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A huge undertaking

Behind all the lights, rides, food, exhibits and entertainment of the Citrus County Fair lies a living, breathing entity. Called the Citrus County Fair Board, it is actually a hive of people, most of them volunteers except for fair manager Jean Grant, secretary Thayer Fair and a few others who do maintenance. They work toward one goal: to put on the best county fair yet.

"On any given day of the fair, I can count on having at least 21 of my 25 directors on the grounds," said Grant. Every director is also a paying member of the Fair Association.

"They pay for the privilege of working at the fair," she said.

January

The growl of the engines straining to make the best distance while pulling 10,000 pounds of dead weight is deafening. The earth shakes and the spectators block their ears. This is the fourth annual Citrus County Antique Tractor Show and Pull.

At the Van Ness Livestock Pavilion at the fairgrounds, tractors of different divisions are hooked up to a large motor-powered sled that the driver then tries to pull the length of the track. Not an easy task when the sled's motorized weight moves forward causing it to dig into the ground and making the tractor's back wheels lose traction.

But not all of the tractors are behemoths. Children have an opportunity to participate in the Junior Tractor Race, peddling as fast as their little legs can take them to the finish line. Each participant receives a ribbon and a prize.

Held each January, the show is a scholarship fundraiser for the Fair Association. The tractor pull scholarships are then awarded to students participating in the Youth World Division during the county fair in March.

One Week Before the fair

The gaudily painted trucks and trailers of Belle City Amusements Inc. look like a circus parade as they lumber up U.S. 41, arriving at the fairgrounds one week before the actual start of the fair.

For more than 30 years this family-owned midway company has brought a variety of rides, games and amusements to the Citrus County Fair. Inverness is the first stop on its annual eight-month, cross country trek.

During the next week, the flat landscape of the fairgrounds will sprout a veritable garden of rides and games, as colorful as any tropical bloom.

The company makes its winter home in Orlando and owns 33 rides and five food wagons. It prides itself on its safety record, cleanliness and family atmosphere. From November until the company leaves Orlando for Inverness, workers clean, repair and paint all the rides.

Setting up the rides is only one part of the responsibility assumed by this 54-year-old company, which was founded by Charles and Mary Panacek.

"Each day before the fair opens, we go out and inspect each ride for safety and cleanliness. We have safety meetings every day, and our operators are continuously checked that they are clean and courteous," explained daughter-in-law Rebecca Panacek. "It's our reputation that is at stake."

And it is one reason fair manager Jean Grant invites the Panaceks and their crew back each year.

Opening Day

Monday morning dawns clear, promising temperatures in the 80s. That makes the morning's last-minute bustle at least pleasant, if not unruffled.

The quiet, almost pastoral scene spread before a common observer belies the activity involved in this effort. Roosters crow, merry-go-rounds spin, radios crackle, golf carts zip between buildings, leaf blowers roar and people cover the grounds like ants busily providing for their queen, or in this case for the fairgoers.

Food wagons are up and running. By 9 a.m. smells of frying onions and funnel cakes compete for the attention of fair volunteers and midway workers. Breakfast is as likely to be hunter's stew as eggs and hash browns.

On the midway the carousel spins on its circular path, gaily painted horses gliding up and down in a silent ballet. No calliope music, no laughing, smiling children, only a single figure stooped near the central engine, peering at the horses as they spin past.

In the Baker Miley Building is Adult World, where arts, crafts and food collide. Garden fresh produce and delicious bakery concoctions await the judges. Someone has put all of their eggs in one basket: brown, white and speckled. Will they win a blue ribbon? The size of those really red sweet potatoes is uncanny. And the cookies, flower-bedecked cakes and muffins trigger a Pavlovian response from workers passing by.

On a ladder in a nearby corner, volunteer Jerry Cheresko adjusts a brightly colored quilt, while above him hangs another, this one looking for all the world like a flock of butterflies. Ribbons dangle from each _ white, red, blue, the prized three-streamer red, white and blue rosette of Best of Show and on just one, the purple Top of Division rosette _ the best of the best.

Grant strides through the buildings, overseeing preparations and urging speed. In the Levins Building, displays by local businesses are being set up. Each has been carefully alloted a slot on a building chart.

Grant stops to lend a hand moving a tent that straddles the aisle, too large for its allotted space.

Bunting and flags are stretched across the walls, while a small pond display waits for electricity to be connected. The building looks almost empty. But the worker ants will take care of that, assisting businesses to prepare eye-appealing displays for the 25,000 to 30,000 fairgoers to view.

Grant's radio crackles and she heads back to the office.

Tuesday

According to Grant, Tuesday is a "quiet day" _ Senior Day at the fair. It's the nice older crowd that enjoys the exhibits, can be counted on to visit the local talent in the auditorium, and will be impressed by the other entertainment.

