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Meet the man behind the fair

Howard Warmbold was busy behind the steering mechanism of his Bobcat this week preparing the 4-H buildings for next week's fair. Warmbold has been on the fair board more than 40 years, is a township officer, farmer and still works full-time at age 72. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

To generations of Hubbard County residents, Howard Warmbold is the grand master of the fair.

For four-plus decades Warmbold has been front, center and behind the scenes of the fair operations, officially titled the Shell Prairie Agricultural Association. Most locals just refer to it as "THE FAIR."

This year it runs July 7-11, when Warmbold and fellow volunteers will all but sleep on the grounds for the duration.

He's been the heart and sole, brains and muscle.

"When one fair gets over we're already starting to plan the next one," he said.

Although he can remember each and every name of his fellow fair board members when he joined, the number of years and the thousands of volunteer hours he's put in, have slipped his mind.

Wednesday night, after a 10-hour day at Green Valley Bean, this 72-year-old raced home, tinkered a bit in the garage, loaded up his Bobcat and headed to the fairgrounds where he and other volunteers started putting out pens and tarps that will house 4-H animals. He also has been haying and caring for his cattle.

"The farming comes to a screeching halt," when the fair starts, he said.

He pauses to introduce his latest great-grandchild, Tucker Warmbold.

"No, he's not the latest," said Tucker's mother. "Brittany had her baby today."

He sheepishly offers congratulations and corrects himself, then tries to tally up the generations. Sixteen grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

"We're keeping the name going," he chuckled.

He's proud of his tenure at the fair and shows no signs of slowing down, even though he admits it may be time.

"I'll be 73 in August," he said.

He has the worn face of a 73-year-old; the physique of a much younger man.

"OK, now, I'm all dirty so don't get my pants in the picture," he instructs. He's caked in grease and oil, from his baseball cap to his dusty work boots.

He said he got involved with the fair many years ago.

"My kids, and I won't tell you how old they are," he starts, "all got interested in 4-H. We didn't push them but we encouraged them, and their kids."

As subsequent generations of kids and their parents participated in 4-H activities, from livestock events to horticulture to textiles, Warmbold saw no reason to leave the institution he helped create.

His name is on the exhibition hall, along with that of Bert Hill's.

"Oh Bert," he said. "Yeah we got a lot of things going out here."

Over the years there have been successes and failures. Musical acts didn't always appeal to a wide audience, so the fair board strives for family entertainment now. A ventriloquist/comedian is this year's entertainment.

He said a mix of acts, from the motocross (Warmbold performs flag duty there) to the talent show (he won't sing but might if prompted), the board has finally arrived at a mix of events that has mass appeal. It's often been suggested the midway should be changed, but Warmbold pointed out other communities have done that at their own peril. Midway acts have canceled last minute, spoiling some towns' celebrations.

Fair attendance hovers between 12,000 to 15,000 the last several years, Warmbold said.

There's no desire to be metropolitan. "We've got pork chops on a stick," he said, referring to the Minnesota State Fair fare, which seems to delight in obscure and new edible items on a stick each year.

"We've got Al's Fry Bread but I guess you wouldn't want that on a stick," he mused.

"He's over-active," said wife of 51 years, Eleanor, mother of the couple's five children. "I can't make him slow down. It would be nice to take a couple of trips," but she doesn't see the couple riding slowly off into the sunset to watch TV in their golden years.

Eleanor took an active role in the fair board, too, until joint problems forced her to resign. These days she fills a much more vital role, fielding the hundreds of phone calls Howard gets at home. He refuses to carry a cell phone.

"I don't know what we would do without Howard," said fellow fair board member Candy Parks, patting her heart. "He knows everything about those grounds and every machine on them."

When the fairgrounds sprung an underground leak a few years ago, Parks said, "Howard knew right where to put the shovel."

Aside from the fair, the grounds are used for other events, so Warmbold opens rest rooms, arranges storage and in general performs the handyman duties with other volunteers.

When a religious group's tent blew away last month during a food giveaway, Warmbold was the first on the scene to open up the buildings so the event could go on.

The fair board has 14 directors and four officers, all volunteers. Warmbold said he couldn't keep the place going single-handedly.

"We can always use more volunteers," Warmbold says. But as his namesakes keep proliferating, the fair could be a family dynasty for centuries.

"It's been quite an adventure," Eleanor Warmbold said.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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