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New building, attractions to greet 2021 Pierce County fairgoers

By Sue Sitter - | Jun 19, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Pierce County Fair Board Chair Don Jelsing stands in front of a new agricultural center under construction at the Pierce County Fairgrounds.

Builders pushed to finish a new agricultural center for the Pierce County Fairgrounds in mid-June but Fair Board Chair Don Jelsing sounded confident work would wrap up before the fair’s opening day June 24.

“We’re crossing our fingers,” Jelsing said. “The schedule’s running tight. The contractor got a late start because they can’t have much wind when they put the tarp up,” he noted, referring to high winds June 10 and 11 that made stretching roofing material over the structure a problem.

Despite other construction delays, Jelsing said, “They think they’ll have both end walls up here within the next couple of days. They’re pretty good now that the roof is up. They’ve got the walls and they just need somebody to come in and hang the overhead doors because we’re going to have walk through doors and big overhead doors on each end.”

Jelsing said the new agricultural center would have room for a variety of displays, including livestock shown by 4-H’ers. Jelsing said builders planned to put dirt and gravel floor in the 67 foot-by-150-foot building to accommodate the wide variety of ag exhibits.

“We don’t have any policies set (for the building) by any means yet,” Jelsing said, “but our hopes are we’re going to take it a step at a time and put as many improvements into it as we can every year to let us still open for some public use on an individual basis.”

“For people who have to have a concrete floor, this isn’t going to work for them. It doesn’t have electricity yet, it doesn’t have a concrete floor; it doesn’t have water in it yet. As the year goes on, next year, and so on, we hope to raise some money to be able to improve that a little bit more.”

Jelsing said the new structure would prove ideal for “cattle, crops and petting zoos.”

“We’ve got a couple of calves coming from the Pay-Dak Dairy to give kids a chance to touch them and groom them and show how to halter a calf and how to take care of a calf and brush them down and keep them clean and things like that,” Jelsing said of one attraction planned for the new building. “It’s pretty much most of our exhibits that have to do with agriculture are going to be in there. As much as we can, they’re going to be in there instead of outside or in those two old barns,” Jelsing said of two former structures on the fairgrounds.

The 2021 Pierce County Fair marks a return from a one-year break caused by a global pandemic. Jelsing said the fair’s return provided a perfect backdrop for new features.

“It’s a real experimental year for us this first year (back),” Jelsing said. “It was a little bit questionable of having (the ag center) this close to the demolition derby track with it interfering with livestock but we’re banking on the fact it’s going to be okay.”

“This is something that’s been in progress for me many years in trying to raise the money to put something like this up,” Jelsing said of the new building. “The current fair board and I have talked about this for five to 10 years. We finally said this year, ‘This is it. We need to move forward to make this happen.'”

“People are hungry for the fair to come back,” Jelsing added. “After missing one year, everybody’s had enough of that. They’re, for one, glad to see the fair back in some form or another, and two, really happy to see some improvements going on besides just coming back. We’re not just sitting back on our laurels and just waiting and see what happens. No, we’re going to go ahead and make improvements where we can make improvements. We’d like to see improvements on water systems here. So, we have lots of plans that we will eventually, step by step take on.”

Jelsing has played a crucial role in the Pierce County Fair’s operations since its recent beginning in 1991.

After spending time at the North Dakota State Fair for his former job, Jelsing noticed the crowds band performances drew and decided to hire one to play in Rugby.

Jelsing said he approached Rugby Broadcasters owner Lila Harstad and Pierce County Tribune Publisher Mark Carlson with his idea. Jelsing and Harstad visited the fairgrounds on the north side of town.

“It was really the place in the 1950s and ’60s where they had the North Dakota Horse Show,” Jelsing said. “For so many years, there was nothing here. The old horse track they had down here was a wreck. We did a lot of work cleaning it up and getting it to look like something.”

“From 1991 to 1999, we had a county fair. It was just basically a handful of people who were financing it during those first years,” Jelsing said, adding he reached out to Pierce County commissioners for help. “The county commissioners were helping some,” Jelsing said, but he found the lack of more help frustrating.

