Huck Plyler of Hope, age 10, already walks and looks like a seasoned cattleman, right down to the squint. He’s come to the Arkansas State Fair to show rabbits and steers, and it’s not his first time in the show ring, as the massive Grand Champion buckle on his belt attests.
“Showing animals helps you understand the meaning of cattle, and so if you want to do it for a living, you can do it,” he said. “And then it gets you where you meet friends. It’s always been a family generation thing, where you want to keep going.”
Behind him, throughout the massive cattle barns at the state fairgrounds, there are 10 families that will tell you the same thing. In places like Bonnerdale, Western Grove and Solgohachia, they’ve spent the better part of a year, sometimes longer, developing their animals for show, learning the trade their families have honed for generations.
“It’s just one of those things that gets in your blood,” said Huck’s dad, Caleb, who with his brother, Shane, brought home enough State Fair rosettes to slipcover a Simmental. “You’ve been here since you were big enough to walk. I’ve never missed a steer show at Arkansas State Fair since about 1985, so it’s been a long time.”
The 2020 version of the State Fair stands in stark contrast to previous events. There are no neon lights up the midway beckoning throngs of spectators. And fewer vendors means the aroma of corn dogs struggles to carry the breeze. But families like the Plylers don’t care. For everything that’s been taken away due to coronavirus, the Junior Livestock Show was given the green light. There was no doubt where they were headed come October, according to one teacher.
“It’s been really nice that we’ve had the opportunity to have [county and state] livestock shows because lots of other states, they’ve canceled theirs,” said Shane, agri teacher at Springhill High School. “Those kids have lots of money and time invested in these projects, and they’re not getting to exhibit. So, we’re very thankful that the fairs in Arkansas have been able to go on.”
If you want to know the heart of American exceptionalism, head to the state fairgrounds and you’ll find it. A welcome respite from the long hours and harsh realities of drawing a living from the land, the State Fair is the ultimate celebration of the kinds of things that endure. There’s real pride in the validation that comes from baking a blue-ribbon pie, showing a Supreme Champion gilt or getting a standing ovation with “Ring of Fire” in the talent show.
The event itself has shown common grit with the people who love it most. Starting in Hot Springs at Oaklawn Racetrack in 1906, the fair came to a halt in 1915 and wasn’t revived until three years later with a one-year stand in Jonesboro. In 1921, the fair moved to Little Rock at what is today the Little Rock Zoo and War Memorial Stadium, but it would not remain there. With the Great Depression, the fair was shuttered from 1931 to 1937, reopening in 1938 in North Little Rock where it would remain until 1941.
On Nov. 3, 1941, the night after the fair closed, a fire raged through the rodeo arena, killing about 100 cattle and burning the barns. Devastated by the loss, the fair held a smaller event in 1942 on the North Little Rock grounds then moved in 1943 to Pine Bluff. In 1944, the Arkansas Livestock Show Association began negotiating for a new permanent home for the fair, and by 1946, it was located on 70 acres on the south side of Roosevelt Road in Little Rock.
Doug White understands the heritage that life in the barns and on the pageant stage represents. The second-year president and general manager saw it up close with one of the biggest fairs in history last year, and he saw it almost go silent in 2020 due to COVID-19. Arkansas’s State Fair Board of Directors kept its hopes up through the spring, but by June, the writing was on the wall.
“We’re one of the top 100 fairs across the United States. Arkansas ranks 30-something, so we’re sizable,” he said. “Today, 82 of that 100 have canceled. The last one, Jackson, Mississippi, is continuing. Delaware pulled theirs off without a hitch, but they’re clearly in the minority.
“We had several meetings with members of the governor’s staff, and it was pretty clear to us then that we would not be out of Phase 2 come October. I started to do the financial analysis: What will the fair look like at two-thirds capacity? Can you do a midway at two-thirds capacity and social distance? The answer was no. So, we made the announcement to cancel.”
It was a heavy call for the organization, a $5 million entertainment entity for which the State Fair is the central event. And with $40 million in local economic impact and roughly 1,500 jobs created during its 10-day run, it was another blow to the local tourism industry reeling from the pandemic. To say nothing of the time and expense everyone from poultry producers to pageant contestants had already invested suddenly being laid to waste.
