County Fair is Corny Fun, After A Year’s Shutdown

The Nevada County Fair will open next week, after a quarantine year that closed state and county fairs across the country last summer. This year’s fairgoer has a lot to look forward to.

“It takes a big team and a lot of hours to get ready for fair,” Executive Director Patrick Eidman said. Because of the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, fair staff was reduced and the team didn’t even get the go-ahead for this year until June, “which considerably shortened our planning,” he said. “It was a huge blow to lose the fair” last year, Eidman recalled. “We missed it — a lot.”

Last year, the county went without funnel cakes, food on a stick, and the chance to show off prize livestock. But the shutdown was more than just a missed outing, said Eidman. “A significant amount of fundraising for our nonprofits for food” takes place annually at the fairground’s food avenue. “Treat Street is a special place at the fairground — definitely a favorite,” he said. Local churches, clubs, and organizations have traditionally served specific menu items, from bratwurst to baked potatoes, beer and burgers, as a way to earn operating funds for the entire year. So not only did fairgoers miss out; area organizations also felt the lack.

The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad’s fairgrounds station awaits its first 2021 fairgoer for a ride around the small track.

This year, the food booths are back in business, but there are other changes that fairgoers might notice. There’s no rodeo this year, for example, replaced with five nights of cars and trucks racing, crashing, and roaring in the Arena. There are also no food-based contests like pie- or watermelon-eating; no bubble-gum-blowing contests, and no shared group tasting of prepared foods such as salsa or chili. These food activities were thought more likely to result in sharing the COVID-19 virus, so they were struck off the agenda.

Eidman says the fair gets 90,000 attendees in a regular year, and he’s expecting that many. But the fair is considered a “mega-event” by the state, so bring a mask for indoor activities, and expect to see hand sanitizer and masks available. And, as always, stay home if you’re feeling ill.

Entertainment for all

There are a handful of hilarity-inducing contests at no charge to fair attendees. Sign up for the corn-shucking contest — but be aware that this is a barefoot competition. You’ll strip the ear of corn with your feet. Eidler noted that speed and neatness are part of the competition. And there’s no waste: “Those [shucked ears of corn] will go home for my chickens,” said Eidman. More excitement for those with talented feet: A “Cold Toes” contest invites contestants to pick marbles out of a bucket of ice water with their toes. And a frozen-T-shirt contest awards a prize to the first person who can thaw and put on a frozen-solid T-shirt.

Wendy Willoughby, the fair’s community involvement coordinator and so-called “Queen of Fun,” gets to invent all sorts of wacky contests and activities. “As a kid, I danced at the fair, and as a young person, I adored the fair.” When she had the chance to work for the fairgrounds, Willoughby jumped at it some 13 years ago. Her job is “to offer entertainment, kids’ activities, and contests that are free for our communities, and provide fun stuff” throughout the fair. 

Wendy Willoughby, community involvement coordinator and Queen of Fun, gets to choose which kooky contests the fair will feature each year.

“It’s important for us to have all sorts of family activities,” said Eidman. “At any given time there’s a lot of different things to be seeing and doing. We’re really proud of our program.”

Following are some highlights for people wanting a break from nausea-inducing spin rides, gazing at cut flowers, or displaying their talents on the dance floor. All contests take place at the Special Events tent (near the Arena).

  • Corn Shucking Contest: Aug 11, 3:30 pm.
  • Frozen T-Shirt Contest: Aug. 12, 3 pm.
  • Cold Toes Contest: Aug. 13, 3:30 pm
  • What Do You Meme game: Family/group fun with a meme competition, every night at 6 pm. 
  • Baby Diaper Derby, Aug. 15 at 3 pm., Special Events Tent; register your crawling baby beforehand and see whose baby is the fastest.
  • Live Art Showdown: Pits artists of all ages against the clock to create a painting in 20 minutes. Audience votes for favorites. Aug. 14, 1:30 pm, Special Events Tent.
  • Squashmobile Racing: Races will be held Aug. 13. Check in at the Special Events Tent at noon. Racing will begin at 12:30 pm. You don’t need to pre-enter. Put some wheels on your garden squash and see if yours is the fastest. Check the web site for vehicle specs: www.nevadacountyfair for the 2021 Competition Handbook

There are always familiar farm animals to look at in the sheep, cow, and horse barns and the family farm area. You can watch 4H and FFA kids showing their animals just about any day of the fair. But for extra fun?

Three costume contests for creatures, all on Aug. 13, 4 pm, in the Whitney Pavilion:

  • Rabbit Costume Contest: Categories include  Humorous, Enchanting, Most Original, Look-Alike (Exhibitor & Rabbit) and Fair Theme “The Fair is Back in Town!”
  • Chicken Costume Contest: Categories include  Humorous, Enchanting, Most Original, Look-Alike (Exhibitor & Fowl) and Fair Theme “The Fair is Back in Town!”
  • Goat Costume Contest: No specific categories.

More animal-related stunts:

  • The Avian Bowl and Rabbit Bowl are team quiz events that test participants’ knowledge in a wide range of topics about poultry and rabbits. Teams consist of 2 to 4 youth per team. Both Bowls will be held at the Special Events Tent. The Avian Bowl is Aug. 11 at 6 pm and the Rabbit Bowl is Aug. 12, at 6 pm. No need to pre-register.
  • Goat Obstacle Course: Aug. 12, 4 pm, at the Goat Show Ring.
  • Steer and Heifer Obstacle Course: Aug. 11, 5:30 pm, in the Show Ring at the Cow Barns.
  • Working Sheep Dog exhibitions, Friday-Sunday, 5 pm, Horse Arena.


  • Draft Horses and Wagons, mornings at the Horse Arena (times vary). 
  • Pony rides daily; Arena end of Treat Street (nominal fee).
  • Each day at the Horse Arena: Mini horses! Times vary.
  • Thursday, Horse Yoga, 3:30 pm, Horse Arena.
  • Acrobats on Horseback, Aug. 11-12, 5:30 in the Horse Arena.
  • Pack Mules and how to load them for a long trip: Aug. 15, 11:30 am, Horse Arena.

Have to see to believe these:

  • Ugliest Decorated Cake Contest: Cakes should be decorated as ugly as possible! (The rules state that no live animals such as worms and bugs may be incorporated in the cake.) Visit this exhibit in the Northern Mines Building.
  • “Nature’s Oddities,” on display in the Lath House, for most unusual; largest fruit or vegetable; largest head of sunflower; largest leaf; biggest carrot; heaviest squash and longest squash.
  • Produce Characters: by youth and adults, creatures made from fruit and veggies. On display in the Lath House.

There are also juried competitions for best Pandemic Projects, recycled art, honoring a local hero, and more. Tickets and more available online here.

Wildfire Note: Although the fairgrounds is a designated evacuation site for large animals, Eidman said the fair is going ahead as usual and “we’ll make it work” if evacuated animals are still onsite when opening day rolls around. As always, be aware of wildfire and your own evacuation zone

All photos by Julia Park Tracey

Featured image: Patrick Eidman, executive director of the fairgrounds.

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