Tag Archives: rural

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

July 8, 2018 by
Photography by Douglas County Historical Society
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

4-H played a big part in Tracy Behnken’s youth. The Nebraska Extension educator, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bennington, showed dairy cattle and participated in horticulture and entomology competitions from the age of 8 to 18.

So when the Douglas County Fair rolled around each year, Behnken and her siblings filled with excitement. “I’m the youngest of four, and we all showed [livestock] and looked forward to fair time. We’d spend morning ‘til night there, caring for our animals. My cousins were there, and I got to see many of my classmates. And we’d get to see kids from across the county…reconnect with friends we’d made.” 

Behnken, 54, says a highlight was riding the Zipper carnival ride with friends, over and over again. She’d also go to the open-air auditorium and watch the song competition and fashion review show. “And I remember us girls trying to keep away from the 4-H boys who’d try to throw you in the stock tank,” she says, laughing. “They were an ornery bunch.”

The Douglas County Fair has created great memories like Behnken’s for countless Nebraskans for more than 140 years. And that longevity is no small feat, considering the changing landscape of the county, both geographically and culturally.

Just a couple of years ago, the fair appeared to be near an end. Its events and entertainment had been cut to the bone, attendance was dismal, and fair planners wondered if it could survive. 

1906 Douglas County Fair Ribbons

But today, with a new home and management, the fair is poised to make a comeback. So believes Matt Gunderson, chair of the Douglas County Fair Advisory Committee and president of Friends of Extension Foundation, which took over management this year. The 2018 fair will be held July 10 to 15 at Village Pointe in West Omaha and Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn. Chance Ridge won’t have parking, so visitors will need to take weekend shuttles from lots at Village Pointe or Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus. 

To say that the fair has weathered many changes is an understatement. The first fair (in the area now known as Douglas County) was during 1858 in Saratoga prior to Nebraska statehood, according to the Douglas County Historical Society. But the official Douglas County Fair got its start on a parcel of land in Waterloo in the mid-1800s. A portion of property taxes paid by Nebraska landowners went to the Douglas County Agricultural Society, which initially funded the fair. 

“County fairs started as a means for the rural population to showcase what they’d done all year,” says Vernon Waldren, executive director of the Friends of Extension Foundation. “The farmers came out to show the quality crops they’d grown, compare the size of their melons, and show off their best livestock.”

“Eventually they added home economics—baking, sewing, and other domestics. Then 4-H started in 1902 and became part of Extension, and joined the fair with the goal of educating people about these things.” 

The fair steadily grew, adding musical acts, carnival games and rides, and other family fun. Held in late summer, the event lasted from five to 10 days. The fair stayed in Waterloo for over a century, until the fairgrounds were sold.

In 1988, the Douglas County Fair relocated to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, with the Knights of Aksarben taking over management. The tract of land—bounded by 50th to 72nd and Leavenworth to Center streets—seemed a good fit, offering an indoor arena, a racetrack, and stables with plenty of room for exhibits, livestock, rides, and a midway. The location also brought the action closer to the population center, though not all were happy about the fair leaving a small-town setting. Participation by both 4-H and open-class competitors grew, as events were opened to kids from outside counties. The late-July fair was a boon to the city. 

In 2003, following the sale of Ak-Sar-Ben for development, the fair was forced to move again, this time settling at the Qwest Center Omaha in downtown. The fair combined with the River City Rodeo & Stock Show to become a four-day event in late September. The urban venue did not appeal to many traditional fair-goers, as events were moved indoors, and many complained the fair had lost its identity. But there was no denying the high turnout. “There were as many as 100,000 people in attendance during those four days,” Gunderson says.

The first few years at the Qwest Center (eventually renamed the CenturyLink Center), the fair offered carnival rides in the parking lot. “But economics dictated that that end pretty quick,” says Eddie Biwer, another Friends of Extension Foundation board member. “Too expensive.” 

“Also, the 4-H presence at the [Douglas County] fair was dropped,” Waldren says. “[The kids] went to the Sarpy County Fair. There were still open-class persons exhibiting, but not in those numbers.”

To keep the fair relevant in its new city setting, organizers recognized it had to become more diverse, Gunderson says. “We began hosting chess tournaments and robotics competitions. We worked to become more inclusive.” 

Douglas County Fair McArdle exhibit, 1910

In 2016, the Knights of Aksarben ended its oversight, and the rodeo/stock show parted ways with the fair. Management was turned over to the Douglas County Fair Foundation. During this uncertain time, the group chose to scale the fair back to three days in late July and sought out an inexpensive venue, choosing Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge streets. Mostly vacant, the mall housed most of the fair events indoors, with a few bounce houses and a small petting zoo in an outside lot. 

The bare-bones fair offered some live music, a magic show, a Disney film screening, and the traditional cake and quilt shows. But without carnival rides and livestock events (rabbits and chickens were showcased indoors), the fair proved lackluster and had disappointing attendance. Fair organizers knew big changes had to come for it to survive.

Last year, the Douglas County Fair Board moved the event to Chance Ridge Event Center in rural Elkhorn. The one-day July event was a trial run to see if the venue would suit the needs of the fair going forward. Its tagline was “Back to the Dirt,” referencing the fair’s return to the country and the basics of a county fair (minus the carnival rides). It had the regulars—quilts, bunnies, a “sugar arts” baking competition, as well as a progress show (a livestock event for youth to practice their showcasing skills for the state fair). Like in past years, all events were open class, meaning anyone could compete. A beer garden and music concert closed the event. Though the fair did not boast big numbers, competition entries were up and it was received well by attendees. 