“The board started getting feedback from the livestock community about district fairs, county fairs,” White said. “Even though they weren’t having midways or carnivals, they were still having livestock shows. We met again and asked what would it cost? There’s a lot of sub-cost associated with the livestock show, but it’s our mission.
“We started to think outside the box. We eliminated a lot of expenses. We reduced our security staff without hurting security. We asked the kids to clean up their own stalls, which worked out really well. We came back with a revised number, and the board said go for it. It’s one of the bigger ones we’ve ever had; we’ve got 15 or 20 percent more entries than last year, which was a huge year. I think that decision was a smart one.”
Joan Warren, executive director of the Arkansas State Fair Pageants and Youth Talent Competitions, said that even though this year’s fair was cancelled, officials looked at ways they could still recognize the competitors.
“These kids work so hard to get to the fair each year, and to tell them all the practice and rehearsal they’ve done just won’t happen? There was no way I could accept that.”
Warren has a lifetime tied up in pageant and talent competition, having judged for 20 years and headed up talent and pageants since 2009. Seeing how far things have come, she’s equal parts den mother and mama bear when it comes to her slice of the fair, tucked into the Arkansas Building.
“I remember when the pageant girls had to walk outside in their swimsuits, in the pouring rain, while the judges sat in their cars with the windshield wipers going,” she said. “Some of these kids have never been to Little Rock before, and to put themselves out there to be judged and compared to others in public takes courage I don’t think anyone really realizes.
“That’s why, as a director, it was important to me to have these contests in some way this year. Watching what other pageants did and working with our leadership and IT departments helped us develop our plan, and the entire thing was centered on the health and safety of our contestants, their families, our staff and sponsors.”
Where the livestock show came off relatively unchanged except for shortened barn stays, social distancing and masks, the talent and pageant portions were completely reimagined using technology. This year’s hybrid featured virtual preliminaries with finalists appearing in-person for the award ceremony. Each contestant submitted videos modeling pageant attire or performing their talent number, and pageant interviews were held via Zoom.
At the live crowning and awards, family attendance was limited and social distancing was observed from the hair and makeup area to the grandstand. It felt alien, but far better than no competition at all.
And while in some circles, people may sniff at the concept of pageants, they don’t do so within earshot of Warren, who has changed countless lives through the scholarship money she’s landed as top prize. Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia provides either a four-year undergraduate or online master’s degree scholarship to the Miss Arkansas State Fair Queen and Miss Arkansas State Fair Rodeo Queen, part of $7,000 in total scholarship monies awarded the reigning queens to offset the cost of higher education. In total, the pageants and talent competitions annually award more than $120,000 in scholarships and cash prizes.
“For some of them, this is their ticket to college when there was no other way they could have gone,” Warren said. “Each year, the Arkansas State Fair has 160 pageant contestants and more than 250 talent contestants. We have to keep this tradition alive.”
Cattle Barn 3 is empty and silent except for the Shofner family tearing down their stall to head home to Northwest Arkansas. In many ways, they’re identical to the hundreds who arrived here looking for top prize, but the Shofners have a particularly deep connection to the dusty environs.
“Back in ’39 or ’38 or ’37, the exact year gets a little fuzzy, my granddad started showing,” said Bob Shofner. “His name was Wallace Shofner, and my dad’s name was Keith Shofner. I’m Robert, or Bob; my son is Robbie. And now we have Ryker and Corbin and Heston, which are the three grandsons that’ll be coming up. That’ll be the next generation.”
Ryker’s off to a good start; his animal placed in the money, so he has a little coin in his pocket going home. And while it’s an often-hollow sentiment to say they were just happy to be here, in this family’s case, that’s as true a statement as you’ll find.
“This is our livelihood,” said Robbie. “We don’t do a whole lot of sports as a family. This is what we do. For something like this to get shut down, it’s all that work, all that family time. You don’t get to go celebrate and go show it off. This is what we do for recreation. This is tradition.
“Every fall since the ’30s, the Shofner family has been coming here. Through World War II, through all those major national events, this might have been the one that we missed. It would have definitely been heartbreaking. So, it was great; the folks putting it on for us, they know how important it is to these kids. It’s a way to finally have an endpoint for all the hard work throughout the year.”