By Kathy Feist
This weekend, 4-H youth will proudly exhibit their year-long projects at the Jackson County Fair held in Independence at Habitat for Humanity’s Hiram Young School. Chickens, goats, dogs, bunnies, quilts, cakes, woodworking, photography, arts and crafts and more will be open for public viewing on Saturday, June 24.
What will be missing are large crowds, carnival rides, games, music concerts, food booths and vendor tents.
Unlike Wyandotte County, whose county fair draws thousands to its fairgrounds over a six-day period with the support of 25 different corporate sponsors, the Jackson County Fair mainly attracts about a hundred friends and family over a three day period with the support of two sponsors.
“Primarily there is no dedicated fairground,” explains Josh Shinn, 4-H Youth Development Field Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. “And when it comes to finding a location, there is the hurdle of price and availability.”
Shinn, who was hired a year ago, says he initially had plans to create a big community event this year. HyVee Arena immediately hopped on board. But the plans ended with the City’s $21,000 price tag for use of the American Royal building necessary for the livestock shows.
Shinn says he’s grateful to Truman Heritage Habitat for Humanity’s free offer to use their facility in Independence. However, with no room for large livestock, the fair was separated. The horse show was held two weeks earlier at an available space in Warrensburg.
“So the Jackson County Fair is pretty much transient,” says Shinn.
A Fair History
The Jackson County Fair was first held at a Lee’s Summit fairground in the 30s and 40s. It was a big deal.
“In the 30s to 60s it was almost as big as the state fair,” says Selinda Ramsey, Chairman of the Jackson County 4-H Foundation. Carnival rides, games, entertainment, food and craft vendors–the whole shebang.
The week-long event showcased exhibits from other county 4-H clubs, Future Farmers of America members and other community organizations.
In 1958, Jackson County was handed its official fairgrounds when land was donated by Blevins Davis at 2020 S. 291 Hwy in Independence.
MU Extension of Jackson County set up offices on the fairgrounds. But by the turn of the century, those buildings were in disrepair and MU Extension began looking elsewhere for a home, eventually moving to Blue Springs. In 2001, the property was sold to the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ. According to Ramsey, the sale agreement was to have included continued use of the property for the Jackson County Fair. But if such an agreement was made, the church did not honor it, leaving the 4-H community scrambling to find a home.
Over the last 20 years, the fair has been held at various locations, such as Drumm Farms on Lee’s Summit Road or Lone Heart Ranch in Lone Jack.
Unable to find a regular home, the Jackson County Fair stayed small. It had already begun diminishing in size starting in the 60s when organizers chose to have a closed 4-H fair, meaning only Jackson County 4-H members could exhibit their projects. MU Extension oversees the local 4-H clubs which drive the exhibit portion of the fair.
Over time, the number of Jackson County 4-H clubs began to decrease as well.
“Society has shifted,” says Ramsey. “Both parents work. There is less home economics. People buy food in the stores. Even those in 4-H want to focus on electronics, arts and crafts, sports.”
During the pandemic, like other organizations, MU Extension experienced a decrease in budget, personnel, and 4-H enrollment. They recently reorganized its geographic area, creating a cross-county involvement for Jackson, Platte and Clay counties.
4-H for All
Despite the organization’s struggles, the children who engage in the 4-H projects continue to benefit from the experience.
Nowadays, 4-H offers more than the traditional clubs that exhibit at the fair. It also provides in-school, after-school programs that teach students career and college readiness as well as special interests clubs for such things as robotics.
In the southland, Ruskin High School is a participant in the 4-H Youth Futures program, which is primarily geared toward African Americans in the urban core. A Spanish speaking version also exists. In July, members will travel to MU to experience life on campus for four days.
Another group of 4-H members headed up by Ramsey will travel to South Korea this summer as part of a scholarship program. She looks forward to traveling with the students every year.
“To me, 4-H is the best youth organization anywhere,” says Ramsey. “None offer as many benefits as 4-H does.”
The Jackson County Fair will be held June 23 – 25 at Hiram Young School, 505 N. Dodgion St. For more information on the fair or 4-H, contact extension.missouri.edu/counties/jackson/4-h.