Cue the funnel cakes — the 2021 Arkansas State Fair is returning this fall in all of its glory. After a pandemic installment that limited the event to just the livestock show and pageants last year, the fair’s governing board in July greenlighted the full format event, which can trace its origins to Reconstruction.
“The Arkansas State Fair, after one year in limited format, is back to its full capacity in 2021,” says Anne Marie Doramus, acting general manager and AGFC commissioner. “As fall approaches, the state fair is what’s on people’s minds. From concerts to food and carnival rides to livestock, the state fair holds a plethora of family fun with a little something for everybody.
“We’re so excited to be back, and we expect this year’s state fair to be bigger and better than ever.”
The news stands in stark contrast to the slimmed-down version of the event last year. Faced with uncertainty over pandemic conditions, the governing board made the agonizing decision to initially suspend the Arkansas State Fair, only to reconsider and move forward with a scaled-down version of only livestock shows and pageants. Doramus said that gesture paid out goodwill dividends last year.
“Dating all the way back to the beginning, the Arkansas State Fair is, first and foremost, a livestock show,” she says. “Our mission is to showcase the quality of livestock and poultry production throughout Arkansas. Last year, as we reconfigured to accommodate better social distancing, we appreciated how our livestock exhibitors, and pageant contestants for that matter, adapted right along with us.
“It was a difficult decision to reconfigure the fair last year, but the right one, and so was the decision to go forward with the livestock show and pageants. We received many comments from families who participate in these events, some for multiple generations at the state fair, about how much they appreciated us doing what we did. And now, we’re eager to welcome everyone back.”
Doramus says the resumption of a full-format state fair, and the precursor retinue of county fairs leading up to it, has financial ramifications statewide, things the general public doesn’t always see.
“County fairs are the buildup to the state fair,” she says. “They are essential to the high participation we have enjoyed through the years and key to the quality of competitors we get year in and year out. At the same time, having a healthy and well-attended state fair trickles down to the county organizations, many of which rely on a successful county fair to fund operations for the entire year.”
The roots of the Arkansas State Fair go back to 1867. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Arkansas State Agricultural and Mechanical Association was formed that November for, among other things, establishing a state fair. The first Arkansas State Fair was held in Little Rock, Nov. 17 to 20, 1868. The event continued to play in downtown locations until World War I, incorporating along the way as the State Fair Association of Arkansas.
During the 1930s, Arkansas was reeling with the rest of the country from the Great Depression, but toward the end of that decade, a group of community leaders came together to form what would later incorporate as the Arkansas Livestock Show Association. That group decided to hold a livestock exposition to educate farmers and promote new industry.
The resulting Arkansas Livestock Show, later changed to the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show, premiered in 1938, the first of the Arkansas State Fair’s modern incarnation. The debut event, held in North Little Rock, was a financial flop so organizers moved it from November to October for better weather. They also brought in a celebrity, a young Roy Rogers, who lured attendees and began a tradition of live fair entertainment that continues to this day.
The day after the 1942 state fair ended, a fire swept through the North Little Rock fairgrounds, destroying buildings and forcing the event to relocate. Pine Bluff hosted the 1943 event, then while the fair was suspended in 1944 and 1945 due to World War II, Little Rock moved aggressively to get the state fair back. After rejecting an offer for land in what is now War Memorial Park, the association accepted an offer from the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce of several acres on Roosevelt Road as its permanent home. Today, the State Fairgrounds Complex consists of 135 acres.
Continuing the fair’s legacy is important to the culture and heritage of the state, says Warren Carter, vice chairman of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association and executive vice president with Arkansas Farm Bureau, a stalwart corporate supporter of the state fair for decades.
“The state fair provides an opportunity, I think, to expose the general public, maybe folks that don’t know a lot about agriculture, to the state’s largest industry,” he says. “That is a big part of it, that ag promotion angle. But there’s certainly the participation of our members as well, from all across the state via those livestock shows and some other activities.
“Arkansas 4H and FFA attract participation of youth all across the state, which our folks tell us is extremely important. We understand that, so we support them not only via the money we spend at the fair, but to support both FFA and 4H in communities very significantly in order to provide and enhance youth education and youth leadership development opportunities.”
As for bringing back a full fair in the midst of a pandemic, Carter says it was a factor the board didn’t take lightly.
“We looked at it pretty hard, and obviously we’ve got some issues out there,” he says. “When you consider the concern with COVID-19 out there, obviously, we’re hoping we’re at a point when the fair opens where it may be reaching a little bit of a downturn. But the biggest part of the decision was simply the availability of the vaccine at this point that led us to move forward. People who want to be vaccinated and protect themselves can be, and I think that weighed heavily in our decision.”
To that point, officials say the 2021 event is observing current state guidance when it comes to COVID-19 protocols. Fair employees and concessionaires are all subject to strict standards above and beyond regular health codes. All paying customers are welcomed at the state fair, with the unvaccinated being asked to wear a mask. In addition, Vaccinate Arkansas will be sponsoring a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic in the Hall of Industry on both Fridays and Saturdays during the fair’s run.
Like any live event, part of the state fair’s electricity lies in the unknown. Even before COVID cast its own challenges, issues surrounding weather and safety are as familiar here as the Hall of Industry or the sparkling carousel, making attendance predictions a dicey proposition. But as Doramus notes, events across North America have reported record attendance, and she believes the same can happen in Arkansas, especially given the quality of the Main Stage entertainment.
“The entertainment this year is absolutely top-notch and offers something to meet everyone’s musical taste,” she says. “Our team really concentrated on upgrading the musical acts this year, and I think they have done that and then some.”
Headliners Maddie and Tae, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Bell Biv DeVoe, Hell Camino, Better Than Ezra, Blackberry Smoke and Riley Green are joined by Arkansas-grown songsters Dazz & Brie and Zac Dunlap Band on the eclectic lineup. The concerts are free with paid admission, and there are a limited number of VIP deck seats for an upcharge. For full details and ticketing information, visit the fair’s website at arkansasstatefair.com.
Asked what overriding message she had for state fair fans across Arkansas, Doramus smiles broadly.
“The theme for this year’s Arkansas State Fair is, ‘See Y’all There,’ and I think that says it all,” she says. “To all of the people across Arkansas who love this event, know that we are working overtime to provide a safe and fun experience for everyone. We’re so excited to be back with a full carnival and full format of events and attractions. We’re looking forward to it and to seeing all y’all there.”
Arkansas State Fair
Arkansas State Fairgrounds
Keep up with the latest news surrounding the 2021 Arkansas State Fair at arkansasstatefair.com.