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Fair volunteers recall tornado, recovery

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Four years ago last week, a tornado devastated the Wadena County Fairgrounds, leveling most of the main buildings and 80 percent of the trees.

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When volunteers scoped out the damage the evening of June 17, 2010 - about a month before the annual event was scheduled to begin - they found an unmitigated "mess," including an upside down school bus, recalled Mike Olson, Wadena County Ag Society president. The twister had cut right through the heart of the grounds, directly through the grandstand.

But instead of calling off the fair, as some suggested, the volunteers started cleaning up - and improvising a way to make it happen.

"We wanted to show the community that we were strong enough to still go on," said Bryon Lalum, the ag society vice president and long-time volunteer.

With hard work, along with the help of other county fairs, which lent portable bleachers, tents, horse stalls and other equipment, they pulled it off.

"Attendance was actually up," said Larry Dewald, who has spent much of the past 20 years on the board. He credited a combination of curiosity and a desire to have some fun during the difficult early days of the tornado recovery.

With FEMA money, the fairgrounds was rebuilt over several years, starting with construction of the horse barn and a commercial building. Most new buildings debuted at the 2013 fair, including the beer garden, another commercial building, the band shell stage and grandstand. The show arena, which was finished late last year, is the final major piece of the rebuilding puzzle.

"It's looking really good," Lalum said.

The 2014 Wadena County Fair kicked off Wednesday with 4-H judging of non-livestock events during the afternoon and grand opening ribbon-cutting at 6 p.m., when the carnival rides opened. The carnival will end Saturday night, though the Western Saddle Clubs Association open horse show at 9 a.m. Sunday is the final fair event.

Highlights of the 121st annual Wadena County Fair:

• Leader Area Pig Races at the grandstand Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

• "Clash of Titans," the NJPA Tractor Pull at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights at the grandstand.

• Two nights of live music after the tractor pull: Junk FM on Friday and Audio Throttle on Saturday.

• Three performances of The Sherwin Linton Band, at 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

• Food.

The fair offers free admission, but expect to pay for the carnival rides and grandstand events - $5 for the pig races and $15 (ages 7 and up) for the tractor pull.

Find a complete schedule at www.wadenacountyfair.com/fair-2014.

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