CANTON — There have been many changes to the McPherson County Fairgrounds in Canton over the past 70 years, each designed to allow more people to attend a growing array of events at the site.
"The fairgrounds get used a lot," said Mary Jane Lauer, president of the McPherson County Fair Association.
The McPherson County Fairgrounds opens in May with the Beauty and the Beast steer and heifer show during All Schools Day weekend, capped off by bull riding that Saturday night.
The Central Kansas Youth Rodeo Association began holding a series of five rodeos at the fairgrounds
"They are held on Saturdays and Sundays for kids age 5 to 16," Lauer said. "We provide concessions for them and a lot of them spend the night out there. It has been a boost for our fairgrounds."
A high school rodeo also takes place at the fairgrounds each year.
This year will be the third year for the Halloween Hangover clean up derby, so named because it is held the first Saturday after Halloween.
"We have 90 to 95 cars that come from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas," Lauer said. "...If you get mashed up, you don't care, because you probably brought the one you weren't going to use next year."
An oil derrick from the 1920s marks the entrance to the McPherson County Fairgrounds and is part of the Prairie Trails Scenic Byway.
"A lot of times, when we're out there on the weekends for the junior rodeos, it'll get visited half a dozen times," Lauer said.
The biggest event of the year is the McPherson County Fair, which started in 1948 as a combination of the Canton Frolic and the Fair Association.
The city of McPherson did not want to host the fair, so land was purchased north of Canton. The fairgrounds encompasses 17 acres and is maintained by dozens of volunteers.
"It may not seem like a lot (of land), but when you go to repair and take care of stuff every year, it takes a group," Lauer said.
In the beginning, the majority of the fair activities took place in downtown Canton — with the notable exception of the rodeo (started in 1959) and a few exhibits, which were housed in tents.
"We've been a 4-H and open fair all the way through," Lauer said. "...It used to be that we were one of the earliest fairs in the state."
Those factors still draw in exhibit entries not only from McPherson County, but from residents of the surrounding counties who are practicing for their local fairs.
In the 1950s, cattle sheds and two round top buildings were constructed at the fairgrounds. Two more metal buildings were added by the 1970s.
The ball field that used to sit on the east side of the fairgrounds was torn down in the 1980s to make room of other activities.
In 1982, the first demolition derby was held, a competition that became a highlight of the fair.
An exhibit building was added in 1994, a community-style building was added in 1997 and a concession/restroom building was finished in 2008.
The most recent structure completed at the McPherson County Fairgrounds is the Bradbury Show Arena, built in 2015.
"We've used it a bunch," Lauer said. "...It's a nice addition."
Committee members and department heads — volunteers from all over McPherson County — keep everything running smoothly at the fair.
"During the fair, we have things split up and everyone has their group," Lauer said.
Some organize the ATV and dirt bike rodeo, while others coordinate the pedal tractor pull.
Members of the Canton Volunteer Fire Department cook the meat for the beef feed, which started as a buffalo feed in 1954.
"That's always a big hit because you get a free sandwich," Lauer said.
Another long-standing traditional fair event is the buffalo chip throw.
"We still get the buffalo chips from Maxwell Wildlife Refuge," Lauer said.
One of Lauer's favorite fair memories is of an Irish teenager from the Ulster Project participating in the buffalo chip throw.
Although it was explained to the students what a buffalo chip was made of, the young man decided to mold his chip, which was not completely dried out, into a ball.
"Buffalo are on grass, so it was just as green as could be," Lauer said. "Finally, he looked at his hands and his buddies were just laughing."
After throwing the buffalo chip — and winning — the teenager realized he needed to wash his green-tinged hands.
"The fireman had some paper towels, so they let him wipe his hands off with that," Lauer said.
Lauer then escorted the young man to the kitchen, where it took several rounds of soap and water to remove the remnants of the buffalo chip.
"For the most part, it pretty well came out," Lauer laughed. "I don't think I will ever forget that. I don't think he even realized what he was doing."
It is the opportunity to interact with children — and provide them with entertainment — that keeps Lauer motivated to spearhead the McPherson County Fair.
"I love fair time," Lauer said. "It's a good time and I love working with the kids. It's been good for our community. Our community backs it."
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at email@example.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MiddleSentinel.