Photo by Vicki Barton
It’s the glittering lights of the midway, the sweet taste of funnel cakes and the thrill of the Slammer Shot ride that first comes to mind when the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair sets up tents. More than 65,000 people will go to the BREC Airline Highway Park at the end of October to enjoy rides, food and live entertainment. But many, perhaps even most, will not realize that the State Fair and its Fair Foundation have donated more than $3 million to significant causes in our Capital Region. So the fair is not only delightful, it is making a difference.
In the last 10 years, the Fair Foundation has given $1.175 million of “worthy cause” grants to 62 different local nonprofits. In addition, the Fair Foundation has funded $500 scholarships to area students chosen by their schools for exemplary community service—that’s more than $300,000 to individual high school students over the last 20 years.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the fair’s beginnings, and the organizers wanted to celebrate this significant milestone by giving away more money than ever before. They decided to spotlight 15 outstanding fair volunteers by giving out a total of $540,000 in endowed scholarships to the area schools of their choosing. Louisiana State University, Catholic High School, The Dunham School, Episcopal High School, St. Joseph’s Academy, St. Michael the Archangel High School and University Lab School will all benefit from the volunteers’ outstanding efforts.
And the State Fair has some amazing volunteers.
More than 150 people donate their time for two weeks to put on this fun and philanthropic event. Volunteers do it all—they work the beer garden; they take tickets; they move bands on and off stage. Their efforts ultimately help organizations such as Alzheimer’s Services, Kids’ Orchestra, Playmakers and St. Vincent de Paul. Dozens of other
charities, including the Baton Rouge Regional Eye Bank, Boys and Girls Club, the Louisiana Pediatric Cardiology Foundation and the Autism Society have also benefitted from the work State Fair volunteers do.
The Baton Rouge Jaycees got the fair off the ground in 1965 and made the initial investment for the current park site. Under Jaycee management, they created a Fair Corporation, and more than $1 million was provided to community service projects in the Baton Rouge area. In 1985, the Baton Rouge State Fair Foundation was created to take over the Fair Corporation. The Jaycees and Fair Foundation arranged for BREC to acquire the property so the city could have a permanent place to host the State Fair.
“That property will always be a legacy for the people of Baton Rouge,” says Greg Edwards, a 40-year State Fair volunteer. “That was our No. 1 goal.”
There was a time when big touring bands such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, REO Speedwagon, Willie Nelson and Kiss made the stop on Airline Highway. But the show that shook the most booties, at least in terms of attendance, was KC and the Sunshine Band.
“We put 25,000 people on the fairgrounds,” Edwards says. “The weather—everything was perfect that day.”
Big-name entertainment has since priced itself out of the State Fair budget. But Edwards says that they continue to boast great musicians and more attractions. “We’re spending less money but making more money and thus giving more money away.”
Musical entertainment is a draw, Edwards says, but not the only attraction.
“People come to the State Fair for the rides,” he says. “The entertainment might tell them which day they’re coming, but people come out to the fair
to ride the rides. We acknowledge that. We embrace it.”
Among the various attractions that have been showcased at the fair are a petting zoo and a musician who can play nine instruments at the same time. Edwards also lets it slip that the 2015 fair, set for Oct. 22 to Nov. 1, will feature the most thrilling attraction of all—a human cannonball. You heard it here first.
Despite the livestock show (blue ribbon goats!), the music and the candy apples, the carnival has always been the star, Edwards says. And it was the carnival owner, one Buster Brown, who established “Buster Brown Day,” one of the fair’s most poignant traditions.
“Buster Brown was a polio survivor, and he couldn’t walk without assistance,” Edwards says. “He came to own a carnival business and provided the rides at the State Fair. He would always do an exceptional children’s day at the fair. He’d open up the midway for free and we would provide treats and balloons and stuff and get the kids there. We’ve been carrying on his tradition year after year. That’s a very special project.”
Those are the kind of sweet and personal missions that make people want to help throw the big party that is known as the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair.
“Anybody who ever volunteered for anything gets involved because the project reaches out and grabs your heart,” Edwards says. “The grand theater of the fair is kind of neat, but you develop a relationship with the other volunteers and you form a community. Many of us have been doing this for more than 40 years and we’ve become friends.”