The Washington County Agricultural Fair has become a family affair for Wayne Hunnell, Secretary of the Washington County Fair Board.
Hunnell is joined by his wife Kathie, who volunteers in several capacities including the Arts and Craft Fair, as well as his daughter Kelly Smith, who was involved in 4-H, and granddaughter Meghan Smith, who is involved with 4-H, horse jumping, barrel racing, and raising rabbits.
“The week of the fair, I enjoy being actively involved, and seeing them (family) benefit from all of their efforts, as well as the Fair Board efforts to be able to put on the fair,” Hunnell said.
Hunnell said members of his wife’s side of the family also showed animals at the fair through the years, and his father-in-law helped manage the Washington County Fairgrounds in the 1960s.
“Her father did much of what I’m doing today in terms of organizing the fair, running those eight fair days,” he said.
Hunnell said his wife volunteers time to support the fair, including making a quilt with the theme “A Farmer’s Prayer”, which sold for $12,000 benefitting the fairgrounds.
“It sold higher than anybody thought,” he said.
Hunnell said enjoys watching his granddaughter participate in 4-H, and with her horses.
“I am very proud of her,” he said. “She really puts herself into it (4-H).”
The Washington County Agricultural Fair is an eight-day event attracting more than 65,500 spectators annually. The 225th Anniversary Fair runs Aug. 12-19.
“It’s a very exciting time for all of us involved here that we continue the tradition of this fair, continue to promote agriculture, which is still a key economic engine for the state. We are excited to maintain the fair for future generations to enjoy,” Hunnell said.
The Washington County Agricultural Fair, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is Pennsylvania’s oldest fair dating back 225 years to October of 1798.
When Washington County was celebrating its first fair, John Adams, the nation’s second president, was in office. At the time, only 16 states existed.
The primary mission of the fair is to promote and advance the interest of agriculture, horticulture, homemaking subjects, arts and sciences, 4-H clubs and FFA organizations and activities.
Agriculture is the largest industry in Washington County. The USDA ranked Washington County fourth overall in the Commonwealth with 1,760 farms: this is the largest by far in Western Pennsylvania trailing only to Lancaster, York, and Berks County amongst the state’s 67 counties. The industry is as vital to feeding our region today as it was 225 years ago.
The Washington County Agricultural Fair and the fairgrounds are key economic drivers for Washington County and surrounding communities.
Hunnell said the fairgrounds include five exhibit halls, ten barns, grandstand, show arena, show tent, and picnic pavilion. The fairgrounds are active on a year-round basis attracting various shows and exhibits.
Most of these events are “rentals” where organizations lease the facility. The largest of these events is the two-week Pennsylvania Arts & Craft Christmas Festival which draws nearly 15,000 visitors annually. The next four largest events include the All-Clad Factory Outlet Sale, ARH Gun Show and Sale, Duncan & Miller Glass Museum Show and Sale, Family Festival and Washington County Home Show.
Most events occur over multiple days and weekends and the total Fair and Expo Center attendance exceeds 135,000 annually.
“The fair will not support itself,” Hunnell said. “It is the other rental income that allows us to have the fair.”
Hunnell said the Fair Board had to make some changes to the fair to confront dwindling attendance.
“The largest attendance we have had was in the 2014-2015 timeframe where we saw 70,000 people attending the eight-day fair period,” he said. “We saw that continue to dwindle down to the low 40,000s in attendance.”
Hunnell said they used an outside advisor along with marketing students from Carnegie-Mellon University who did a survey of fair participants to see what they liked or disliked about the fair.
“The result of all that they helped us redesign a new fair logo, they told us we needed to modernize our fair website, and we needed to get more involved with social media,” he said.
Hunnell said the Fair Board decided they also needed a plan to revitalize the facilities and the grounds.
“We got a lot of help from different sponsors who provided in-kind services,” he said. “We completely changed the look of the fairgrounds entrance. We put in a new fence, a new stone gate with the fair logo on it, and we put in a new digital sign that we advertised on that is twice the size of the previous sign. That grabbed people’s attention going by on a daily basis.”
Hunnell said additionally they built a new steer barn, built new lamb pens, added concrete flooring to the goat barn, painted several buildings, and added directional signage.
“A lot of those changes have happened over the last five years or so,” he said. “Those changes really improved the look of the fairgrounds.”
Hunnell said those changes have seen a rise in fair attendance.
“We started seeing the attendance come back after we made these changes,” he said. “We ended up with about 65,000 in attendance at the fair last year.”