FISHER — Each year at the Fisher Fair when she was a child, Shelby Zahnd sat in the packed grandstand for the demolition derby on the final day, dreaming of becoming a driver like her father.
In her 11th straight year of coming to the fair, the 16-year-old’s goal is firmly in the rearview mirror — she’s not one to crave danger, she’s learned — but she still wants to be part of the action.
“The fair is a big part of our small town,” she said, “and our small town means a lot to us.”
Zahnd is a member of the junior fair board, a group of high-school-aged kids who learn the ropes of the fair in anticipation of taking over the reigns of the fair someday.
With a population under 2,000, the village of Fisher may be small, but each year, its fairgrounds transform into something much bigger. The gate receipts were expected to tally around 8,500 over five days this year, with people from all over the area flocking to the fairgrounds on the east side of town to enjoy carnival rides, a country music concert, a tractor pull, a donkey race, and of course, a demolition derby, among other attractions.
Hundreds of exhibitors brought their livestock, artwork and food to be judged.
“When you see fairs in movies,” eighth-grader Sam Munsterman said, “it feels like that kind of fair. The country fair.”
The organization of the fair takes around 45 volunteers, some of whom labored for days, some for months, and some for even longer.
“It’s a 12-month commitment for some of us, as far as the time we’re putting in and planning,” fair president Todd Cotter said midway through the fair. “We’ve already started planning for the next fair, as far as tossing ideas around.”
Cotter clearly has an emotional connection to the fair. When last year’s Junior Miss Fisher Fair, Paige Ferguson, prepared to give up her crown, he put his arm around her shoulder.
“It’s my pleasure to always keep you a part of the Fisher Fair family,” he said as his voice cracked. “And we are a family organization and always will be.”
For Cotter, the word “family” is used figuratively and literally. His daughter-in-law, Karson Cotter, was the Fisher Fair Queen four years ago and works at the fair along with Cotter’s son, Nick.
Cotter has been involved with the fair for 14 years. After originally showing livestock, he joined the fair board and became president this year.
On Thursday night, he surprised the volunteers he works with by taking part in the donkey race, a lighthearted event in which participants hop onto the backs of donkeys, known to be stubborn animals, and do their best to hang on through a short course. Some managed to ride theirs across the finish line, but Cotter was not one of those racers.
Some of the events are more serious than others.
Kids of various ages wrangled their sheep for Thursday’s livestock show by placing an arm around their necks. Munsterman, who lives in Iroquois County, handles his sheep every day, running up and down hills to work on their muscles, building trust with an animal that isn’t always easy to handle.
Twelve-year-old Beau Howe has participated in sheep shows since he was 6.
“I’ve been doing it ever since I was able to grasp a sheep’s head,” he said. “I love to just come to the fairs and enjoy and have fun and have friends to talk to and not to have to be secretive. It seems like you just all have fun. If you win, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has fun and shows sheep.”
Judge Mike Anderson of Paxton roamed around the open space in the center of the livestock barns and looked at each sheep closely before stepping back with his arms crossed, looking at the sheep’s size and development. Anderson used to show livestock himself, traversing the country to do so. He now judges eight to 10 shows a year.
Even the least serious of participants in Wednesday evening’s tractor pull are dedicated enough to travel to fairs across the state.
Bradley Clemmons of Tolono admits his tractor, which he bought three years ago, is mediocre compared to his competition, not to mention the other divisions. He and his family go to several pulls each year, and in two years, he said, he expects his 14-year-old daughter to start driving the tractor.
He calls it “The Blind Squirrel,” a tongue-in-cheek name.
“Basically, we bought the tractor not knowing what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re out here having fun.
“Getting out on the track, it’s an absolute adrenaline rush,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s the most wild thing I’ve ever done. And afterwards, no matter who wins, we’re all happy for everybody.”
Cotter and the fair board are constantly looking for ways to grow and improve. This year’s headlining star for Friday night’s concert, Mark Chesnutt, was the biggest national star they’ve hosted in the fair’s history, he said. But while the main events become bigger and the number of fair-goers grows, the ethos of the fair stays the same.
It’s about community more so than competition. And it doesn’t solely represent Fisher. It’s about the small-town, agricultural flavor that engulfs the outskirts of towns like Champaign.
“It’s agriculture being promoted by our young people,” Cotter said. “They’re not out there every day playing on their video games or watching TV. They’re out there working with their livestock, or maybe it's a crop project, or something where they’re baking to put in our baking competition. It shows the young people and community members what hard work goes into it.”