Monticello residents make the best of Great Jones County Fair

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Everyone at the Great Jones County Fair has a story to tell.

Of course there’s John Harms, the fair’s general manager, who met his wife here. Then there’s Ti Picray, a 25-year-old Monticello resident who has come to the fair for 20 years and now watches his small daughter play with farm animals.

And Don Souchek can’t be forgotten either — he’s lived in Monticello since 1975 and lets around eight lucky fairgoers park their cars on his prime piece of real estate across from the fair grounds for $10.

Souchek sits on his porch, quietly waiting for drivers to return to their cars. Last year, when storms dampened the fair, people filled his porch and spilled into his house, waiting for the rain to pass.

“They can come and go as they please,” Souchek said with a smile on Saturday, noting the fair revitalizes the area. “I’m so used to it now.”

Though some residents in the area do complain about the noise from the fair, most seem to enjoy the atmosphere. During the festival, dozens of homeowners in Monticello strap signs to trees and poles, advertising their lawns for parking. Others set out chairs and coolers to enjoy the steady stream of people passing through the gates.

The Great Jones County Fair celebrated its 160th anniversary this year. And since the late 1800s, a festival that some call “the five best days of summer” rolls through this quaint town of around 3,700, bringing with it world-renowned musicians, carnival games, and thousands of visitors.

Sue Schemmel and a group of friends who attend nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church collect $5 from drivers who park in the church’s lot, which they said can fit about 200 cars. When Blake Shelton performed at the fair on Friday night, the lot was full.

“It’s a big boost for the city,” said Schemmel, who has lived in Monticello for more than 34 years.

Harms said the fair has an “extremely good” relationship with the city.

But how does a fair in small town Iowa attract Johnny Cash, Toby Keith, and Lynyrd Skynyrd multiple times?

The fair’s concert facility rivals any outdoor facility in the country, Harms said. Officials have also worked with the same booking agency for 40 years and they “have the pulse of our community.”

“(Performers) love it here,” Harms said. “The audience has a preconceived notion they’ll have a good time. That energy gets transferred to the stage. You can feel that energy. The artist picks that up. That juices the crowd back. It’s a feeding thing.”

Based on attendance and annual revenue, the Great Jones County Fair is the third largest county fair in the state, said Harms, who noted the fair has grown eightfold since he started 18 years ago. This year, Harms said he expects attendance for the fair to reach around 100,000.

“It’s pretty quiet except for the fair,” said Diane Kurth, who has lived in Monticello for 26 years and calls the event a “tradition.” “It’s fun watching the people. You can hear the bands perfectly. It’s never been annoying. It’s nice to see them come, but it’s nice to see them go.” 

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