© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Monona County Fair Brings Food, Fun And Precautions Amid Pandemic

Katie Peikes
Sage Minnihan tells the judge about her chicken during the poultry show at the Monona County Fair on Friday.

About half of the county fairs around Iowa have been postponed to next summer because of the coronavirus. Others are still happening, but some have scaled back or canceled their grandstand shows and concerts. One county fair in western Iowa last week blended precautions with fun.

On early Friday afternoon at the Monona County Fair in Onawa, Mark Shamblen of Council Bluffs was ready for customers. He’s selling brisket, pulled pork and smoked mac and cheese out of his food truck, Hog Stop BBQ. And for $4, you can buy what’s billed as a “big ass cinnamon roll.”

“That’s a 7-inch cinnamon roll with homemade cream cheese frosting on it,” Shamblen said. “We bake them every morning. We only can do 18 of them, so it’s a limited deal.”

Shamblen said county fairs like this one are good for business.

“So we’d been praying for these guys for two months,” Shamblen said with a laugh, “and we were praying for Harrison County and evidently the devil got to [them] because they’re not having theirs. And it’s a shame.”

Katie Peikes
The "big ass cinnamon roll" from Hog Stop BBQ, a 7-inch cinnamon roll with homemade cream cheese frosting on it. Mark Shamblen says they bake 18 every morning.

While the Monona County Fair was going on from July 14-19, the county had about 80 total coronavirus cases, a small number compared to neighboring Woodbury County, which has more than 3,400. The Monona County Fair board felt comfortable holding what Curtis Sturgill called a “modified full fair” because it’s a smaller fair in a small county of about 8,700 people. Sturgill, the vice president of the board, said the fair was a needed mental health break and something for people to look forward, a chance to "get people out of the house."

“I feel like most, if not all of us needed a mental health break just to feel a little sense of normalcy back in our lives,” Sturgill said. “Obviously yes, this is totally different compared to any other year we’ve been through at least that I could ever remember for a fair, but you still can come get funnel cake, you can still go to a grandstand event, you can go watch some live music, hang out with people you might not have seen for a long time.”

Katie Peikes
Curtis Sturgill, the vice president of the Monona County Fair board said the board felt comfortable having a fair this year because it's a smaller fair.

Sturgill said the fair doesn’t need many volunteers, and the board felt they could have it safely this year, with a few changes: No opening ceremonies, indoor commercial vendor booths, open class exhibits, or kid's carnival. Masks were recommended, not required, and the day I visited, I did not see many people wearing them. At least 30, maybe 40 signs around the grounds urged people to take precautions related to the coronavirus, telling them to social distance, wash their hands and use the free hand sanitizer on the grounds.

I feel like most, if not all of us needed a mental health break just to feel a little sense of normalcy back in our lives.
Curtis Sturgill, Monona County Fair board vice president

This year, 4-H and FFA animal shows were closed to the public, but immediate family could still come. Kara Minnihan and her husband, Matt, came to watch their 14-year-old daughter, Sage, show chickens. Kara said Sage and other kids have been taking care of their animals for months.

“It would’ve been really disappointing if they wouldn't have had the chance to be able to show them off,” Kara Minnihan said. “They’ve worked really, really hard, to not only take care of these animals but to learn everything they can about the animals.”

Sage was competing with a small group of teens showing off poultry. Kara and Matt Minnihan said they weren't concerned about her participating because of the precautions in place at the fair.

“We’ve been trying the best we can to comply with the recommendations for social distancing and taking care of everything,” Matt Minnihan said. “Once we were sure that those steps are also being applied to the fair, I think we were both pretty comfortable and of course talked to [Sage] about it and she had no issues with it either.”

The Minnihans, who were both sitting in quad chairs in the barn, pointed out that normally people would sit on bleachers to watch the show, but since the bleachers weren't being used this year, it gave the limited number of family members watching their kids a chance to spread out a little more.

It was finally exciting to get out of my house and finally do something that was outside and more interactive with other people.
Sage Minnihan

The kids and teens showing their poultry were judged on things like how much they know about their birds and how well they could identify their parts. Ultimately, Sage Minnihan won grand champion for her class.

“It’s been going well so far,” said Sage Minnihan, standing outside of the barn after her win. “I was nervous in the beginning.”

This was Sage’s first year showing chickens, though she’s been in 4-H for 5 or 6 years. She also shows pigs. With so much canceled these last few months because of the coronavirus, she said it was great to have something to do.

“It was finally exciting to get out of my house and finally do something that was outside and more interactive with other people,” she said.

Katie Peikes
Sage Minnihan and her parents, Kara and Matt, pose for a picture shortly after Sage won grand champion for her class in the poultry show.

Since the morning and afternoon 4-H shows were closed to the public, the fairgrounds didn’t open to the public until mid-afternoon. The fair was free, but there was a charge to see the three grandstand events: A tractor pull, a demolition derby and an ATV rodeo. These bring in the bigger crowds and they’re the types of events that some other fairs have trimmed or canceled.

The stands were about half full on Friday night, as people came in to see the ATV rodeo. Each ATV rider was timed on a dirt course. They wheeled around three barrels, turned around at the third and rode back to the starting line as fast as they could.

The Monona County Fair has been going on for 115 years. It’s a big tradition for a small county, one that people didn’t want to let the coronavirus get in the way of. Curtis Sturgill, the fair board’s vice president, said he remembers going to the fair as a little kid with his parents and grandparents. They always enjoyed the carnival, the animal shows and the grandstand events.

“And I want, and a lot of our board members want to have that same opportunity for their kids or grandkids, whoever that may be," Sturgill said. “That’s why we all want to push to make the fair better every year, we want to make sure it's safer every year, and grow it to where our next generation or two still has a fair to come to.”

Of course, Sturgill is already looking ahead to next year’s fair.

“I am hoping it is as back to normal as possible,” Sturgill said.