(CHUCK WU ~ cwu@semissourian)
From truck and tractor pulls to horse shows to concerts, the fair's entertainment is billed as eight great days of fun, but many who enjoy the events don't think about the amount of work it takes to create the environment for that fun.
When the crowd heads home and the noise dies down each night, a crew of volunteers takes to the grandstand to ready the grounds for the next night's event. Preparing the arena from one night to the next takes skill and efficiency.
"We have been working it so many years; we've got it just about the way we want it," said Pete Poe, president of the SEMO District Fair board of directors. "We turn that dirt over and roll it in, pack it in, water it down."
Each grandstand event requires a different preparation, from the soil to the seating. Sam Below has been doing the job for 20 years. Below's crews use borrowed farm and construction equipment to mold the arena. They use a chisel plow to turn the dirt, a water wagon to spray it down and a front loader to help pick up pieces of cars.
He said a good, solid consistency is key for all of the events, from the tractor pulls to the concerts.
"For the tractor pull, we don't want any hard or soft spots in the grounds," he said.
The fair's events start with Saturday's antique tractor pull at 8:30 a.m. This event is free and an easy start to a busy week for Below and his volunteers. Saturday night, the truck and tractor pull will entertain with loud and powerful trucks and tractors, including semi trucks and diesel pickups. The event starts at 7 p.m., with tickets costing $10 for grandstand and bleacher seats and $15 for track seats.
Like the Zamboni crew of the fair world, the volunteers also maintain the grounds during the events, whether it's for dust control or to provide a fair racing environment.
"If we're expecting a good overnight thunderstorm or something like that, we generally pick up all of the chairs off of the track, put them back on the asphalt behind the concrete barrier," Poe said. "And then when the rain quits, we'll scrape off the top three or four inches of mud off to get to dry ground and put the chairs back out."
For the Midwest Classic Horse Show at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the ground is turned and evened out to provide a soft and supportive surface for the animals.
"We will put up some additional fence around the horse show arena," Poe said. "When that's over, we'll take down some fence, blade the track off, pack it back in and water it down good for the Monday night tractor pull."
The grandstand goes from horses back to horsepower for the truck and tractor pull at 7 p.m. Monday. The same preparation goes into this event, and afterward, the crew prepares for a long-standing fan favorite -- the dual demolition derby at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The experienced derby prep crew works with precision and speed, as they dig ditches and set up concrete barriers.
"The demo derby is a whole different ballgame," Below said. "We have to get the track kind of slick, and we dig a ditch on either side of it. Then we put [concrete] safety barriers on each end."
The crews also water the track between each event to cut down slightly on the traction.
"If the cars could get a lot of traction, it would be over in no time," Below said. "This keeps it going for a while."
After the demolition derby ends, crews -- flanked by a front-end loader -- begin walking the grounds, picking up car parts and tossing them in the loader's bucket.
A local salvage yard takes the leftover car parts after the event. The dirt is dried out by turning and spreading it, making the track surface hard for the stage, which is set up Wednesday and stays through the end.
"By Wednesday morning, all of the evidence of a demolition derby is gone," Poe said.
This year's stage entertainment starts with the 10th annual Heartland Idol finals, a free event at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Local talent takes to the same stage used by well-known recording artists.
"There is a crew of about 15 that will start early Wednesday morning," Poe said. "By 11 a.m., the stage is up and most of the sound equipment is set."
The three nights following the Heartland Idol finals offer fairgoers a chance to see legendary as well as up-and-coming acts. If purchased in advance, tickets for the concerts Thursday through Sept. 18 include the price of gate admission.
Merle Haggard will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $35. The country legend will perform some of his classics as well as new songs from his 2010 CD, "I Am What I Am."
Bryan White made it big in the 1990s with songs like "Rebecca Lynn" and "Someone Else's Star." White takes the stage at 8 p.m. Sept. 11 in support of his eighth studio album, "Dustbowl Dreams." Tickets for White's show are $20.
The weekend's performances will wrap up with a regional act. The John D. Hale Band will bring its brand of American country music at 8 p.m. Sept. 18. Tickets for the show are $20. Tickets for all events are available at the fair office or by calling 334-9250 or 800-455-3247.
Pertinent address: 410 Kiwanis Drive Suite 200, Cape Girardeau, MO