The 2014 Elkhart County 4-H Fair was one for the record books.
The 4-H auction raised $1,160,342.28 this year, breaking last year’s all-time record. Food vendors reported increased sales, several saying it was their best fair week yet. The 24-hour 4-H food drive might not have cracked the Guinness Book of World Records, but it’s on track for a national honor.
The Elkhart County 4-H Fair knows how to draw a crowd year after year, and 2014 has been no different. A total of 269,064 people passed through the gates during the fair, making attendance records the second highest in recent years.
This year’s numbers fall just short of 2013’s 280,175 attendees, said Kristy Ambrosen, marketing coordinator for the Elkhart County 4-H Fair. The 2013 fair was one of the most popular fairs in the last two decades. Ambrosen credits the popularity of Hunter Hayes and Florida Georgia Line, who performed for record crowds in the Grandstand, for the rise in numbers.
“Even though we didn’t have that level of attraction this year, we’ve still had consistently great attendance,” Ambrosen said.
The lowest attendance was Tuesday, July 22 with only 16,980 visitors, while Thursday saw the largest crowd of 43,682 at the fairgrounds.
The fair uses a manual counting system, with volunteers people counting at each gate daily.
Because attendees enter the fair in a variety of ways, whether with 4-H passes or people coming and going several times a day, “just taking tickets isn’t enough,” Ambrosen said. “Even though this system is time-consuming, it’s a lot more accurate.”
Even though this year’s attendance is comparable to last year’s, food and midway ticket sales actually increased.
Danny Huston of North American Midway told the fair board Saturday that by Friday night, the midway had almost tied last year’s total for tickets and wristbands sold.
“All the things they’re doing here at the fair contributes,” he said in an interview.
But weather seems to be the main contributing factor.
The cool summer has boosted business for North American Midway at fairs across the Midwest, Huston said. The company is on track for a record year.
Food vendors said weather made their sales better than ever, too.
“It’s probably our best year yet,” said Donut Family owner Todd Hawkins. “We love when weather cooperates.”
Sales increased 25 to 30 percent over last year for the 4-H lamb club, which introduced a thicker lamb burger and refillable lemon shake-up cups at its building on food row.
Unfortunately, while food and ticket sales sped up, the fair’s wireless internet access was slow as usual.
The Elkhart County 4-H Fair has provided free Internet for fairgoers since 2008, but demand for Wi-Fi exceeds coverage year after year. Doug Mayberry, head of maintenance at the fair, said the fair has been working to expand their network every year, but the increase in smartphone usage has meant an ongoing adjustment.
During especially busy days, when “3,000 people are trying to use Wi-Fi at once, no one gets much of anything,” said Mayberry. “We’re looking at some major changes for next year and doing some upgrading of equipment.”
Visitors say busy days have been easier at the fair since the new parking and tram system was implemented.
Fairgoers reported fewer lost cars and a more organized system than last year.
"It’s nice that the trams are right there, you don’t have to walk very far to the pickup point,” said visitor Stephanie Hufford in an interview with Truth reporter Lydia Sheaks.
At the 4-H livestock auction, 4-H’ers raised about $120,000 more than at last year’s auction, breaking the all-time record.
That includes the sale of 4-H member Lane Flowers’ steer for more than $15,000, about $11.50 per pound. The money and the animal were donated to Church Community Services’ Seed to Feed food pantry, which provides food for Elkhart County residents in need.
CCS executive director Rod Roberson called Flowers “tremendous,” saying the 4-H’er showed great leadership at the fair with his donation.
“It means volumes to others,” Roberson said. “I can’t wait to be able to put together a tally of all that the fair has done for Elkhart County.”