Would you look at the calendar? It’s April, which means the Hunt County Fair is right around the corner.
Every spring, thousands of people come from both inside and outside of the county to take part in a local tradition 51 years in the making. With food, games, live music, competitions and more, it seems like there’s something for everyone on tap at the county fair.
But among the hustle and bustle of the fairgrounds, one thing is evident: It’s the people that make the fair so special.
Scores of people from children all the way up to senior citizens take part in the many events on offer. Future farmers show their best in the junior livestock show and aspiring chefs dazzle with culinary creations.
The stories of who these people are and why they participate often goes untold. In this article we will look at some of the people that make the Hunt County Fair what it is today.
Cooking up something good
Stephani Shahan moved to Hunt County about eight years ago. She is a mother of two, with a toddler as well as a twelve year old who attends school in Caddo Mills. She says she has always had a love for art.
“For as long as I remember, I wanted to paint, draw, do whatever,” Shahan said. “I was always asking for new crayons or pencils as a kid.”
That love for creating works of art has led her to work with Le Painted Grape, a company that hosts painting parties, specializing in wine glass painting.
Shahan is the Greenville area representative for the company that hosts paintings at Greenville’s Landon Winery and other locations throughout north Texas. Although her love for art is strong, she described herself as “a mom first, and artist second.”
It’s that mindset that got her interested in the county fair, especially taking part in competitions with her daughter Dayzi Unger, who was just seven at the time.
“About five years ago, I was looking for an outlet for my daughter Dayzi that didn’t involve electronics or athletics, things like that,” Shahan said. “I read about the fair in the paper and figured we could try to do something together there.”
In 2014, young Dayzi took part in and won the creative kids culinary contest at that year’s fair with a homemade fried oatmeal cookie recipe she came up with herself. Since then, Shahan and Dayzi have been taking part in all sorts of events at the fair.
Shahan particularly likes to enter into the salsa competition, winning her division in last year’s contest. Without giving away in secret recipes, she says she likes to make her salsa “more flavorful than spicy.”
She adds that the mother-daughter duo competes together in the cake decorating contests, with a fair amount of friendly competition between the two.
“We are a pretty competitive family,” Shahan said, “But it’s all in good fun and we love getting to do that stuff together.”
Shahan says she will be entering into the acrylic painting contest this year, hoping to flex her artistic muscles. She says she believes that the fair provides a wonderful opportunity to see what the county has to offer.
“It really helps you step back and take a look at what we have to offer here in Hunt County,” Shahan said. “It also provides myself and my daughter a great opportunity to be creative and work as a family.”
She adds that she is “hyped” to get the fair started this year.
Steering toward greatness
It’s no secret that the Hunt County Fair’s Junior Livestock Show is a huge draw every year. Competitors from all around fill the stockyards to show off their prized animals, in the hopes that they will fetch a good price as well.
Last year’s winners sold for higher prices when compared to 2017, with the Grand Champion Steer bringing in more than $10,000 at auction, an increase of more than $3,000 over the 2017 Champion. That trend could continue this year.
For plenty of families in Hunt County, the livestock lifestyle is a daily grind that begins before sunup and ends well after sundown.
One such family has been doing it for decades, as the Blankenships have a tradition of breaking, raising and showing animals at the county fair.
The family, who calls Merit home, has been at this a while. Patriarch Chad Blankenship has worked with animals and showed them at competitions since he was a boy.
“I’m from Merit, born and raised,” Blankenship said. “I started showing steers, heifers and chickens when I was in school and was at the county fair plenty of times.”
Now, Blankenship is able to pass on the knowledge he learned to his sons, who have taken to it with a passion not normally seen with the average youth.
Blankenship’s older son Dakota is a sixth-grader attending Bland Middle School, and has been working with animals for years already. He began seriously raising his own animals since age eight, and has a strict regimen that he keeps.
“I get up around 5:15 every morning,” Dakota said. “I know not a lot of kids do that.”
His daily tasks begin before the sun rises, starting with getting the feed ready for his two steers. He then walks them and washes them if they need washing, and the whole process can take up to two hours.
On top of that, school comes right after. Once school is over, evenings are spent with the animals as well. The time commitment is extraordinary.
“It’s definitely a lot of responsibility for a boy,” Blankenship said. “But Dakota really takes to it and puts the effort in.”
That effort was shown last summer, with Blankenship stating that the sixth-grader baled hay all summer to raise money for his own steer.
Dakota takes pride in his work, and says that it’s very rewarding to go to competitions.
“I always like to get advice from the judges on how to get better,” Dakota said.
He added that one of the toughest parts of the job is breaking the steers, saying that different breeds can lead to different attitudes that can be tougher to tame.
Blankenship can be chalked up as one proud father, saying that he is happy to pass on something that his son can enjoy.
“I know I’m passing down something that will help him out a lot in life,” Blankenship said.
Dakota is very excited for this year’s county fair, saying he is “counting the days” until it kicks off.
His little brother Ryder is also getting into the business, working on raising a three-month old calf.
The calf, named “Lucky” by the family, has achieved relative fame among hockey fans recently, having appeared in a video on the Dallas Stars’ social media pages as the official “Team Pet” of the hockey team. A contest was held to name the new Star “Mike Moodano” in honor of former team great Mike Modano. Blankenship said that “not too many people can say that have a famous calf in their home.”
It doesn’t plan itself
The average person who participates in fair events or just attends as a visitor may not think about the work that goes on behind the scenes to keep everything running smoothly.
There are hundreds of volunteers and supporters who work tirelessly during the fair and the months leading up to it to produce a fun product for the whole family.
Jacinta “Jazz” Dyck is the director for the Creative Arts division of the fair and has served in that role for about five years now. An employee of Texas A&M University-Commerce who lives in Royse City, she says she got involved with the fair after being new in town.
“My husband and I moved here and were looking for get involved and meet people,” Dyck said. “I heard that the fair was looking for volunteers, and I accepted.”
Dyck says that she greatly enjoys getting to plan an organize events, so she has taken to the role of Creative Arts Director pretty handily.
Putting together such a large event takes months of planning, and Dyck says that the process begins in earnest at the beginning of the year. From January onward, all of the little pieces are put into place for the fair to run smoothly. Dyck says that getting the necessary manpower is a struggle sometimes.
“The hardest part is finding volunteers,” Dyck said. “Volunteered time and effort is what makes this whole thing go.”
According to Dyck, there are usually more than 1,000 permanent exhibits brought in every year, and a few hundred more people who compete in the live contests on site. She says that she has enjoyed getting to run the creative arts division, saying that she has “seen some kids grow up” coming back year after year to compete.
As far as the competitions this year, staples like the cake decorating contest and salsa contest will be returning, along with the addition of a new item to the catalogue. “Wing It!” a buffalo-style wing contest will be held for the first time this year.
Dyck says that she is excited to get the fair underway, and that she has been looking forward to it since serious planning began in January.
She adds that one of the most rewarding parts of the Hunt County Fair is the impact it has on local children.
“It’s very rewarding to know that every penny we get goes to our local kids through scholarships and programs,” Dyck said.