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