In the Horticulture Building, master gardener Jim Bruno answers questions and explains to visitors why a plant might be a good or bad choice for their needs. The choice of plants is interesting, ranging from bonsai to orchids to a giant staghorn fern among others. As in other exhibits, the brightly colored ribbons flutter from the plants like so many brilliant butterflies.

Around the fairgrounds animals are being fed, the barbecue grill is being fired up, and Grant and Doris Graska, who was then her assistant, are in the office fielding phone calls and answering frantic radio calls from the grounds.

The weather and the seniors are cooperative, but storm clouds gather when the younger crowd begins to filter in late in the day.

Three battles later, one young man was headed for the hospital and a couple of volunteers were in shock.

But if you weren't in the vicinity of these incidents, you probably never even knew what was happening. That's what the fair is all about: a lot of fun and a load of fantasy.

Wednesday

Controlled chaos reigns at the livestock complex Wednesday morning. Long before the main gate opens livestock trailers wind around the speedway's side parking lot.

The steer competition participants are on hand for the final weigh-in and grading. This can make or break their chances of winning a trophy and selling their steer for a good price.

Amid the bawling of the cattle and the chatter of the young people, Dr. Ronald Dumas is again on hand, as he has been each year for almost 40 years. Checking each animal's health, he alone can approve it to participate in the steer show that night.

New in 2002 is the use of a sonogram to determine the meat grade of each steer. In order to qualify for exhibiting at the fair, a steer must be graded USDA Select or better. Already a couple of steers have been sidelined.

Suddenly, a steer being led off of a trailer breaks away. His owner, David Bowman, is bowled over and lands against a metal tent stake, the wind knocked out of him. Concerned helpers rush to him.

Regaining his wind, Bowman rises, holding his ribs and looking at his hand. Later he'll go for X-rays.

The frightened steer is caught and tied securely, allowing it to calm down. A decision is made: Bowman's father scratches the steer from competition.

For Bowman, who has spent long months working to raise a prize-winner, it is a major blow.

Thursday

The fairgrounds may open at 4 p.m. on Thursday, but Grant and her army are on hand a lot earlier. The rides run as each is checked. Midway workers, vendors, security personnel and others pop into the office for a variety of reasons. Grant tries to complete paperwork, but the phones keeps ringing, and even with secretary Thayer Fair on duty, another pair of hands would be welcome.

Fair is one of the full-time employees of the Fair Association. She joined the fair in 1985 after illness forced her to close her restaurant.

If she thought she was going to get a rest, she was wrong.

Along with Grant, Fair keeps things running throughout the year.

"(Grant's) the promoter," adds Fair, "and I'm the worker."

And work she does _ sometimes as much as 100 hours a week during the fair and 60 or 70 hours a week immediately before and after the fair. She handles money, payroll, contracts and many other matters.

There will be no early night tonight for Grant, Fair or any of the volunteers or directors. With Midnight Magic filling the hours from 9 p.m. to midnight, they will be lucky to leave by 1 a.m.

Friday

On Student Day, Citrus students get the day off school and are admitted free until 5 p.m. At 10 a.m., a mass of bodies breaks free of the jam at the gate and flood across the grounds like a river of humanity.

At 11 a.m., the Midway School Day Special kicks in and screams are heard from the rides as the youth of the county take full advantage of a sunny day off from the rigors of academia.

Before the day is over someone will have lost their wallet, purse or keys and come looking at the office. Others ask Grant to page friends from whom they have become separated. Some will come into the office begging for lunch money because they spent too much on T-shirts or other souvenirs.

Grant learned a long time ago to say no, or she would be working to support the fair and not the other way around.

By evening the fair is running down, and so is Grant.

About 7 p.m. she looks around at workers and visitors overflowing the tiny office and says, "I'm going to take a 20 minute nap."

She heads for her office, kicks off her shoes, and curls into a fetal position on the loveseat. She sleeps instantly, the sleep of the war-weary. And why not? Grant has been on duty 14 to 16 hours a day since Monday.

Twenty minutes later, unaided by any alarm, she sits up and begins again. She runs the fair and its office with the precision of a general on maneuvers. She and Napoleon have a lot in common.

Saturday

This is the final day of the fair. At the livestock complex children, animals and parents mill around registering for the pet show. Dogs bark, cats cower, birds screech, and pot-bellied pigs grunt. Volunteers try to maintain order.

At 10 p.m. the fair closes for this year. By now Grant is probably wishing she could wind down, but she knows better.

For the next two or three weeks she, her staff and volunteers must put this baby to bed. And that takes almost as much effort as setting it up.

In a few weeks they'll be done.

Then Grant and company will take a deep breath _ and begin planning for next year's Citrus County Fair!

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