The Arkansas State Fairgrounds will soon come alive. Thousands will mingle and wander through the maze of rides, people and vendors, taking in the aroma of food, grass, animals and machines. The fair, you see, is almost an organism within itself that only lives 10 days a year.
The area off Roosevelt Road is still relatively empty at the moment, but dozens of people are working to get things ready for its Friday kickoff. What is now quiet will become a loud den of activity with speakers blaring, rides buzzing and music playing. It’s a symphony of chaos in some ways, with so many people being in the same place for so many different reasons.
Whatever the reasoning, it’s become an Arkansas staple for more than almost a century in one form or another. The fair hosts more than 420,000 visitors a year over its 10-day run, according to a news release.
The fair has something new every year. Whether it be in performers, the rides or the food.
As far as the food goes, there will be plenty of bacon. Vendors will sell food that either has bacon in it or wrapped around it, such as bacon-wrapped potato wedges.
“That’s just where a lot of vendors were going,” says Will Hornburg, director of sales and promotions at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds. “Bacon seems to be the hot item.”
Also making its debut is Arkansas biggest fried pickle on a stick and a 2-foot-long hot dog. Returning will be the fried spaghetti and meatballs on a stick.
State fair patrons can choose from about 50 food vendors, says Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the Arkansas State Fair and Livestock Show, in a news release. He says an additional seven are inside Barton Coliseum for Professional Bull Riders performances.
“We are bringing in several new attractions that have never appeared at the Arkansas State Fair,” Shoptaw says. “Animal Alley, Wall of Death Cycle Show and the Arctic Olympics High Dive Show are all new acts that I know folks will be excited to see.”
The fair will also host the Xpogo Stunt Team and the Exotic Animal Petting Zoo.
Almost an event within itself, the Professional Bull Riders Tour will come to Barton Coliseum for competitions Oct. 16-17. The competitors are aiming to qualify for a spot in the PBR world finals. Performances start at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets for PBR Ridin’ in the Rock can be bought online at etix.com or at the Fair’s ticket office. Tickets start at $10 for general admission, and reserved seats are $20 each. State Fair gate admission is not included with a PBR ticket purchase, and group discounts are available.
While this is billed as the 76th Arkansas State Fair, other events have been labeled as such in the past, according to The Arkansas State Fair, an Arkansas Livestock Show Association book.
The very first Arkansas State Fair was held about 1869 at land that is now Center and 17th streets. The fair was held in that location until 1876 and included a livestock competition and racetrack. Tobacco was being grown in the state during this time, and one state-grown crop was hailed as better than the tobacco from Havana, says Deb Crow, director of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association archive collection.
Following a decades-long gap, the fair was held in Hot Springs from 1906 to 1914 at what is now Oaklawn Racing and Gaming. Oaklawn was outside of Hot Springs city limits at that time.
“They did the same thing we do now,” Crow says of the Hot Springs fair.
Crow says that fair had rides, in addition to the livestock and agricultural shows. The rides were on the midway of the racetrack.
In 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Hot Springs-based fair.
In 1918, the fair was held in Jonesboro. Beginning in 1924, it was located in Little Rock on Fair Park Boulevard, the current area of the Little Rock Zoo. During that time, an Olympics-style competition was added, Crow says, describing them as track events.
The first modern fair took place in 1938. Until 1942, the fair was located at Broadway and Fifth Street in North Little Rock, Crow says. It was the first time that the fair had permanent structures added. Unfortunately, a fire that took place on the final night of the fair in 1941 destroyed the grounds.
In 1943, the fair moved to Pine Bluff. There was no fair in 1944 and 1945.
Then in 1946, the fair opened at its current location.
“Every one of these fairs was kicked off by a parade,” Crow says. “This year, it’s [Sunday] from 1-3 p.m.”
Crow says the free parade will start on Broadway and Second Street and go to the state Capitol.
Prizes will be awarded for “Best Marching Band” and “Best Decorated Float.”
If there’s one thing the fair works toward, it’s getting people to turn out.
Regular daily admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12 and adults 60 and older. Admission is free for children younger than 6. Fairgrounds parking is $5 per vehicle.
Lunch at the Fair takes place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and allows people to visit the fair for free. That means no fee for parking or admission. While it isn’t a long block of time to see the fair’s attractions, it allows those seeking a quick lunch to stop by one of its many vendors.
Advance purchase ride passes will also be available for $22 at participating Walgreens and can be redeemed for a one-day unlimited ride wristband at the fair. The pass can be used any day except Dollar Day on Oct. 12.
