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

State fairs across the country have historically been important events not only for the farming community but also for the public. And with many state fairs experiencing declines over the years, the opposite has been true at Cowboy State. The Wyoming State Fair has been a staple of late summer in Douglas since the early 20th century. This year’s event attracted around 15 percent more visitors than last year.

“I would say it was as good a show as it has been since I’ve been on the board,” said Shawn Steffens, chairman of the state fairs committee. “I think it was the best we’ve had so far.”

He added that some changes in the way they run the fair would have helped. Traditional mainstays such as the rodeo and demolition derby continue to be popular. But they are not the only factors.

“I think the main factor for that is that in 2020 we are [were] one of only three state fairs nationwide that actually host a fair and so I think we’ve seen a steady increase over the last four years that I’ve been on the board because we’ve had this fair for them in 2020” , he explained.

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Converse County State Assemblyman Aaron Clausen was active at the state fair in his youth. He said things have changed over the years.

“There’s a lot less people in farming, the evolution of things, there’s a lot less people on ranches, a lot less youth. So you have to recruit and find the things that people are attracted to and try to really get people involved, not just the people who are in farming, but the city kids who are interested,” he said. “It’s tremendous in a kid’s life when they do 4-H and FFA.”

The Wyoming Legislature also changed the way the fair is administered, which is blamed for staving off the decline other states have been struggling with.

“We changed the articles of association and the governance structure,” he added. “So before, we had an advisory board that advised all the directors[s]and we moved it so that the board [is] responsible for the director and they have a more active role. We have more hands on deck [that way].”

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Another improvement was in the fair’s finances. Like other government agencies, it is affected by the ebb and flow of local and state economies. Converse County has seen a small resurgence in the area as the population has increased, Clausen said.

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

“Youth is the heart and soul of the State Fair,” said Courtny Conkle, executive director of the Wyoming State Fair. “So we have cattle shows every day to celebrate our 4-H and FFA members, all the hard work they’ve put in all year to get to the premier summer event and celebrate their summer with a really high note finish by hopefully winning a buckle home from the state fair.”

Madelaine McElwee is Miss Rodeo Wyoming 2022 and a longtime fan of the state fair. Having participated from a young age, she would like more young people to participate, including those from non-farm backgrounds. However, she worries that technology is increasingly competing for her attention.

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“I know a lot of kids and I walk around them and a lot of them, just I hate sounding like a Facebook boomer but they’re all on their iPads all the time. And I think kids need to get out there and explore more and indulge in those hobbies,” she said.

McElwee said interest in carnivals among young people in general is declining, which she believes is true of the Miss Rodeo Wyoming pageant, although she believes it would be helpful to advocate for her.

“I think if we were able to reach out to local schools and do school visits, talk to the parents,” she said. “I know so many parents out there who wish their kids would get off their computers and things and go out and do things. And if we can encourage that and make sure everyone knows 4-H groups are still going strong and so we’re still here.”

Despite the changing times, the Wyoming State Fair is still a premier summer event. Preparations are already underway for next year’s celebrations, which will take place on August 15-19, 2023.

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