GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Joshua Wheeler and Tyanna Conant arrived to the Clay County Fairgrounds shortly after noon on Thursday, April 1 – hours before the midway opened for this year’s …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Joshua Wheeler and Tyanna Conant arrived to the Clay County Fairgrounds shortly after noon on Thursday, April 1 – hours before the midway opened for this year’s fair.
Since it was Conant’s birthday, the mother from Keystone Heights wanted to be the first to ride the rollercoaster, Riptide. “It feels good to be out again,” Wheeler said. “We missed it last year. We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
By the time the gates opened on the first day of the Clay County Agriculture Fair, more than 1,000 people already were in a line that stretched into a side parking lot. And it never slowed down.
The first day attendance was 18,200, and it confirmed what organizers expected – this year’s fair will shatter attendance records.
“It’s been tiring, but I’m so amazed by the community support,” fair general manager Tasha Hyder said. “Everyone’s been up and down whether we were going to have this fair. A lot of work went into it.
“It’s great seeing people doing normal things again.”
The 2019 fair had a record 135,000 visitors. Compared to the first five days of 2019, this year’s event already has attracted an additional 20,000 visitors, Hyder said. Record crowds also were reported for a Sunday (April 4) and Monday (April 5).
Included in those numbers was the governor.
Fairgoers walking along Main Street were surprised to see Gov. Ron DeSantis stopping at some of the food booths on Day 1. He was swarmed by people who wanted to shake his hand and have their pictures made with him.
The governor wasn’t at the fair on official business. In fact, it wasn’t part of his itinerary. He was there with his family to enjoy the rides and sample the unique menus along the main thoroughfare.
DeSantis hoped his example will help others find normalcy after the state, including last year’s fair, was shut down a year ago for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are excited,” DeSantis said. “My kids love it; the first lady loves it. I think people will have a lot of fun.”
Another first-day visitor was U.S. Congresswoman Kat Cammack (R-Gainesville), who represents Clay County on Capitol Hill.
The real stars, however, were the families who waited in lines and enjoyed several sun-splashed days.
Sunday’s crowd was 20,237, which easily was the largest for a Sunday in fair history.
The break from COVID-19 and a list of popular concert acts kept the turnstiles busy and backed up traffic on State Road 16 for miles.
Local acts Duval County Line and Curt Towne Band opened for 38 Special on Friday, April 2. Scotty McCreery played on Saturday with all reserved and VIP seats sold out in advance.
Vanilla Ice played Monday to the largest crowd at Cattleman’s Arena in fair history, Hyder said.
“It was an awesome show, by far the biggest we’ve ever had at the fair,” she said. “There wasn’t an empty seat. All three grandstand seats were filled.”
Vanilla Ice, who’s real name is Bobby Van Winkle, wore a mask and walked down Main Street and the midway hours before hitting the stage. With the mask on, few recognized him. And before the show, he met many of his fans in the VIP area and was delighted to take selfies with most.
Another popular event was speed dating on the Ferris Wheel on Tuesday night. Nearly 120 people signed up to take two trips around the Ferris wheel with a potential dating partner. Five couples ended up extending their date at the JJ Gray and Mofro and Split Tone concert later that night.
The larger crowds also kept the county’s emergency management and health departments busy. Wearing a mask wasn’t mandatory, but strongly suggested. EMC Director John Ward and Clay County Health Department Administrator Heather Huffman spent a year working with Hyder and the Clay County Sheriff’s Office to create as many safeguards against the virus. They also worked to provide a safe environment to a community that’s been restless to break away from the restrictions COVID-19 created.
“It’s been very good – busy, but very good,” Ward said. “Traffic’s been a little bit more than we thought, but when you have that many people trying to get into a small area [85 acres], it’s going to create a backup.”
The fair is scheduled to wrap up on Sunday at 7 p.m.