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As some other states’ state fairs are on the decline, the Wyoming State Fair remains popular

A lit Ferris wheel at the Wyoming State Fair carnival at night.
A lit up Ferris wheel at the Wyoming State Fair carnival.

State fairs across the country have historically been major events for not only the agricultural community but for the public as well. And as many state fairs have experienced a decline over the years, the opposite has been true in the Cowboy State. The Wyoming State Fair has been a staple of late summer in Douglas since the early 20th century. This year's event drew about 15 percent more attendees than last year's.

"I would say it was as good a fair as we've had in, well, since I've been on the board," said Shawn Steffens, the state fair board chair. "I think it was the best one we've had to date."

He added that some changes in how they run the fair helped. Traditional mainstays, such as the rodeo and demolition derby, continue to be popular. But they're not the only factors.

"I think the major factor to that is that in 2020, we [were] one of only three state fairs nationwide that actually put on a fair, and so that's why, I think, the last four years that I've been on the board, that we've continued to see an increase because we did have that fair for them in 2020," he explained.

State Rep. Aaron Clausen of Converse County was active in the state fair when he was younger. He said that things have changed over the years.

"There's a lot less people in ag, the evolution of the thing, there's a lot less people in ranches, a lot less youth. So you have to recruit and find those things that are attractive to people and make an effort to really get people involved, not only the people who are in ag but the town kids that are interested," he said. "It's huge in a kid's life when they do 4-H and FFA."

Wyoming's legislature has also changed how the fair is managed, which has been credited for staving off the decline other states have had to contend with.

"We changed the statutes and the management structure," he added. "So before, we had an advisory board that advised all of the director[s], and we moved it around so that the board [is] in charge of the director and they have a more active role. We have more hands on deck [that way]."

Another improvement has been in the fair's finances. Like other state agencies, it's affected by ebbs and flows in the local and state economy. Converse County has experienced a small boom in the area as the population has increased, Clausen said.

A mix of new attractions, food vendors, and entertainment options has been balanced with more traditional elements of the fair, such as livestock showing and other agriculture-related activities.

"Youth are the heart and soul of the state fair," said Wyoming State Fair Manager Courtny Conkle. "So, we have livestock shows every day celebrating our 4-H and FFA members, all the hard work they've put in all year to be able to come to the premier summer event and end their summer on a really high note by hopefully taking home a buckle from the state fair."

Madelaine McElwee is Miss Rodeo Wyoming 2022 and a long-time fan of the state fair. Having participated in it when she was younger, she would like to have more young people take part, including those that don't come from agricultural backgrounds. But she worries that technology increasingly competes for their attention.

"I know a lot of kids and I go around them and a lot of them, just, I hate to sound like a Facebook Boomer, but they're all on their iPads all the time. And I think that kids need to get out more and explore more and get into these hobbies," she said.

McElwee said there is a general decline in interest in fairs among young people, something she said is also true of the Miss Rodeo Wyoming pageant, though she thinks advocating for them would help.

"I think if we were able to reach out to local schools and go on school visits, talk to parents," she said. "I know so many parents out there who wish their kids would get off their computers and things and get out and do things. And so if we are able to promote that and make sure everybody knows that 4-H groups are still strong and that we're still here."

Even with the changing times, the Wyoming State Fair is still a premier summer event. Preparations are already starting for next year's festivities, which will take place Aug. 15-19, 2023.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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