she’ll be seeing how the tweaks she and the rest of the fair board made in the offseason are greeted, and they’ll begin thinking about the next fair and the fairs to follow. The million-dollar question is how county fairs will attract the younger generations.
“We have tried scavenger hunts and selfie contests and many other things,” Axelson said. “All fairs are struggling with the same thing.”
Axelson heard from county fair organizers across the country at the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in Las Vegas. She earned her trip by winning an essay contest presented to potential first-time attendees to the convention.
Axelson, who has been a volunteer at the Sherburne County Fair 10 years now also volunteers at the Mille Lacs County Fair and gets out to the other nearby county fairs.
“We’re all doing the same things,” Axelson said. “I want to try to make them all better.”
Axelson believes the connectedness of people through social media doesn’t create as much of a pent-up need to reunite as a community.
Slowly, she would like to tackle that with her colleagues on the board and the team of people that gather regularly at the fairgrounds to get the fair ready.
A storm created extra work, but it’s times like that when Axelson sees people, businesses, government and the county fair board come together with a common purpose. The cleanup has gone hand in hand with preparations.
Axelson has been ambitious to jump when opportunity arises. Case in point: When road work commenced along Joplin Avenue, she inquired about getting dirt that would being pulled from the earth in Elk River.
The construction crew along with the city and county agreed it would be a good idea to improve the fairgrounds and moved the fill to aid the pit area where the always-popular demolition derby cars are crammed in.
Government officials created a topographical map that is being employed to maximize the efforts to prevent future flooding at the fairgrounds.
Alexson’s recipe so far has been 80 percent tradition and 20 percent change. Among the changes this year include a sandbox for kids and some new attractions of Xtreme Ball and the Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo.
Alexson is also pulling from the Mille Lacs County Fair to offer a garden tractor pull, open to the public.
The plan is also to build off last year’s successes, like the Minnesota Mavericks, which will compete for a bigger purse and is drawing competitors from as far as Oklahoma and Colorado.
Other features back by popular demand include the Dr. Silas Magical Medicine Show and the Great Lakes Timber Show.
Axelson came to the position of fair board president several years after she started volunteering at the fair in 2007 — the “Year of the Storm” — at the request of a cousin. She has been plugged in ever since. Her husband and father have been plugged in, too.
The same is true with the vice president of the fair board, Gina DeVilbiss, 26, of Big Lake. She has gotten help from her family, including her boyfriend and father. She is not the youngest board member, either.
Her first memories of the fair were as a 4-H member who showed horses and prepared 4-H exhibits.
“I loved it,” DeVilbiss said. “There’s no adult 4-H, so this is about the next best thing.”
Axelson and DeVilbiss are hoping for good weather, and with that they are expecting a great turnout.
“It’s fun to see it come together and say to yourself, ‘I did that,’ ” DeVilbiss said.
Sherburne County Fair highlights
• Carnival by Gopher State Expositions: noon to 11 p.m. July 20-21, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 22, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 23.
• Parade: 10 a.m., Saturday July 22, will go along the Elk River streets of Main Street and Orono Parkway by Elk River City Hall in Elk River. Mayors throughout Sherburne County have been asked to be the grand marshals.
• Demolition Derby: Sunday, July 23, in the grandstand.
Returning this year
• Minnesota Mavericks
• Great Lakes Timber Show
•Dr. Silas McFee’s Magical Medicine Show
• Xtreme Ball
• Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo
• Sandbox for kids
• Mille Lacs County Dirt Devils Garden Tractor Pulling Club
• Shenandoah 30th Anniversary Tour, Friday, July 21, in the Grandstand.
• The Farmer’s Daughters (opening for Shenandoah), Friday, July 21
• Generation Nashville from Nashville; Diana Upton-Hill and Rowdie Mitch Goudy, Saturday, July 22, in the Beer Garden
•Sherwin Linton, Sunday, July 23, on the free stage
• Day Care Day, noon to 4 p.m. Thursday, July 20
• Senior Day with ice cream social on Sunday, July 23
For more information, visit www.sherburnecountyfair.org.