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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Bear River Fair looking at end to century-plus run

Leadership needed soon to save the event

David Colburn
Posted 4/14/21

BEAR RIVER- In the early 1900s, at least one regional newspaper, the Virginia Enterprise, regularly devoted space to extolling the virtues of Bear River and the surrounding area, touting not only its …

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Bear River Fair looking at end to century-plus run

Leadership needed soon to save the event


BEAR RIVER- In the early 1900s, at least one regional newspaper, the Virginia Enterprise, regularly devoted space to extolling the virtues of Bear River and the surrounding area, touting not only its extraordinary beauty but the agricultural acumen and productivity of its farmers. One writer noted it was well worth the four-hour trek from Virginia to Bear River to take it all in.
In 1911, those skilled and artful farmers came together for an exhibition and farmers institute that began the storied tradition of the Bear River Fair, a treasured and anticipated hallmark event for the community and region.
But in the early 21st century, the fair is in danger of seeing that long run come to a screeching halt unless new blood can be found to rejuvenate it.
Like any youngster growing up in Bear River many years ago, Jane Bartlett loved going to the fair, but she moved away from the area once she grew up. She moved back to Bear River ten years ago, just in time to take the reins as chairperson of the fair’s centennial edition. She’s had that role ever since, assisted by co-chairs in recent years, but at 74 years old, it’s time for new leadership.
“Right now, there will not be a fair,” Bartlett said. “We’re worn out, we’re old, and it’s time for somebody to step up, and they’re just not doing it.”
When the fair has rolled around every August, there’s been no shortage of people willing to help out wherever they can, Bartlett said. The challenge has come in finding people for the organizing committee, which includes a woman in her 80s and has an average membership age of 74.
The committee met last week to decide what to do with the money in the fair’s bank account, hopeful that new volunteers would show up to keep the fair going. Only one person did, and that person didn’t feel up to the task of being chairman, Bartlett said. Two others who subsequently indicated interest in helping on a social media post have yet to get in touch with Bartlett.
The operation has run so smoothly in years past that the advance efforts to plan and organize the fair may have been obscured for attendees, but Bartlett is all too familiar with the work involved. The two-day event has included a softball tournament, a bazaar and market, food booths, musical entertainment, a Saturday night hog roast and Sunday Swedish meatball feast, bingo, a scavenger hunt, an outdoor worship service, and more.
And if that’s not enough, there’s the fair’s signature feature, the exhibits. While entries have decreased over the years, people still bring a healthy array of fruits, vegetables, baked and canned items, sewn and knitted goods, and arts and crafts to be awarded ribbons, small awards, and as Bartlett put it, bragging rights.
From obtaining liability insurance and a liquor license to organizing the annual raffle, everything has to be planned and executed by the committee, and it all needs to be coordinated by a chairperson. Now, there is no active committee, there is no chairperson, and there will be no fair this year unless those roles are filled by June, Bartlett said.
Losses aplenty
Without the fair that has figured so strongly in Bear River’s identity over the years, many things will be lost, first among them the sense of community created among those who make attending each year a chance to reunite with friends and family.
“We have a family that actually lives 150 to 200 miles from here, Mom and Dad and grown kids and grandkids who have been doing the food concession stand for the last few years,” Bartlett said. “He grew up in this area, so the fair has always been on his radar. They feel so strongly about having that community event in an area like this where they can allow their young grandchildren to run around freely and play.”
“One of the best things about the fair,” Bartlett continued, “is the Sunday afternoon dinner. All you have to do is look around and see all these old timers that come back; it’s sort of like a homecoming or a community reunion. And along with that, the little local Bear River Lutheran Church does a pie social in the afternoon, and people stand in line waiting for that slice of homemade pie. That to me is the benefit of the fair, getting these friends back together again. And that’s going to be missed by us older people.”
The fair has also been a moneymaker, and while the committee has been careful to reserve enough each year for the next fair, the proceeds have been used to support community needs, including upkeep of the former school building and grounds that host the event.
“One year, we did $4,000 worth of electrical upgrades,” Bartlett said. “Another year, we replaced the front door on the building. We often also donate a little bit of money to our first responders in our community.”
While Bartlett would love to see the fair continue, she suggested it could be an event that time has finally passed by.
“I just don’t know that it’s a viable event anymore,” she said. “I don’t know, we get a lot of people who come back and enjoy it, who, like me, remember it from their younger days and it’s sort of like a homecoming. But for the young families that live right here in the area? They don’t participate. That’s not to say that they don’t show up once in a while.”
Of course, Bartlett and the other committee members aren’t quite ready to give up just yet. While the group decided on making donations to first responders and to the area broadband project, they kept enough money in reserve for a fair this year, if anyone will step to the fore and take over.

“I hope it happens,” Bartlett said. “Those of us on the committee are tired and we’re done, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not willing to help. I’m willing to share any notes or knowledge or whatever to anyone who might step up. But it’s somebody else’s turn. I just don’t want to spend the next three months planning the whole affair.”
And what if no one comes riding to the rescue?
“Well, I just feel bad that our friends and neighbors have managed to do this for 100 years, and it’s going to go away on our watch. It just doesn’t feel right to me,” Bartlett said.


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