OWATONNA — After an onerous winter and exasperating spring, the Steele County Free Fair managed to beat the odds and get all of its ducks in a row just in time for the 2019 event.
During the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner — held on Sunday evening before the Tuesday opening of the fair in the Beer Garden on the fairgrounds — the colorful group of individuals that tirelessly work behind the scenes to put on Minnesota’s largest county fair remembered the difficulties as well as the perseverance to move forward demonstrated in 2019.
Since the 2018 fair, the fair family mourned the loss of five individuals who left their mark on the fairgrounds. Gail Arnfelt, wife of former fair board director Paul Arnfelt, died in August ; Dave Fandel, superintendent of indoor concessions, died in January; Dick Schleich, superintendent of information stations, died in April; Steve Stansberry, superintendent of the auto museum, died in July; and Jim Gleason, former fair manager/secretary, died in April.
“I lost a deep friend this year,” said Fair Manager Scott Kozelka as the full Beer Garden remembered Gleason alongside the late manager’s family. “As Jim would say, ‘Thank you guys. Thank you for everything.’”
The fair also said goodbye to the north end of the discontinued race track during the off season, tearing down the old fence and completely reconfiguring the area to include more vendor and show space. Koezlka gave a nod to both the fairgrounds crew and the Steele County staff, who were able to work through the wet spring and summer to get the area ready for show time.
The weather also impacted buildings at the fair, with a record-breaking snowfall in February claiming the roof on one of the 61-year-old cattle barns. The resulting damage led to the Fair Board of Directors voting to demolish both the cattle barns and replacing them with on large barn. Again the rainy weather impeded on the timeline of the construction, but the barn was officially completed in time for 4-H presenters to bring in their show cattle for judging on Sunday.
Despite the trials and tribulations over the last 12 months, there was much to be celebrated on Sunday evening as well. Specifically, the purpose of the night in its entirety is for the fair to extend gratitude to the volunteers who make it all possible.
“Thank you for everything you do. When we go around the country and around the state and they ask why we’re so successful, the first thing we talk about is our volunteers and everyone that makes this happen,” Kozelka said. “The SCFF couldn’t happen without our great volunteers, our great superintendents, our great board of directors, and our great office staff.”
As per usual during the supper, the fair recognized service milestones for various fair volunteers. The recipients of the service awards included the following:
• Glen Meger, Director, 5 years
• Dillion Noble, Superintendent of Organic Crops, 5 years
• Cary Larson, Superintendent of Goats, 5 years
• Naomi Jirele, Superintendent of Fine Arts, 5 years
• Karen VonRuden, Superintendent of Dairy Cattle, 5 years
• Brad Svenby, Superintendent of Insurance, 10 years
• Brent Svenby, Director, 10 years
• Roger Noble, Director, 15 years
• Leo Seykora, Superintendent of Organic Crops, 20 years
• Deb Mather, Superintendent of Hobbies and Data Entry, 20 years
• Pat King, Superintendent of Grains and Grasses, 20 years
• Doug Houghes, Superintendent of Aerial Photography, 20 years
• Denise Lage, Office Staff, 20 years
• Mark Ditlevson, Director, 30 years
• Stephanie Kolbe, Superintendent of Wood Carving, 35 years
• Tim Arlt, Director, 40 years
The largest applause, however, erupted when Dick Reinhardt, director emeritus, was recognized for his 59 years of service to the fair. As Reinhardt stood to be recognized, the entire Beer Garden stood with him.
“Dick has dedicated his whole life to the fair,” said Fair Board President Dan Deml. “He’s been a good, solid gentleman his whole life. He has always had a very realistic look of the fair: what works and what doesn’t and what can be successful. If he ever disagrees, he’s never disagreeable. He is always very professional.”
Reinhardt was first elected to the fair board in 1959 after working with the fair’s treasurer for four years prior as an employee of Federated Insurance, a job he held for 44 years before retiring in 1987. While on the fair board, Reinhardt was the treasurer from 1959 to 1996 — 37 years — and from 1997 to 2016 he served as the director of hospitality and the bank.
After turning 90-years-old in 2016, Reinhardt announced that he would be retiring from the Board of Directors. Following the 2016, the directors unanimously decided to name Reinhardt director emeritus. As director emeritus, Reinhardt is no longer a voting member on the fair board, but is still invited to attend meetings and noon lunches during fair week.
While the evening ended joyously, everyone excited the Beer Garden with butterflies in their stomachs as they prepared to kick things into high gear for the fair’s opening ceremony at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The feelings and thoughts can best be articulated through a fair prayer written by Jim Gleason that was read in loving tribute before Sunday’s dinner began:
Lord, as a new year begins and we start to prepare
Lord we ask for your blessing with this prayer for the fair.
Watch over our fair, keeping it safe.
Provide good weather all over the place.
Fair volunteers are all groups of friends;
Give them courage and strength and a shoulder to lend.
Lord, help us put smiles on lots of faces;
From coast to coast in all sorts of places.
Help us show all our visitors how much we care
And how happy we are they came to our fair.