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West Virginia fairs, festivals showcase state, community pride

By KRISTEN RENEAU

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Fairs and festivals have a long history in West Virginia, and with some now approaching their 100th anniversaries, many of these events are holding on to their original traditions while bringing communities together.

The agriculture industry was a prominent part of many West Virginia community events historically, including fairs, said Kent Leonhardt, the state’s commissioner of agriculture.

“If you look at our state flag, one person is the West Virginia farmer. Many years ago, when our state was first formed, around 96 percent of people lived on a farm, and that’s where we developed many of our traditions and customs,” Leonhardt said. “Even with today’s population, there’s a connection back to the family farm, and that connection is what helps keep our fairs and festivals growing in popularity.”

He believes fairs are helped by citizens’ strong sense of community, pointing out many fairs and festivals are run by volunteers. However, as fairs and festivals adapt and work to incorporate new ideas and themes, Leonhardt thinks it’s important to continue to showcase agriculture. The events, he believes, can inspire a new generation to get involved in the $1 billion industry.

He pointed out while the average age of farmers is increasing, “without fairs and festivals, it would go a lot quicker.”

“They provide a venue for our young folks to learn about the caring of livestock, about fruits and vegetables grown,” Leonhardt said. “Fairs and festivals help keep these traditions alive, and can help install a desire to go into agriculture with young folks.”

West Virginia State Fair

Nancy Yates is emblematic of this. The Hardy County native got her first goat at 7, and began showing goats at the State Fair when she was 8.

Yates grew up on a farm, something she believes allows people to understand responsibility, motivation and hard work at a young age. She hopes even those not involved in the industry can learn something from events such as the State Fair, where attendees come from all over West Virginia, including many who aren’t involved in agriculture.

“I think not only does the West Virginia State Fair do a great job of spotlighting agriculture, it does a very good job of subtly teaching kids about agriculture,” Yates said.

She pointed out many fairs also showcase artisans and other important parts of West Virginia culture.

“It’s important to have big events like that, because it brings people all around the state, and people from out of state, and shows we have great things going on,” Yates said. “When you walk into an event as big as the State Fair and as well-known and well-put-together, it really shows we have some pretty awesome stuff going on.”

Kelly Collins, CEO of the State Fair, said they have taken great pride in having represented West Virginia for the past 93 years.

“It’s a chance for exhibitors from across the state to bring their prized projects for display. It’s a chance for our state agencies to get out and meet our citizens,” Collins said. “It’s a chance for fairgoers to come out to make memories with their family and friends. And it’s a celebration of the state of West Virginia.”

In its last economic impact study, the State Fair was found to have given the state a $13.8 million boost. However, Collins said the true goal was to be able to bring people together.

“I read an article last year that a mom brought her two daughters to the fair for a day,” Collins said. “She wrote about all of the great things they were able to learn and experience, but what touched me the most was that she mentioned it was a day when everyone put their cellphones down and just enjoyed one another. That is exactly what we want to achieve.”

With so many fairs and festivals throughout West Virginia, she believes all these events represent pieces of the state’s heritage.

Each individual event also can be an economic boost to its area.

“From the largest to the smallest event, you have to consider not only the revenue the event brings in itself, but also the effect it has on the community,” Collins said. “The hotel/motel tax, sales tax, people eating in restaurants, getting gas and shopping in the local stores. It all helps. Add that to the sense of community and heritage, and you have a very impactful event.”

Economic impact

Commissioner of Tourism Chelsea Ruby believes this is one of the many reasons fairs and festivals have become so important to West Virginia.

“Our state’s fairs and festivals offer authentic West Virginia experiences to both residents and visitors and create a culture that is truly unlike any other,” Ruby said. “These annual gatherings not only support local economies, but also provide a unique mix of regional music, history and heritage and Appalachian cuisine. Our state has more than 400 fairs and festivals each year, and I look forward to the beginning of another successful festival season.”

Gavin Ward is vice president for the West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals. He said many businesses have told him their biggest days coincide with fairs and festivals.

“It provides stimulus to a lot of local businesses that participate,” Ward said. “People get to see the stores that are downtown, and they might come back later when they have more time, and it helps concession stands. They get their name thrown out, and it’s a good networking opportunity.”

He added that many communities have been hosting their individual festivals for decades.

“Each little community is spaced far away, so if someone is having an event in one city, they could be on opposite sides of the county,” Ward said. “The rural nature and each community having their own events has a lot to do with it.”

Ruth Taylor has been involved with the Association of Fairs and Festivals for several years, having served as the first female president of the board.

She said with the variety of different festivals and fairs West Virginia offers, more people are enticed to come and visit. One example of this is the West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off done in conjunction with the Autumn Harvest Festival, where she said she’s met people from Washington state, California and even London.

“It’s on the Food Network. It’s 10,000 people, easily. If you walk around, it’s more cars from out of state than locally,” Taylor said. “People don’t realize it’s not just a party. They’re bringing money into the state, paying taxes and increasing value.”
Community celebration

Taylor believes fairs are also important for the educational opportunities they provide.

Many “of our fairs are based on agriculture and heritage. The one we do here (in Pocahontas County) is scheduled around Pearl Buck‘s birthplace and promotes her. It gives people an educational component as well as something to do that’s fun,” Taylor said. “And many of our students in the state raise animals and produce things like that — (and) the prize money, that has helped them get into and pay for college. It raises the educational value of the state.”

Fairs and festivals also are important to West Virginia because they’re annual. For some, this can be a time for reunions, and sometimes it can provide a sense of stability in the midst of chaos.

This was the case at the Cherry River Festival in Richwood, where floods had devastated the area just a month before the festival. The theme last year was “Aloha,” to say goodbye to the old and welcome the new.

“It was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen,” Taylor said. “The streets were packed with people, and they had the best bands I ever saw. You just couldn’t believe the spirit of the people after all they’ve been through, and to see them lined up together and celebrating what they did have.”

Celebrating communities and heritage is important throughout West Virginia, including at the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg.

“There’s a tremendous amount of Italian families that immigrated here at the turn of the century, that came here for coal mining,” said MariElena Oliverio, operations manager for the festival’s office.

She said about 60,000 to 80,000 people attend the three-day festival, which showcases Italian dance, music, food and more. The festival can help them hold onto their traditions.

“It gives the younger families a chance to bring kids downtown, see the entertainment, the dancing, anything that has to do with the Italian culture and the longevity of carrying that forward,” Oliverio said.

AJ Hammond, a municipal official in Harrison County, came to the state from Pennsylvania.

“I’ve never seen anything like the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival, closing down an entire street,” Hammond said. “You don’t see that anywhere other than West Virginia, and it’s just a really cool thing. And having stuff like that drives that pride and makes it such a cool place to live. It all works together.”

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