Alligators, wooden nickels new twists at century old fair

On its 100th birthday, the Shenandoah County Fair will add new crowd-pleasing events, from a highly praised wrestling/educational alligator show to a unique wooden nickel lunch that allows a free two-hour fair visit.

And for eight straight days there will be eating contests ranging from hands-free spaghetti gorging to chomping down on deep-fried Oreos.

And a major tribute to military veterans will include a mobile museum where World War II veterans can bring artifacts, record their story and have it included in the traveling museum’s veteran memoirs.

There are named themes for five days Monday through Friday – Heritage, Children, Senior Citizens, Veterans Tribute and Ladies Day.

With more than 100 scheduled events, exhibits, rides, food vendors, crafts and 4H animal shows with cattle, pigs, goats and sheep, an expected record 35,000 visitors will be challenged on what to see – the old or the new.

Here are a dozen new events:

• A parade Thursdaybeginning at 6:30 p.m., starting at the Woodstock Shopping Center to the Massanutten Military Academy Track/Field.

“We don’t know when it started or when it ended in the past,” said Tom Eschelman, general manager of the fair, “but we’re bringing it back.”

• Kachunga Alligator shows twice every night – plus three matinees – that have attracted standing-room only-crowds at county fairs for 20 years. Kachunga (an American bushman from Florida) will enter the water and capture an 8-foot 250-pound American alligator with his bare hands and place him on a show platform.

• The wooden nickel lunch every day will allow the first 100 fairgoers to come any day at 11:30 a.m. and pay $5, receive a wooden nickel, wander the fair grounds and sample different food venders. They must leave before 1:30 p.m., turn in their wooden nickel, get $5 back and then receive a 100th anniversary commemorative wooden nickel to keep.

• During the entire fair week the mobile military museum that is part of the Virginia WWI and WWII Profiles of Honor Tour will be open to visitors to bring letters, dairies, photos and other memorabilia that can be digitally scanned and displayed at the Library of Virginia, including recordings by veterans telling their story.The Veterans Tribute day will let all service veterans attend the fair free and include a job fair, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs counselors, housing and spousal counseling specialists, therapy animals, bands, speeches, color guard and recognition of newly enlisted recruits waiting to depart on assignment.

“Everything you can think of for support for vets,” said Woodstock resident Ret. Lt. Col. Ray Powell, of the Army Corp of Engineers, who expects 600 veterans to show up.

Eschelman added, “It is  one of the Top 5 best veteran tributes on the East Coast.”

• The daily food eating contest – some held twice the same day – will have gourmands devouring Tom’s Chili Dogs, handless apple pies, handless spaghetti, BBQ Wings, deep fried oreos, pulled pork nachos, pizzas and donuts.

• A Virginia Dreams Music tent will showcase a variety of music – country, gospel, bluegrass and original songs – while focusing on the positive side of music every evening and on some afternoons. It’s free.

• A professional double-sided 20-foot-long refrigerated flower display will be on exhibit. It will keep flowers looking fresh all nine days of the fair. “Very few fairs have that,” chuckled Eschelman.

• On Children’s Day kids under 12 are admitted free. A new kids playground in the activity tent will let kids be a farmer for a day and gather eggs, pick apples, dig potatoes or shuck corn, Eschelman said.

They also can have their face painted, watch magic shows, see balloons twisted into animals and other shapes, or watch a Kaguna show. There will be surprise visits from favorite cartoon characters.

• On Ladies Day, a “My Fair Ladies 100th Anniversary luncheon with pre-sold tickets will be held and Julia Arnold, executive director of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley will be the guest speaker.

The ladies will then be escorted to reserved seating in the grandstand for harness racing where they can place bets with jellybeans and sunflower seeds. “County boy betting,” said Eschelman.

• On Senior Citizens Day those who are in nursing homes will be brought to the fair for breakfast. They will then be driven on golf carts so they can tour the animal barns.

“They will be able to get out and walk around if they want to,” said Eschelman. “It’s pretty exciting.”

• A photo exhibit of the 100 years of the Shenandoah County Fair will be available for viewing every day under the grandstand. On Heritage Day, the Shenandoah Historical Society, County Library and other history sites will have an eight-hour exhibit of with artifacts, photos, and history buffs showcasing what life was like in the county at different times during the past century.

“Visitors can also learn about the museums and organizations sponsoring the event,” said Zack Hottel, archivist at the Shenandoah County Library.

• At 7 p.m. on the final day a time capsule representing the 100th anniversary of the fair will be dedicated on an anniversary patio at the walk-in gate behind the grandstand.

“We spend a lot of time talking about new exhibits,” said Eschelman, 56, who will be heading up his sixth county fair. “Securing new activities has been a highlight of my time here.”

He was quick to add that annual growth is such there “will be 400 livestock exhibits and well over 1,000 exhibits in the fair’s exhibit hall.”