"It's so much more than just cows," says Jenny Riley.
And she would know. Riley has been treading the grounds of the Montgomery County Fair for almost as long as she has been able to walk. Before becoming the agriculture teacher at Bear Branch Junior High and serving on multiple fair committees (Fair Queen, Breeding Beef, and Replacement Heifer), she got her start as a kid working long hours in the barn for the chance to win Fair Scholarships for college. Her experience at the fair formed the foundation for her career, passing on knowledge and love of agriculture to the next generation.
The Montgomery County Fair's primary mission is to support youth and education in Montgomery County. Powered by the heart of over a thousand yearly volunteers and a small, dedicated staff, it is easy to see why so many in the community give their time to see dreams connected to the fair realized. In 2022, the organization invested over $1.5 million back into the community's youth, $150,000 of which was in scholarships. Jenny Riley credits the scholarships she won over her ten years of participating in fair competitions for her being able to graduate from Texas A&M University debt free.
Brian Hayes, the fair's executive director, likes to say they are in the "smile business," and the organization is determined to spread those smiles to as many members of the community as possible. Because of growing urbanization in the county, the fair has made a point to include non-agricultural events for kids who might not have a place to raise livestock. For example, the Ag Robotics competition engages students with an interest in STEM fields, and non-livestock divisions allow students with artistic talents a chance to compete.
Students gain more than access to college funds from participating in the fair. When Jenny Riley talks about why she loves the MCFA, her passion shines brightest when she speaks of the work ethic, confidence, and life skills gained from her participation. Students participating in the livestock events do more than feed their animals. The required interviewing, recordkeeping, and knowledge assessments prepare students for college, the workforce, and beyond.
The fair's official mission may be to support the county's youth, but unofficially the mission is to have a good time. There is entertainment for all, whether you are young, old, urbanite, suburbanite, or cowboy. Love food? The second weekend of the fair hosts the Bud Light BBQ Cook-Off. Join a team or spend the weekend wandering between the festive booths taking in the sites and delectable smells. Thrill seeker? Check out the carnival rides and midway attractions, or risk your diet for some fair snacks. Both Jenny Riley and Brian Hayes recommend trying the funnel cake. Music lover? Every year the fair brings in great country music artists and also features Latin music on the fair's "El Dia de la Familia Hispana" [Hispanic Family Day]. Brian Hayes says Hispanic Family Day is "…the most fun day on the fairgrounds."
If you are looking for excitement, the CPRA Rodeo takes place on March 24-25th. While bull riding and barrel racing are rodeo staples, a must-see is the mutton bustin' event. For the uninitiated, the event consists of placing a small child (outfitted in mini bull rider duds) on the back of a sheep and seeing how long the child can hang on as the sheep bolts across the arena floor. Be prepared for pure delight if it is your first time witnessing the event.
Perhaps more unknown than the rodeo and cookoff are the special fair days also held every year. Sunshine Day is an opportunity for those in the community with special needs to show off their skills in baked goods, arts, horticulture, and more. Senior Day is for those 65 and older offering seniors a chance to show items they've crafted, compete for the title of "King and Queen for the day," and participate in fun activities. On Kids' Day, the fair becomes a playground for local school children to have fun and learn about agriculture.
In a time when faith in cultural institutions is being lost, the Montgomery County Fair stands at the center of its community and brings in more people every year. Over 75,000 people attended the 2022 fair, and Brian Hayes hopes to see that number double in the next ten years. By bridging gaps of culture, age, and other obstacles that might keep a community separated in their spheres of interest, the fair brings the county together for fun, learning, and investment in the future—a future not unlike the one seen in Jenny Riley.
It is easy to figure out why the Montgomery County Fair inspires so much love from its community. As Brian Hayes says, "All you have to do is walk outside and see it."
This year's fair starts March 23 and runs through April 2. Admission is free Monday through Thursday. For more information on attending the fair or volunteering, visit the MCFA website: https://mcfa.org/.
By bridging gaps of culture, age, and other obstacles that might keep a community separated in their own spheres of interest, the fair brings the county together ...