Usually the first to arrive and the last to leave the Surry County fair every day, Michael and Katherine Thorpe, the fair manager and agricultural coordinator, don’t get much of a chance to actually enjoy the amusements.
But every now and then they catch a moment.
“Last night was a good example,” Mike Thorp said.
It was Monday night, and along with the usual details requiring attention, the $30 car load night (an idea the Thorpe’s picked up at a fair convention) had brought in a big crowd, and the lamb show had to be pulled off for the first time in years.
“You’re worried every day,” Mike Thorpe said. “Is there enough help, will there be a good turnout?”
But later in the evening, “everything had sort of come together and it was a relief,” Katherine Thorpe said. “I was coming from the pig races and he was coming from the park office and we actually bumped into each other and gave each other a kiss.”
Michael Thorpe joked: “and lo and behold right at that moment the fireworks went off…”
Behind that exaggeration is the underlying romance of the county fair; and behind that is a year’s worth of work — volunteer work — putting it all together.
“It’s a lot to make happen,” Michael Thorpe said. “Things usually fall into place.”
And there’s always the children.
“It’s all about doing for the kids,” Katherine Thorpe said. “I love to see the kids smile.”
Running the show
The Thorpes come by their respective posts due to their involvement with the local American Legion Ladies Auxiliary (Katherine Thorpe has been president for two years) and the board of Veterans Memorial Park Inc., of which Michael Thorpe is treasurer. A retired 23-year member of the U.S. National Guard, he is also treasurer of the local American Legion post).
When the park board put Mike Thorpe in charge about seven years ago, the economy had tanked, scheduling an amusement vendor was a struggle, and the agricultural component had fizzled out.
Volunteers were hard to come by — still a major obstacle — and ticket sales were down.
Despite working full time, juggling a combined family of four children, ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, along with other volunteer duties, the Thorpes have thrown their energy to the task of bringing the fair back to its glory days.
“It’s definitely an improvement over what we’ve had,” said Gary Willard, president of the park board, mentioning how the ladies auxiliary took over the once expensively outsourced agricultural exhibits and the return of the livestock shows, the pig races and more entertainment.
Willard said, “not a lot will step up and take part to keep the park going,” but that Michael Thorpe is the exception.
“Pretty much he’ll step up to do just about anything,” Willard said. “He’s always looking for new and easier ways to run the park. In the past the fair was done pretty much the same way it was done when it started.”
He figures the ladies auxiliary feels the same way about Katherine Thorpe. “They have to have confidence in her to let her take that position.”
A willingness to try new things seems to be a theme for the couple — they met in a country line dancing class at Reeve’s Community Center. Both were separated, both had two children.
One weekend they both wound up at The Corall in King.
“I went up and asked him to dance and he’s been around ever since,” Katherine Thorpe said.
After injuries from a car accident sidelined her from that favorite pastime, attending fair conventions is the most enjoyable part of fair planning.
Every year they attend one in Raleigh in January and last year attended an international one in Las Vegas.
“It was awesome,” Michael Thorpe said.
They get ideas, pick vendors and entertainment from exhibits, bounce ideas off other fair managers, and attend classes such as how to get sponsors.
“I get really excited when I go,” Katherine Thorp said. “I guess I get charged up when I see the possibilities.”
After the January convention in Raleigh it’s off to the races with the fair book.
The year of planning ramps up a few weeks before the fair opens, when the Thorpes and other volunteers hit the park to do what Michael Thorpe calls “face-lifting” like painting and fixing up light bulbs.
And when the fair does open, it’s on.
“My son said it’s like you live at the fair,” Katherine Thorpe said.
Fueling the fire
When it comes to making sure that the fair not only happens but grows, where do they find the motivation?
“I want to be proud of what I’m in charge of and I think she’s the same way,” Mike Thorpe said. “If I can’t be proud of it I don’t want to do it.”
The couple also mentioned a special connection to fairs that reflects their respective roles.
Mike Thorpe lived next to the fairgrounds in Emporia, Virginia, a town that had two fairs come through each year.
“Kids in those days played in the dirt. I would use my cars and pretend I had a fair,” he said. “I’d be setting up the Ferris wheel, pretend I was leaving and going to another place and setting up.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, Katherine Thorpe was one of eight children growing up on a three-acre tobacco farm in Ararat, Virginia.
“I grew up around agriculture. We relied on our hogs, chickens and cows for food,” she said. “That’s how we survived.”
When the fair came to town, “it was always exciting for me,” Katherine Thorpe said. “I’d work in tobacco, on other people’s farms, just to have money to come to the fair.”
The Thorpes’ long term focus is the 70th anniversary of the first Surry County Agricultural Fair in 2017.
“We’re going to plan for more entertainment at next year’s fair,” Mike Thorpe said.
“We’d like to see lots of community participation,” said Katherine Thorpe. “Businesses, schools, citizens, putting in exhibits and entries.”
And, looking at a wall in the fairground office that’s full of plaques with awards in past years, “We want to see some current awards up there,” Katherine Thorpe said.
Terri Flagg can be reached at 336-415-4734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.