As of Monday night, the fair is officially in town.
On the eve of opening night, the Union County Fair Association hosted its Premier Night Banquet to kickoff the 103rd annual Union County Agricultural Fair.
Local officials, fair sponsors and other invited guests were treated to food from In Focus Ministries — one of the food vendors new to the fair this year —and a preview of this year’s fair.
UCFA Executive Director Paul Winters introduced those in attendance to Dominic and Ruby Macaroni — owners of Family Attractions Amusement Co. in Valdosta, GA. The new amusement provider has more than 35 rides set up at this year’s fair.
Winters also introduced Clayton Rosaire of Rosaire’s Big Cat Encounter, which is the marquee attraction for this year’s fair. Rosaire will lead two shows daily Tuesday-Friday featuring live performances by seven big cats — five tigers, an African lion and a female liger (cross between a male lion and female tiger). One of Rosaire’s tigers weighs more than 750 pounds.
Rosaire is a ninth-generation descendant of England’s famous Rosaire animal-handling family, which traces its animal-handling lineage back to the 1800s. The Rosaires rescue and offer a safe haven for the animals at their two non-profit sanctuaries, the Sarasota Bradenton Children’s Zoo and Gulf Coast Sanctuary and Big Cat Habitat.
Rosaire said he only brings the big cats on the road for a few weeks out of the year, taking them to approximately 8-14 fairs.
“They enjoy the travel and watching the crowds,” Rosaire said. “It’s like summer vacation for them.”
Rosaire said when the animals are not performing, they are either hanging out by the pool or waterfall, or they are spending time around trees which they climb and scratch.
“They are really lazy,” he said. “They usually sleep 18-20 hours a day.”
Rosaire also said training the animals can be a long process, especially since he uses a method of positive reinforcement.
“We want them to enjoy the training, so they get lots of treats and they’re not forced to do anything,” he said.
“It takes about two years per animal to get them trained to be around all the people and flashing lights and zebra buffet over there,” Rosaire smiled, pointing to the Eudora Farms Petting Zoo, which is located near the Big Cat Encounter at the fair.
He said the purpose of his show is to educate and bring awareness as well as to entertain.
“Our goal is to educate the public by fostering appreciation for animals and to stress the importance of habitat preservation,” Rosaire said. “People need to be aware of what’s going on with the big cats in captivity and in the wild. There are only about 3,000 in the wild, which is a horrible thing. If nothing changes, we could lose them in the next 12 years.”
Rosaire said it is important for breeders to keep up the good work that has already been done. He also said he hopes to pass his love for animals on to others who watch the Big Cat Encounter.
“At the zoo, you are way on the other side of walls and barriers, but here you can get an up-close look at how beautiful and amazing nature really is,” he said. “If one kid decides he loves big cats and spends his life trying to save them, we have accomplished something.”
Other attractions for this year’s fair include Church Night — sponsored by McDonald’s — which will feature contemporary Christian artist Chris Sligh.
Nightly attractions will include Boo Boo the Circus Clown, Vaudeville performer Jerry Brown and his monkey pal Django and the Eudora Farms Exotic Petting Zoo.
The fair will also feature a rolling drawing each night. The drawing started with a $500 prize on Tuesday night. One ticket was to be drawn and if there was no winner, the prize money would be rolled over to the next night, which means Saturday night’s drawing has the potential for a $3,000 prize. All paid patrons — including children — will be entered in the drawing.
The fair will also feature a pro wrestling event on Saturday night beginning around 7:30 p.m. Patrons will have the opportunity to meet and greet legendary wrestlers such as “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff and “Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez, as well as current stars such as international female wrestler Reyna Pink. The event will include several matches, with the main event pitting the Trans-South Wrestling champion Jason Blackman against Rhett Titus of Ring of Honor Wrestling. Ring of Honor Wrestling is a nationwide promotion which can be seen locally on Saturday nights on WMYA Channel 40 at 10 p.m. and WLOS Channel 13 at midnight.
Winters also presented awards to individuals who have been instrumental in the production of the fair. The first award was a Friend of the Fair award which was presented to Bill Mason — local owner of McDonald’s — for his support.
Service awards of appreciation were also presented to Mary Eubanks — who has 40 years of dedicated service — and Ralph Petty who has given 17 years of service to the fair.
The last Friend of the Fair award was presented to Union County Detention Center Director Neil McKeown.
“He represents a group that is dedicated to the fair, and we couldn’t pull it off without his leadership and dedication,” Winters said.
McKeown said his department is one of several that helps each year.
“We get a lot of help from stadium personnel, the recreation department and the road and maintenance department,” McKeown said.
Gates are open this year from 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 3 p.m.-midnight Friday; and noon-midnight on Saturday.