7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Tabitha Goodling Central Pa. Correspondent
REEDSVILLE, Pa. — The Mifflin County Youth Fair is celebrating its 60th year this August.
This year’s fair runs Aug. 4-9 at the Youth Park in Reedsville, Mifflin County, Pa.
The fair started in 1954 at Gardenview Sales Center as a 4-H Roundup in Milroy. It was then held at the Kishacoquillas Park in Derry Township, Mifflin County, from 1955 through 1965. In 1964, A. Reed Hayes of Mifflin County donated 11 acres of land with the purpose of making a home for the youth fair. In 1966, the Youth Park was first used as a home for the fair.
Frank Bonson of Milroy, the Mifflin County 4-H chairman of the board, recalls those early days. He said that in 1958, FFA and agriculture programs in Mifflin County schools were included in the youth fair.
“We had great support those early years. It was a great community effort. The Extension received a lot of laurels when we started at the Youth Park,” he said.
Bonson started with the fair in 1956 as a dairy leader. He said that before 1954’s formation of the fair, the 4-H Roundup “was a big deal” because of a softball tournament that was held each year. That tournament continued 10 years into the youth fair, he said.
Bonson was not on the youth fair board until many years after he had his own children. He has since seen three of his own children and two grandchildren work their way through the youth fair in various activities.
“I helped with the livestock end. I was hauling bedding and manure. I still do a lot of that,” he said.
In order for the fair to be a success, it needed funding.
Bonson said the fair “always operated on a shoe string.”
So, he said, a fundraising auction was started. The second Saturday in August is when the fair ends. This is when the auction is held, in the evening.
“I’m usually there 7 a.m. that day until very late at night,” Bonson said.
Nearly all funds raised that night go directly to the fair. It’s important to note, Bonson said, that the youth fair and the Youth Park became two separate entities at least 15 years ago.
Some of the fair funds also go to a Relay for Life team. Auctioneer Don Chesney lost his mother to cancer a few years ago. Since then, the fair committee has offered a donation to the relay team in her memory.
Bonson said the fair also receives some state funding, but relies on the auction.
The fair always comes together regardless of how much money is raised or received through state funding, Bonson said.
“I always say, regardless of who the chairman is, the committee makes the chairman look good. We have an active open show committee who puts together the auction and fundraising.”
There have been some changes at the fair itself over 60 years.
“It’s grown tremendously since those early years,” he said.
He said the fair started with the primary exhibits such as the beef club and the swine club. As time wore on, the fair added the dairy feeder steers and many other species. Now, there are new exhibits such as antiques, hand tools and machinery.
“There’s really a project for any youth interest. A couple years ago we were the biggest ceramics exhibit,” Bonson said.
When Bonson’s son was young, a popular exhibit was small engines. And, he said, “Sewing is almost a lost art.”
Bonson said that the fair has always had a great 4-H director in the Extension office. The current director is Jen Fleck. He said Fleck grew up in the 4-H activities in Mifflin County.
“The whole 4-H program, as I see it, moves along because of life skills. It is not about a steer or a rabbit. It’s about leadership.”
Today, at 76 years old, Bonson is not only the committee chairman but stays involved with the fair in any way that he can. Ever since he was in the 4-H tractor club in high school, he has had a heart for 4-H.
“I’m very interested in kids,” he said.
He said he could not put words to why he keeps helping every year even as a retired farmer. Bonson sold his dairy cows eight years ago and now has a few chickens, rabbits and miniature horses left on his property.
He pulled out a poster made by a youth in 2012 and given to him.
Bonson held back tears as he showed the poster which read “Thank you, Frank, for buying my 2012 market rabbit.”
He also had a thank-you note from another young person who thanked the Bonsons for giving her bunnies.
“I expect to continue helping as long as I can,” Bonson said.
He said the 4-H fair is known as a farming program but few of the participants live on actual farms.
It’s not about shaping farmers out of the kids who participate in the Mifflin County Youth Fair.
“I’ve seen a lot of young people develop into responsible citizens.”
For more information on the youth fair and its events, search Mifflin County Youth Fair on Facebook.