Just after the last exhausted family left the parking lot and the lights dimmed and the midway went silent, the gates closed on the final day of the 2005 Williamson County Fair.
In the background, the 1,200 volunteers and board members who created this community reunion of sorts let out a collective sigh. Reviving this massive event after decades of slumber was an enormous undertaking. But together, they pulled it off.
Just two years earlier, the Williamson County Ag Expo Park had become the new kid on the county’s recreational block and officials sought ways to expand its potential.
“It was built for agriculture in Williamson County, but we needed to expand the operation and get more exposure,” said County Mayor Rogers Anderson.
About that same time, a new buzzword, “agri-tourism,” was being bantered about at chambers of commerce throughout the state. That meant bringing attention to the new look of agriculture, such as activities at Gentry’s Farm, Hatcher Dairy and Ellington Park in Nashville.
During an agri-tourism meeting with locals involved in agriculture, Anderson came up with an idea.
“Why don’t we have a fair?” he asked the group.
Unlike the numerous festivals held throughout the county each year, a fair would focus on agriculture and bringing the community together. Although no longer the biggest cog in the county’s economic engine, in many ways agriculture was and still is a driving force.
Many years earlier, Williamson County once had a fair. However, when a storm flooded the 1950 fair site, demonstrating the hazards of not having a facility to accommodate livestock, displays and vendors, the fair was basically washed away.
Finally, in 2003 there was a new option.
The Ag Expo Park wasn’t developed specifically for a fair, but it could work.
“We had a building and fit a fair into it,” said Diane Giddens, Fair Board executive committee secretary.
The biggest challenge was the topography of the land. The hills and slopes make expansion difficult, though not impossible.
As the idea took root, a committed core group of people gathered information and worked on selling the idea of a county fair to local civic organizations. They studied fairs, attended fairs and went to Fair Association conventions to develop contacts and learn the ins and outs of putting on such an event.
The group formed the Williamson County Fair Board and appointed Dave Crouch, a local businessman and part-time farmer, as chairman. The group solicited help from the Wilson County Fair chairman, the now late Hale Moss, leader of what was and may still be the best fair in Tennessee.
The new fair board also reached out to Joe Gaines, who at the time was director of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
“Everything said we could do this,” Anderson said.
The idea was becoming a reality.
“Hale took us under his wings,” Crouch said.
Moss provided the fair board with details about the Wilson County Fair committee structure and job listings along with a list of contacts.
“Every fair works around Labor Day,” Anderson said. “We picked a date around Jimmy Drew’s (of Drew Expositions) availability. He had an opening the first Friday in August. We didn’t know enough to say it’s hot then. We took the date.”
According to Anderson, Drew suggested that the fair be crafted around more than rides and entertainment that offered three hours of fun. That worked well with the plan of celebrating agriculture and bringing the community together, which originally spawned the fair idea and the mission to have “a fair that is beneficial and traditional, with animals, vegetables, plenty of food and a midway,” Anderson said.
In fact “celebrate” became the central theme of that 2005 fair: celebrate agriculture, celebrate family, celebrate community.
The next steps included getting the word out and finding sponsors and volunteers to pull it all together. Tractor Supply Co. was the presenting sponsor and has remained a sponsor and major cheerleader for the fair. Williamson Medical Center, Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation and the Williamson County Farmers Coop also have been important parts of the fair since that first year.
“Tractor Supply helped out a great deal the first few years,” Anderson said. “So many people made the fair successful. The community loved it, but it was expensive to do.”
As a 501(c)3 and not a part of county government, the fair has only one paid employee. It depends solely on volunteers, sponsors and vendors to exist.
An independent unit, the fair gives back to the community in several ways. After the second year, the fair board was able to provide funding for electrical updates at the Ag Expo Park. Those updates allowed the county to install air conditioning in the arena in time for the fair’s third year.
Since 2013 the fair board has awarded $27,800 in scholarships to high school students who have been actively involved in the fair. Through its Pay It Forward day, the fair collects canned goods for GraceWorks Ministries. Last year, it collected 38,718 pounds of canned goods.
Once the Williamson County Chamber of Commerce got involved, word spread and community organizations, local businesses and corporations took a chance and threw their support behind the idea that was becoming a reality. The most important pieces of the puzzle were the people who volunteered their time to make an idea come to fruition.
The first fair opened Aug. 5, 2005, with the late George Jones, the entertainment headliner, performing on the main stage.
Kix Brooks and Chris Johnson also performed. And the Sonic Search for a Star finals brought several local musical talents to perform.
That 2005 fair also featured a hypnotist, a 5K run, a car show and a barbecue cook-off. About 150,000 people showed up, filling the main parking lots and overflow parking on some nights.
“We tried different things over the years. Not all of them worked, but we learned from them,” Giddens said. “(At) the first fair, we charged for parking. We learned quickly (not to do that) when we couldn’t get vehicles off the Interstate fast enough. It was only one lane off the Interstate at that time. What was successful for us was horrible for law enforcement.”
Also, while the first fair had no evacuation plan, there is one now.
The first few years the fair had a fireworks show every night, but when subdivisions sprung up around the area, fireworks shows were cut back to Friday and Saturday nights.
Before the supplier went out of the business, electric wheelchairs helped those with handicaps get to and from the parking lots. Golf carts became the new mode to transport not only those with handicaps but also exhausted parents and children returning to their vehicles. Some have even called the carts “the best ride of the fair.”
Each year fair officials try new things and learn new lessons.
After trying numerous musical entertainment performers, from Buddy Jewel to Beatlemania, and Whispering Bill Anderson to John Conlee, officials realized that the Williamson County Fair was unique and musical acts weren’t the draw they are in other places.
Activities in the 4-H & Youth Village have created much excitement in the arena and have taken over about a fourth of the area with STEM projects, a butterfly environment, shooting activities and Home Depot building projects.
Livestock shows increased when 4-H moved its county show from Eddy Lane to the fair and again when regional livestock shows were held at the fair.
“Last year we paid $78,000 in premiums (for livestock shows),” Giddens said.
During the past 15 years, the fair has continued to be a work in progress while not losing its original focus of agriculture and community. Working 100 acres of land or playing in the dirt, even if it’s merely a couple of potted tomato plants on an apartment porch, is still meaningful.
Little 1’s Farming and the baby pigs are the fair’s most popular exhibits.
“(It’s) the one thing that sets us apart statewide.” Giddens said. “Little 1’s Farming is our premium exhibit.”
The first year, more than 7,000 people went through the interactive exhibit. In 2018, more than 35,000 came through.
The fair has faced lean years when the weather didn’t cooperate. In 2005, it was 100 degrees every day. During a couple fairs, tornado warnings temporarily closed down the midway and sent people rushing home or into the arena.
“Since that first fair, it’s been all about the volunteer base,” Giddens said. “We’ve been blessed with great volunteers.”
More than 2,200 people volunteered to help during last year’s fair.
“Would we do it over again knowing what I know?” Anderson said. “Yes, I’d bring it up. It’s a different model now, but the smiles on the faces at the end of the fair make it all worth it. It’s a labor of love. With so many things to do in Williamson County, we are honored people choose to come to the fair.”