Looking out over the Orange County Fairgrounds from Old Gordonsville Road Saturday evening, it was difficult to see an open patch of grass between the thousands of cars filling the 100-acre property. Even as the sun set and the demolition derby cars crashed, smoked and sputtered, a steady stream of vehicles was filtering onto the property for one of the most successful fairs ever.
Fair officials estimate it was a “record-breaking” year, though there aren’t official attendance records.
Still, when fair association vice president Tony Rogers is directing cars to park in the horse show ring, it’s pretty clear the event is successful.
A lot of the success at the Orange County Fair hinges upon the weather. This year, it experienced a “perfect storm” between canceling last year’s event and the sunny skies, moderate temperatures and timely breezes last week.
“The weather was wonderful. We couldn’t have ordered any better,” Orange County Extension Agent Kaci Daniel said. “Two nights we were actually a little chilly, which is extremely rare at the fair. The public came out in large numbers, especially on Wednesday and Thursday which often are slower nights.”
“I just think people were glad to be out, especially after we weren’t able to have the fair last year,” said fair association board member Cynthia Smith. “The weather was so much in our favor and the combination of that and not having the fair last year made it a tremendous event.”
Fair association secretary Sarah Altman described this year’s event, staged last Wednesday through Saturday, as “a raging success.”
“Everything from the weather to the turnout couldn’t have been better,” she said. “I think everyone missed the fair last year and it was nice to see the community embrace it and welcome it back again this year.”
She estimated attendance at more than 10,000 and said between 5,000 and 6,000 people attended Saturday alone.
Absent concrete attendance figures, Daniel said the 4-H Dairy Club milkshake wagon sold twice as many milkshakes as it normally does.
Both Altman and Rogers noted attendance Wednesday and Thursday were substantially higher than usual.
This year, admission to the fair Wednesday was free, thanks to an anonymous local donor.
“Wednesday was a free night this year and really brought in a good crowd,” Altman said. “This is something that we will continue to do, as long as we continue to have a sponsor to cover it.”
“Maybe the turnout was good because it was free or maybe people were just ready to be out,” Rogers added. “I heard from so many people who were just so happy to be out. Some of them came up and just were eager to talk. I saw a lot of young people who were excited to see their friends from school they hadn’t seen all school year.”
The introduction of the new diesel street truck dirt drag races helped drive attendance Thursday night.
The races were the first in a series with other regional county fairs, with points and prizes accumulating for those who participate throughout the summer.
“This is something that we have been working on with four other fairs to make up a truck racing circuit,” Altman continued. “It’s been really nice collaborating with other fairs. Seeing what other fairs do gives us ideas on how to improve our county fair.”
Another new addition to this year’s fair was the Farm Bureau pavilion.
“That made life a lot easier on the 4-Hers,” Altman said. “The beef cattle and sheep were able to be housed under a ‘real’ structure for the first time ever. This was a major improvement over past fairs.”
“The new Orange Farm Bureau show pavilion was a huge blessing and the fair board’s hard work showed in the beautiful grounds,” Daniel added.
Even though there were fewer 4-H youth showing animals this year, Daniel still called in “an incredible year.”
“While our numbers were down, we celebrated quality over quantity,” she said. “Everyone was happy to be back in-person and morale was high. The kids were happy, helpful and very hardworking. I saw so much camaraderie, mentoring between more experienced and newer members, teamwork as kids led animals and cleaned out stalls. That’s what we’re after: character development, leadership, ‘making the best better.’ I want blue ribbon kids before blue ribbon projects. This was definitely one of the best fairs we’ve ever had.”
One of the annual highlights of the fair is the annual 4-H auction on Saturday evening. Despite fewer animals for sale, the community continued to support the youth and 4-H overwhelmingly.
“The community’s support in the auction just blew us away,” Daniel said. “We had record prices, including a goat that sold for $40 a pound!”
The 4-H Therapeutic Adventure Camp of Orange (TACO) had the highest selling club item, a gift basket filled with local merchandise and gift cards, that went for $3,400. The 4-H Archery Club designed and sold custom cornhole boards for $1,750. Other club items auctioned included the True Blue Cloverbud Club selling a Betsy McGinnis original artwork for $1,500, the 4-H Livestock Cloverbuds getting $1,700 for a pair of Adirondack chairs and the 4-H Dairy Club auctioning off a gallon of milk for $2,100.
Daniel said the auction grossed $125,000 and $12,575 of that goes to the various 4-H clubs to support club activities.
“The Orange community clearly loves its young people and believes in supporting them. Grateful doesn’t begin to describe how this makes us feel,” she added.
Rogers said even though there may have been fewer animals for auction bidders, their generosity wasn’t diminished. He said that illustrates the community’s support not only for the 4-H youth, but also the fair.
“We appreciate our supporters and sponsors so much,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without our sponsors. They’ve stuck with us and they’re starting to see how the property is developing. In the past, a lot of where their money was going was in the ground (with cable or pipes) or in the air (with lights). Now they’re seeing the results and they like what they see.”
“We’re just blown away by the support we receive,” Smith added. “The community is definitely behind us.”
Altman also credited the community support—sponsors and fairgoers and countless volunteers—for the event’s success.
“The volunteers just stepped up and worked through everything,” Rogers said. “We appreciate everything they do for us. If anyone attended the fair liked what they saw, we want them to be a part of it. They can volunteer. We need some younger folks with fresh ideas.”
Between now and next June, fair organizers will reflect on a successful week and look for ways to improve on the 2022 Orange County Fair.
Still, it may be hard to top this year’s event.
“We had people from all over the place—from Utah, Texas, Colorado, Maine, Connecticut, New Mexico. Some of them were just on vacation and passing through, heard about us and stopped in,” Rogers noted. “It was just great. The weather was perfect. Everything just fell into place.” “We had a wonderfully successful fair this year,” fair assistant treasurer Carol Koontz added. “It was great to see all of the fairgoers and I had quite a few comments that it was their first time and they really enjoyed the fair and can’t wait to come again.”