Patrons can save more than $4 when they purchase advance gate admission for just $5.99 for adults and $2.99 for children and seniors. Those tickets can be purchased at Walgreens until Friday, or at the Fair ticket office and online at ArkansasStateFair.com before 5 p.m. Thursday. No discount tickets will be offered for sale after these dates.
Another concern for visitors is the road construction on Roosevelt Road near the fairgrounds. To alleviate that on the busier days, a shuttle service has been contracted.
“It goes from the state Capitol ground. The designated stops are west of the state Capitol,” Hornburg says.
Hornburg says the shuttle will run Fridays from 6-11 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays from 1-11 p.m. There is no shuttle service Monday through Thursday.
“There’s not so much traffic during the week,” Hornburg says. “Traffic is always an issue on the bigger days.”
Youths from across the state will compete in the Youth Talent Competitions and Fair Queen Pageants for four days, leading up to the finals Oct. 17 at 5:30 p.m. The event will end with award ceremonies and the crowning of the 2015 Arkansas State Fair Queen.
The Livestock Show is a part of the Arkansas State Fair’s heritage. This year, about 10,000 animals are expected to be at the fairgrounds. Exhibitions and competitions will include beef cattle, dairy cattle, swine, sheep, boer goats, dairy goats, poultry and rabbits.
Arts and crafts are another staple of the State Fair.
“We have a great creative arts program, with more than 1,200 classes of competition for exhibitors of all ages in various categories of crafts, hobbies and cooking skills,” says Crow, who is also the competitive events coordinator. “Many of the items are absolutely gorgeous pieces of art, and the overall display is truly amazing. Live competitions and demonstrations are scheduled daily, and artists and crafters will be displaying their artwork all 10 days of the fair.”
The schedule includes the Arkansas Commercial Wine Competition, the Gold Medal Flour Cookie Challenge, the “This is Arkansas” Photography Contest and the Petit Jean Meats Cooking Competition.
Other competitions will be held for floral arrangements, honey, ice cream, pies, pork, rice, barbecue and a chili cook-off, with the help of sponsors such as Arkansas Farm Bureau, Floral Express, Gold Medal, Hiland Dairy, Johnston’s Home Center, Petit Jean Meats, Pulaski County Farm Bureau and Spam.
“The Fair Queen wins a $40,000 scholarship,” Crow says. “Between prizes for the talent show, Fair Queen and rodeo queen, the scholarships are approximately $170,000 in total.”
The fair is also known for bringing in big acts in a variety of genres. This year’s Arkansas State Fair Concert Series, which takes place at the Wendy’s Main Stage, opens Friday with country duo Montgomery Gentry. The concert series will close Oct. 18 with rappers Naughty by Nature, known for the 1991 hit “O.P.P.” In between are rockers Eddie Money, Styx, Pop Evil and Grand Funk Railroad. R&B groups Silk and Toni! Tony! Tone! will also perform, and country artist Joe Diffie visits the fair, too.
“As always, all of the Arkansas State Fair Concert Series performances are free with gate admission,” Shoptaw says. “However, we are offering special premium concert seating. There are a limited number of premium seats for each show. Premium tickets are available at ArkansasStateFair.com starting at $15 each.”
There will also be music at the Blue Moon Pavilion featuring Arkansas musicians Gable Bradley, Bonnie Montgomery, Four West and Ghost Bones. The pavilion will also host events such as the Fantasy Football Challenge and College Night Karaoke.
Of course, the rides are one of the biggest draws for the fair.
Deggeller Attractions of Stuart, Florida, will be handling the rides at the fair again.
“We’ve used them for a long time,” Hornburg says. “All the rides are inspected before the fair.”
New rides include Centrifuge, Cliff Hanger, Hi Roller, Magic Maze and Speed.
The new rides aimed at the younger crowd are the Farm Tractor, Balloon Race, Frog Hopper and Gravity Storm.
“We’ve got 55 rides this year,” Hornburg says.
ARKANSAS STATE FAIR CONCERT SERIES
Wendy’s Main Stage
Oct 9: Montgomery Gentry, 8 p.m.
Oct. 10: Eddie Money, 8 p.m.
Oct. 11: Silk, 7 p.m.
Oct. 13: Styx, 8 p.m.
Oct. 14: Toni! Tony! Tone!, 8 p.m.
Oct. 15: Pop Evil, 8 p.m.
Oct. 16: Grand Funk Railroad, 8 p.m.
Oct. 17: Joe Diffie, 5:30 p.m.
Oct. 18: Naughty by Nature, 5 p.m.