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State’s oldest fair still draws visitors, exhibitors

HAMILTON. -- There's something about the Pembina County Fair that keeps families coming back every year -- a force that has been attracting fairgoers to Hamilton for almost 125 years.

Remi Larson, 8, spends time with pigs Wilbur and Ernie before the Pembina County Fair in Hamilton, N.D. on July 6, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)
Remi Larson, 8, spends time with pigs Wilbur and Ernie before the Pembina County Fair in Hamilton on July 6. (Meg Oliphant/Forum News Service)

HAMILTON. -- There’s something about the Pembina County Fair that keeps families coming back every year -- a force that has been attracting fairgoers to Hamilton for almost 125 years.

Taylor Hartje, 22, started showing horses at the fair when she was 2 years old, and now the Walhalla, N.D., native works for the Pembina County Extension Office, helping organize the fair for the next generation of 4-H exhibitors.

On Wednesday, she sat by the fairgrounds gate welcoming exhibitors and directing them to their designated barns.

“It just feels like a home away from home and everyone comes back every year,” said Harte, a county agent assistant for Pembina County. “It’s like a big reunion for everyone.”

Hartje’s younger brothers, sisters and cousins are just a few of the roughly 90 4-H’ers who bring static exhibits and livestock to the fair, the longest-running in North Dakota. Exhibitors and fairgoers will flood into the grounds today through Sunday to celebrate the 123rd year of the fair.

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A strong sense of tradition and support from area families, the agriculture community and the Pembina County Commission have kept the fair going for more than a century, County Fair Board President Tim Hartje said. Like his daughter Taylor Hartje, he and his twin brother started showing at the the fair when they were 2 years old, and now they continue the tradition with their children.

“It’s a true fair atmosphere,” he said. “It’s just a true fair experience.”

Like most fairs, livestock shows see dips as children who have shown for years graduate from high school and head to college. But those exhibitors often return with their own children to start a generation of showmanship, and the numbers for fairs start to rise.

That’s the case this year for Pembina County, said Sam Lahman, a Pembina County extension agent with Kari Heljoe. Numbers were healthy in recent years, but more livestock and exhibits are at the fair this year. The county had to find more space to accommodate static exhibits, Lahman said, adding there are more than 300 static projects.

“We’re the highest we’ve been in a while,” she said, adding Pembina County has a strong fair for being in the northeast corner of the state. “Because everyone speaks so highly of the Pembina County Fair, it’s something everyone wants to be a part of.

“New hog pens had to go up, more chicken pens had to go in. We are running out of space. It is a great problem to have.”

Expansion plans Pembina County has seen a decline in population since the 1970s, but the fair is on par with others in terms of numbers, quality and presentation, Lahman said. With about 150 animal entries on the 4-H lineup, the livestock show is one of the highlights of the fair.

The increase in exhibits has prompted the fair board to raise funds to replace the beef barn, which is 118 years old. It hopes to have the barn replaced by next year’s fair.

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Showing livestock is not just limited to farm families, Tim Hartje said. Friends of livestock exhibitors have seen the shows and have taken an interest.

That has resulted in new families wanting to participate in the livestock shows, Lahman and Hartje said.

“We have lots of kids that this is their first project,” she said. “I would say maybe half of our 4-H’ers are true farm kids. It’s something they’ve taken an interest in and are self-instructed.”

Ten-year-old Katie Volk, a Pembina, N.D., exhibitor who has shown chickens since she was about 3 years old, said she keeps coming back because she loves spending time with animals. It takes a lot of work preparing for the fair, but she said it’s worth it.

“I just have so much fun with them,” she said of her chickens. “I just can’t wait to come back every year.”

Night events such as the chariot and chuckwagon races and Bull-o-rama also are large attraction for the fair. Those events pack the grandstands, which can hold about 1,000 people, Hartje said.

“We will have people from all over the state call our office and ask when they are,” Lahman said of the chariot and chuckwagon races. “It’s something so unique and something nobody has anymore.”

There also are carnival rides and games, giving fairgoers a true fair experience, he said.

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“Everything that the State Fair offers, we offer here on a smaller scale,” Lahman said. “We have everything you are looking for in a fair, and it keeps people coming back. We’re definitely not a one-trick pony.”

If you go What: 123rd Pembina County Fair

When: Ground open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. today and Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight Saturday, noon to closing Sunday

Where: Pembina County Fairgrounds, just south of Hamilton, N.D.

For more info: Call (701) 265-2693 or (701) 265-3134 for ticket information or go to the Pembina County Fair’s Facebook page for full schedule of events.

Katie Bolk's chickens are set up for display and show at the Pembina County Fair in Hamilton, N.D. on July 6, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)
Katie Bolk's chickens are set up for display and show at the Pembina County Fair in Hamilton on July 6. (Meg Oliphant/Forum News Service

Related Topics: PEMBINA COUNTY
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