By Jessica Reynolds Staff writer
The Daily Star
---- — John Niles has attended the Afton Fair since he was a young boy. Now, as president of the fair board, Niles is getting ready to celebrate the fair’s 125th anniversary.
Niles and other organizers were busy Sunday working on one of the fairground’s dairy barns to prepare for opening day. The fair will kick off Wednesday and run until Saturday, he said.
For its 125th year, the Afton Fair is celebrating the return of a popular attraction: the midway, which the fair has been unable to afford for the past two years. Bringing in a midway can cost more than $25,000, Niles said.
The attraction was certainly missed, according to a poll that the fair board conducted in 2013. More than 170 people responded, according to the fair’s website, and the most frequent responses were requests to bring back a midway, followed closely by requests for more exciting grandstand entertainment.
“We’re just a town fair,” Niles said. “Because we’re small, it’s sometimes hard to come up with the funds. We’ve done a lot this year and the last few years to make sure we could have rides for the 125th anniversary.”
The fair is much different than it was when Niles used to go with his parents as a boy, he said.
Since then, the village of Afton has gotten smaller, Niles said.
There were dairy farms, two hardware stores, a dress store, grocery stores and a drug store.
Now, there are only a few convenience and gas stores. As the village around it shrunk, it has been important to keep the Afton Fair alive, Niles said.
For some Afton residents, the fair is a point of pride.
It hasn’t always been easy keeping the fair alive, Niles said. He became involved more than eight years ago after the flood of 2006. After the deluge, he and his wife, Barb, were looking for a way to help the community. The fairgrounds survived another flood in 2011, which “hurt us bad,” Niles said. “It’s hard to get rid of all that water on the fairgrounds and clean up. We do a lot of the work ourselves.”
Before he started volunteering, Niles had no idea how much effort went into putting the fair together. After all the hard work, it’s “kinda neat” to be part of something that has been around for 125 years, he said.
“That’s a long time,” Niles, 59, said. “It’s a milestone.”
As one of the last town fairs around, the Afton fair provides a certain small-town charm that isn’t always present in larger fairs, said Rhonda Barriger, director of the fair board. She agreed that it has sometimes been a struggle to stay afloat. To her, the 125th anniversary represents “a lot of hard work and trying to keep something going in a bad economy.”
“I couldn’t just stand by and watch it die,” Barriger said. “Fairs are a dying thing. But we are a small, hometown community trying to pull it together. We’ve done a lot of work. We weren’t going to give up on it.”
Not giving up meant seeking help from “great” sponsors and supporters, such as Chobani and local small businesses, Barriger added.
In addition to bringing back the midway, the fair board has worked to bring exciting acts to the fair for the big anniversary, Barriger said. The fair will open Wednesday with the Community Firemen’s Parade, followed by a fireworks display at dusk. The midway and rides will open at 4 p.m. that day, she said.
On Thursday, the horse racing will kick off at noon, followed by a rodeo. The Afton Fair is one of the few remaining fairs around to have harness racing, Barriger said.
Friday night, I-88 Speedway Racing will take place, and an Off the Street Truck Pull will be held Saturday.
“We’ve worked very hard,” Barriger said. “Everyone in the community looks forward to the fair.”