Weather closes down Lincoln County Fair

July 07, 2004|EMILY BURTON

STANFORD - It was a dark and stormy night - literally - there among the silent barns at the deserted fairgrounds. It was enough to make a man search the bruised sky for ghosts of tornados.

But this is not where the story begins.

It began with tornado rumors and storm warnings, bad omens that opened Tuesday night's festivities at the Lincoln County Fair. They joined the clawing rain to drive fair-goers into finding scant shelters from the eventual tornado warning.

The wild storm and following tornado threat had chased many visitors to their cars by 7:30 p.m. The fire department's evacuation announcements persuaded many of the rest to leave by 7:50.

What was left of the fair by 8 o'clock was a soggy version of what could have been a night of rodeo stunts and bull fighters.


The few remaining patrons sat dripping under the pavilions as a fire truck's red lights splattered the thoroughfare. Fire Station 8 had come earlier to help everyone find protection from a chance tornado.

"It's going to be hard to get everybody in. There's very limited shelter," said Capt. Jason "Grasshopper" Kilby.

An hour later, the night still sparked with lightning, but the tornado warning had expired with no touchdowns reported.

At the central office, fair board chairman Roy Reichenback had both hands full. One held half a cigarette as the other relayed weather updates via a walkie-talkie.

"The rescue squad got a little excited, told us to evacuate," said Reichenback. "They've already told us to leave, but I'm not going anywhere."

He and carnival owner Bob Myers shook their heads as the warning expired. They had seen worse, much more so, and were frustrated with the evacuation order on a rodeo night.

"As soon as this blows through, we'll be able to open this back up," said Myers of the carnival rides, shut down after the first lightning strike.

But a tornado scare was nothing, he said. The traveling carnival had survived a Florida hurricane about six years ago, and re-opened the next day.

"It's just another day in the life of an outdoor amusement business," said Myers.

It was a harder lesson learned for the prowling cowboys. The visiting Broken Horn Rodeo, scheduled for that night, had just been postponed until 8 a.m. Wednesday due to the storm.

Rodeo owner Jim McElroy called out the news as he strode through red clay mud puddles in a yellow slicker and dripping cowboy hat. He was wet, the night was a loss, and some of the riders couldn't stay till the morning.

"We've never had one this bad. We've never had to postpone the night deal till the morning. We've never had a tornado warning five minutes before we've had a rodeo," said McElroy between terse directives.

Rain "just kills us"

Making do till tomorrow became the war cry of fair volunteers as they clustered among the last open food stands. Tuesday's type of weather "just kills us," said Mike Poynter, fair director of promotion.

"The rain diminishes crowd attendance. We depend on the crowd to pay for this," said Poynter. An estimated $100,000 in premiums, such as contest pay-outs, will be used this year. That cost doesn't include the fireworks display, insurance and event bookings.

Falling rain plagued the incomes of fair vendors as well. All but the most dedicated vendors had disappeared by 8 p.m.

John Paul and Chasidi Smith of Lexington stayed to hock umbrellas and ponchos in the deluge. Their jewelry tent had been closed hours early by the weather.

"We still have to pay to be here, so we decided we had to do something to break even," said John Paul. A Lexington mailman, John Paul and his wife travel to major events and fairs on the weekends to sell jewelry or umbrellas. They are saving all they can for a new house.

"The best we can do is hope to come out ahead at the end of the summer," said Chasidi. They called it quits soon after, joining the last of a soggy retreat.

Before 10 p.m. the fairgrounds were unsettlingly empty. A table of cowboys ate the night's last burgers while, around the corner, the remaining fair volunteers quietly scattered towards home. It was the wet conclusion of what could have been a great chapter in their book.

"We know it's a bad deal, and we'll make the best of it in the morning," said McElroy.

But it was far from the story's end.

"We are very optimistic that the remainder of the week will be spectacular," said Poynter.

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