Jelsing said he enlisted Carlson’s help to keep the fair afloat. Jelsing photocopied numerous Tribune stories from the newspaper’s archives, learning that the first Pierce County Fair took place at the present-day fairgrounds in 1916.

“It was quite interesting,” Jelsing said of the archives. “You got to see how (the fair) did through the war years. It was crazy how much the people supported the county fair back then in the teens and ’20s and going back into the’30s. You look at a photo of a prize bull at that time, they would bring $2,500 to $3,000 back in the early 1900s. That’s a crazy price. That’s a fortune back then.”

Jelsing said he became as “emotionally invested” in the fair as the early citizens of Pierce County.

Jelsing said he stopped his work for the fair due to a lack of support from commissioners.

“I kept telling people, this is not whether we’ll make $3,000 or lose $4,000; this is an event in Rugby that people have grasped ahold of and made their own. At that time, we had about 200 to 240 volunteers who helped put this together,” Jelsing said. “I said, ‘If you pull this thing away now, you’re going to destroy the emotions of these people,’ but they did anyway,” Jelsing said of the commissioners’ refusal to offer the fair more support.

The Pierce County Fair stopped for a nine-year period.

“When Rugby had its 125th anniversary in about 2008, (officials) said to me, ‘We should have a county fair or something,” Jelsing said. “I went back and listened to what they had to say and before long, I was hook, line and sinker back into this and have been since then, along with the present board members.”

Jelsing said this year’s fair has several fun events lined up. “We have a band by the name of Snake Oil. It’s very much a band like Hairball. They have the costume changes and they do the ’80s hair band music – Journey and all those types of bands. They will be here on Friday night, the 25th of June. That’s probably going to be our biggest night for attendance.”

“Then, Saturday night, we have a mostly female country-rock band here,” Jelsing said. “We’ve heard them at a fair convention and they’re very good, also. They’re called Diamonds and Whiskey.”

Daytime events Saturday and Sunday include a “mud run,” or truck race through mud and a demolition derby.

“One fun event we’re going to have opening night, Thursday the 24th is the Not-So-Newlywed Game,” Jelsing said. “We’ve also got a magician from Minot coming opening night, Blake Krabseth.”

“We’ll also have a Taste of the Fair with flyers coming out with coupons in them for a discount on fair food Thursday night,” Jelsing said. “People can clip them out and experience all kinds of fair food at a discounted price.”

Jelsing said vendors would offer corn dogs, cotton candy and more.

“I’m already getting questions about the mini-doughnuts,” Jelsing smiled. “They’ll be back.”

Jelsing added, “So many people who’ve ever been here have said, ‘You guys have got a wonderful county fair for the size of your community.’ And we believe it ourselves. We’ve got the people who help us; we’ve got the entertainment that’s here; we’ve got the free stage and shows. Yes, there are lots of things we could improve on and we continually try to do that but for a community the size of this county, we have a lot of stuff going on in our county fair and we’re pretty proud of it.”

“People have also told me, ‘If it wouldn’t be for you, there wouldn’t be a fair,'” Jelsing added. “It’s probably because I’m usually the one who’s in the limelight and the one people see, but the other people on the fair board are doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work are Don and Khloe Sobolik and Mark Thiel and Mike Ostrem along with all of our volunteers. They need to have credit because it’s not just me. I’m the one answering phone calls; I’m the one that’s finding the money for all that but if it wouldn’t be for Khloe and Don, I wouldn’t have any help. They take care of the poster work; they take care of financial end; they do all that. I don’t see that but nobody else knows they do all that, either,” Jelsing said, adding he was grateful for the support from the board and volunteers.

Local financial institutions Bremer Bank, Ramsey National Bank and Merchants Bank held an evening picnic for the fair volunteers June 14. Board member Khloe Sobolik said she expected 150 volunteers to put in hours taking tickets, cleaning the fairgrounds and doing other work during the fair.

Sobolik said there would still be time for volunteers to sign up before June 24. Those interested in volunteering can call Sobolik at 208-0830 or Diane Dufner at 681-1646.

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