Less than two months before the Box Elder County Fair was scheduled to take place, organizers still weren’t sure whether it would happen at all.
Uncertainty was the only certainty when the fair’s board of directors met in early July to decide the fate of the 2020 version of the near century-old tradition. County leaders had asked the state for permission to relax some COVID-19 regulations and hold larger gatherings, but hadn’t received an answer.
Under the weight of a self-imposed mandate to either pull the trigger or pull the plug, at the end of the day the board chose the former, but with some big concessions. The bandstand at the fairgrounds and the adjoining lots where the buzz of the carnival, live music and commercial vendors would normally charge the air sat eerily empty, save for a handful of hardy souls who signed up to provide fair-favorite foods to the die-hards who stuck around.
What organizers finally settled on at that pivotal July 8 gathering was to hold tight to the heart and soul of the fair – the Junior Livestock Auction and the Golden Spike Rodeo.
Of course, even those core events were shaped by the pandemic in significant ways. The rodeo had to incorporate a face-covering requirement for fans, drawing the ire of some and even calls on social media to boycott the event in protest of what has become a politically charged topic.
County commissioner and fair board member Stan Summers said it was disappointing and frustrating to have to operate under the same COVID-19 restrictions as most of the Wasatch Front when Box Elder County hadn’t been hit as hard by the virus.
“I was very surprised we couldn’t go to green (in time for the fair),” Summers said.
At the same time, he was heartened by the way organizers stayed positive and focused on preserving some key elements.
“I was so glad people focused on the things we could do instead of the things we couldn’t do,” he said.
In the end, Summers said the rodeo sold more than 14,000 tickets over four days, including attendance in excess of 5,000 on the final night – impressive numbers, he said, especially when compared with events in other nearby counties, which were either sparsely attended or canceled altogether.
The biggest change for the livestock auction was moving it to an online-only format. Youth in 4-H and FFA were still able to show their animals before enthusiastic crowds, but all bidding was done over the internet. Instead of staying in pens at the fairgrounds, all animals went home with their owners at the end of the day, and the different shows were spread out more over the course of the week.
“We weren’t sure if it was going to amount to much or not,” said Lyle Holmgren, president of the Box Elder Junior Livestock Show board.
Last year’s record-breaking haul of nearly $1.3 million would have been a tough act to follow under normal circumstances. Despite the sudden change of format, almost 200 fewer animals shown, and lower market prices for livestock in general, the auction had brought in $663,900 by the time online bidding closed.
Broken down by type of livestock, there were 190 hogs sold for a total of $154,800 ($815 average); 337 lambs ($240,825, $715 average); 98 steers (243,400, $2,484 average); and 42 goats ($24,875, $592 average). The top-dollar animal of the show, a steer raised by Kylie Kunzler of Park Valley, fetched $7,000.
The numbers still aren’t final, as the practice of “boosting,” or making donations to individual projects, remains open on the auction website until Tuesday, Sept. 15.
“With the boosts, I think we’ll be close to a million dollars,” Holmgren said.
Despite the challenges brought by the need to overhaul the entire process on short notice, he said there were some positives with the new format that could become a more permanent part of the show in the future. Bear River Live, which is known for livestreaming Bear River High sporting events, provided live streams of the shows that were popular among people who don’t live in the area or couldn’t attend, and online bidding provides another option for buyers.
“I’m guessing that next year, barring any more pandemics, we’ll be back to the way we’ve done things,” Holmgren said, “but from here on out, I think we’ll see a hybrid (of online and in-person bidding).”
Regardless of the sale amount, Holmgren said the main goal was accomplished – to give the youth an opportunity to show and sell their animals.
“The choice was either to do it this way or not have it, and nobody was going to stand for that,” he said, thanking the dozens of volunteers who made it possible.
“The volunteers were fabulous,” he said. “Everybody just hunkered down and did their part, and made it so.”
Summers said this year’s fair was a learning experience, and by all accounts a successful one given the circumstances.
“It wasn’t normal, but what’s been normal lately?”