The Friends of Extension Foundation is hoping to sign a multi-year contract with Chance Ridge to continue hosting the Douglas County Fair, Gunderson says. With the help of new sponsors and additional marketing this year, organizers hope to build on this momentum. 

This year’s event tagline is “Where Urban and Rural Meet,” as the fair focuses on educating fairgoers on how agriculture relates to all of us, as well as pathways to careers in agriculture.

“One-third of all industries in Omaha are tied to agriculture in some way,” Gunderson says. “You can work in IT, as an accountant, a welder, or in transportation, and still play a part in agriculture and food production.”

Adds Waldren: “Even if you don’t want to work in agriculture, there are skills we teach to help in everyday life, like how to pick fresh produce or selection of meat…[teaching] people how to be better consumers.”

Gunderson realizes that building the fair back to the size it once was is unlikely given the more urban nature of Douglas County, not to mention club sports, technology, and summer camps competing for kids’ attention. But he hopes parents will take the time out for the fair to “create those special memories with their kids and grandkids, and spur that fire and interest in agriculture. It’s great family time.” 


For more information, visit douglascountyfair.org and douglascohistory.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Home Away From Home

February 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Volunteer firefighters at the Bennington rural fire station believe saying, “It’s quiet,” could spell the difference between a boring night and one that ends badly.

When the firefighters’ beepers buzz, there is no telling what could be on the end of the call.

“I thought a GI bleed was the worst thing I’d ever smelled, but charred human flesh was worse,” Kim Miksich says.

As a volunteer firefighter for the past year, Miksich expects the unexpected.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that this petite blonde could strap on a 70-pound pack of gear and venture into the smoky darkness of a fire. Yet, a tough determination and reliance is obvious as she recalls her first training runs. Miksich’s heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature heated up just like the flickers of flame as she stepped into the pitch black. Even though she had an experienced firefighter to guide the way, it was still pretty scary.

Miksich, a 20-year veteran of nursing at Bergan Mercy Medical Center, realized at 41 years old that she no longer had a choice. She felt compelled to follow her dream of fighting fires, even if it meant not getting paid.

“I dove in headfirst and went for it,” Miksich says.

It was a longing Miksich harbored for almost 20 years. It took her almost a year to get in good enough shape to pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test.

Miksich now volunteers at least three days of 12-hour shifts a month, staying overnight in the wide-open space of the station.

It was a huge life change. Married for 13 years, she would now have to spend nights away from her husband (who was supportive of her extra hours at the station). “He’s more worried about the dangerous aspects of the job,” she says.

Miksich, along with 44 other volunteers, covered 708 calls, 185 fires, and 523 rescues last year. All for free. Pride in service is evident all over the station, from the clean floors to the gleaming red, yellow, and blue firetrucks, to the smoke-stained coats.

The station—which opened in 2015—is immaculate. The cleanliness of the trucks and living quarters reflect this just as much as the hours the firefighters put in to save lives.

Assistant Chief Ben Tysor believes money normally spent on salaries can be spent on the facility, allowing them to better serve citizens.

It is a far cry from the former small white building down the street. It is no rinky-dink, country-bumpkin fire station. Donated by Darrell and Coe Leta Logemann, the warm brick of the building draws in visitors and volunteers. Tall, stately windows with squares outlined in bright red reflect the rustic scenery.

Opening the door, it feels a bit like a church. The stillness is a reminder of death, danger, and destruction. In the tribute room to the left, a pillar of the Twin Towers tilts to the side in a concrete frozen reminder of what could happen without courageous souls willing to risk their lives for others. The job, “a constant unknown,” matters as visitors stroll past a case filled with helmets, suits, and photos.

Fingers of sunlight reach out to an old hose cart, purchased in 1912 for $13 by the Village of Bennington (a historical reminder of those long-gone firefighters who remain part of the squad).

Chief Brent Jones continues this “family” feeling by staying in touch even with volunteers who have left.

“I spend a lot of time there. It is like a second home,” Jones says.

One of his toughest days recently included 10 calls in a 24-hour period. He hadn’t slept, so downtime in one of the black leather chairs created much-needed relaxation and peace. About eight of these same movie-style recliners are in one room facing a flat-screen television.

Firefighters can also make a meal in the vast kitchen complete with a center island. A stainless steel refrigerator and freezer filled with frozen pizzas, a slab of prime rib, or other items labeled with volunteers’ names fill the insides. Or they can help themselves to a pop from the fountain machine or fresh salted popcorn.

It’s meant to be a home away from home. Upstairs, eight bedrooms complete with bed, television, and desk give it a laid-back vibe. A full locker room comes in handy when someone comes in to use the modern weight room which overlooks the trucks (a reminder to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice—perhaps using the fireman’s pole behind a closed door).

Volunteers must meet three Mondays out of the month for emergency medical or fire training and business meetings. A big time commitment, but necessary.

“[Volunteering] is a disease. Once it is in your blood, you can’t get it out,” Jones says.

Jones, a 14-year volunteer, loves the challenge. But mainly, it is his way of serving the community. Jones spends 25 to 30 hours a week in Bennington, and about 56 hours on his regular job as a firefighter in Lincoln, where he has worked for the past 16 years. His wife also volunteers when she isn’t working as a paramedic with Midwest Medical Transport.

Although downtime seems like a minimum, pranks are still played. Jacked up trucks, water dumped on heads, and snakes in the lockers are classic.

One firefighter laughs as he plans to scratch at the door of a co-worker who believes a ghost roams the station randomly leaving the showers and sinks running.

Some of the firefighters believe they bring the spirits back after a trip. Although it is possible, the building may just be too new.

“Just don’t say the word quiet,” Jones says again. “Something will happen.”

Visit benningtonfirerescue.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.