County fair embraces change while preserving a century of tradition

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

WOODSTOCK – Despite some interest from the public, the Shenandoah County Fair will not resurrect a previously popular – and notorious – attraction for its 100th iteration this summer.

“We can’t bring back the hoochie-coochie shows,” General Manager Tom Eshleman said.

The fair is, however, bringing back early 20th-century favorites such as seed-spitting and pie-eating contests, plus a parade to mark the fair’s opening.

The fair runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 3. The parade starts at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 24 and will run down Main Street from the County Government Center on Mill Road to Massanutten Military Academy.

The parade is a tribute to decades past when the fair was the county’s biggest and most anticipated event of the year.

“People would close up shops early and follow the parade to the fairgrounds,” Eshelman said.

The fair’s centennial offers a chance to look back on the event’s legacy, aspects of which – including livestock shows and food contests – still live on.

“The fair was all about bragging rights,” Eshelman said. “It was about who had the biggest steer right down to who made the best apple pie or who grew the best corn.”

Then there are the attractions that have not lasted, like the hoochie-coochie shows.

“It was a traveling show that went all over the country,” Eshelman said. “They would roll in with a tractor trailer and set down the doorway, and these scantily-clad women would dance.”

Partly due to pressure from county churches, the fair stopped hosting the shows in the mid-1990s, but that hasn’t stopped some county residents of a certain age from asking about them this year.

“I’ve had 60 to 70 people say, ‘Bring back the hoochie-coochie shows,’” Eshelman said. “It’s easy to laugh about it now, but they were very much part of the Shenandoah County Fair’s heritage, and some people took big offense during the fight to remove them.”

While the fair’s agricultural heritage remains firmly intact, midway entertainment has evolved from horseshoes to rides that toss fairgoers into the air over the last few decades.

Eshelman blamed an increase in year-round entertainment options for the shift.

“Fifty years ago, there was no Kings Dominion,” he said. “Disney World was in Los Angeles. The only source of entertainment or amusement was the county fair or maybe the local firemen’s carnival. That’s a bygone era now.”

Since Eshelman became general manager on April 1, 2012, the fair has added harness races to the grandstand schedule. Despite all the changes, the fair drew in 35,000 people in 2015 and 33,000 last year.

The reason, Eshelman said, is tradition.

“We have 100 years of heritage and everything we stand for,” he said. “This is a slice of Americana that we want to hold onto for the future. For the 4- and 5-year-olds now, what is the fair going to mean to them?”

Part of what cements the fair’s legacy for future generations is children’s participation in the livestock and agriculture shows. About 400 kids, many of them members of the Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs, showed crops and animals last year, Eshelman said.

In what might be a boost to participation and attendance this year, county schools will open on Aug. 7 and close the week of Aug. 28. In past years, the school year started after Labor Day.

The School Board approved the new calendar in December 2015 partly due to pressure from parents and students who wanted to participate in the fair’s 4-H or FFA programs without worrying about schoolwork.

“There wasn’t any lobbying on our part,” Eshelman said. “We said [to the school division], ‘Do what you’ve got to do.’ That tells you that the fair plays an important role in the county.”

Overall, the fair is all about preserving memories and a way of life, Eshelman said.

“We’re trying to protect what the county fair is all about.”

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