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Wineka column: Fair always a special time for Roakes family

SALISBURY — Going through some things left behind by her late husband, Sandra Roakes came upon a manila folder that held a July 20, 1917, copy of the Salisbury Evening Post.
The newspaper was in good shape, considering its age, and Sandra knew her son, Russell, would love having it because of his interest in Rowan County history.
It was Russ who noticed one of the stories on the front page — a report worthy of framing.
Earlier this week, at the kickoff dinner for September’s Rowan County Agricultural & Industrial Fair, Russell Roakes made a special presentation of that framed newspaper — a tribute of sorts to both the fair and his late father, Charlie T. Roakes Jr.
A lifetime Jaycee, Charlie Roakes served as the Rowan County Fair’s manager for several years in the 1970s, when Russell’s own love affair with the county fair began.
Russell attended his first Rowan fair as a 3-month-old. He has been to the fair every fall since, even during years when he lived in other cities and states.
This year will be Russell’s 41st fair in a row.
But what was important enough about the July 20, 1917, newspaper to warrant its framing and presentation to the Rowan County Fair Association?
Roakes noticed that one of the featured stories that day came under the headline “Rowan to Have a Fair This Fall.”
It promised a three-day affair with stock displays, show attractions and free exhibits.
The article also stated that professional horse races would be banned — apparently a sore point in the past.
For Roakes, this was evidence of just how much of a tradition a Rowan County fair is. It proved that even if it wasn’t held every year, the county fair has roots that go back almost 100 years for sure.
It really is something for fair lovers such as Roakes — and today’s Rowan County Fair Association — to hang their hats on.
The fair association, made up of Spencer and Faith Jaycees, considers this the 61st annual county fair based on how long the Jaycees have been involved.
According to Post files, the first fair held at the current fairgrounds location on Julian Road was 1958, so it’s the only Rowan fairgrounds Russell Roakes has ever known.
As a kid, he loved everything about the fair — the Friday night Demolition Derby, the rides, the chicken and dumplings and the games.
The cool thing now is, he still does.
“We come every night,” Roakes says, lumping wife Dakeita in with the fun.
The couple don’t have children of their own to take to the fair, so they often go with a nephew, now 9, and the kids of friends.
Roakes says the fair remains a positive environment for families.
Charlie T. Roakes Jr. built a career with Rowan Dairy first, then with Flav-O-Rich. Management positions with Flav-O-Rich took Roakes and his family to Morganton, Durham, Knoxville, Tenn., and Wilkesboro, where he died in 1987 at the age of 48.
Sandra moved her family back to her native Rowan County after Charlie’s death.
“We came back just for the fair,” Russell says, kidding.
This year’s edition of the Rowan County Fair will be held Sept. 17-22 with the theme, “Oh Happy Day!”
Fair Manager Johnny Love chuckles a bit, because it sort of expresses association members’ feelings after the protracted purchase negotiations with Rowan County government.
With the fairgrounds now under the association’s control, Love says, the fair will be bigger and better. Almost immediately, Love says, the purchase helps assure Powers Great American Midway — “the best rides company on the East Coast” — that the county fair isn’t going anywhere.
The amusement company demands long-term contracts because, as Love says, when you are moving $25 million worth of equipment every week, you want to know when and where you will be.
The association hopes it will be able to use the fairgrounds for many other events during the year and ”open it back up to the public,” Love says.
Over the past two weeks, he has been contacted by 10 different promoters asking about “rentals, rules and stipulations,” Love adds.
“We will definitely have to market to establish ourselves again,” Love says. “Hopefully we can rent it every weekend.”
Without ownership, it didn’t make sense for the fair association to spend money on the fairgrounds’ buildings, which are old and in need of repairs. Now it does.
Love says the association also plans to establish a community advisory board, representing “all walks of life” from the county. The board will help “give us a vision on what the fair should be,” Love says.
He emphasizes that important missions of the fair will continue — educating the community about agriculture, giving back and providing a reasonably priced event for the public to attend.
“The county fair is a place you can bring your family,” Love adds.
Fair attendance over a week can range dramatically, depending on the weather. Love cites numbers, for example, from 45,000 to 82,000 for Rowan’s fair over the years.
Love is on the N.C. Fair Association Board of Directors and has a feel for how Rowan’s annual edition ranks.
“We are one of the top fairs in the state,” Love says.
You’ll get no argument from Russ Roakes.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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