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Midway There

A party at Jimmy Dean's, and a not-so-certain future for the state fair.



Maybe it's just that sort of rural route reverie that the folks at the State Fair of Virginia aimed for when they asked Jimmy and Donna Dean to serve as hosts for a gala to celebrate the release of the new hardcover history on the fair, "More Than a Midway."

Perhaps that sense of time getting away from you is a fitting way to introduce a book celebrating the state's yearly salute to all things Virginian.

It's especially appropriate considering the uncertain state of the fair's planned move from Strawberry Hill in Henrico County to historic Meadow Farm in Caroline County, about 30 miles away. As the fair's leaders fret over the move, missing the turn becomes more than just a convenient metaphor.

Curry A. Roberts, State Fair of Virginia Inc. president, took over for Otis Brown in February 2004, not long after public hubbub crested over the fair's planned move.

"We'll announce in January where the fair will be next year," Roberts promises.

Does he think the roads will be ready?

"We'll announce in January where the fair will be," he repeats with a slightly hesitant smile.

Can the Virginia Department of Transportation finish its work by then?

"We'll announce in January," Roberts says, before making his way with me to the hors d'oeuvres and to another topic of conversation — the excellent crab dip. The dip is on point, like Roberts' answers. But it's not enough to overcome a couple of downers: The shrimp cocktail is gone, and the evening's star, Jimmy Dean, has had to bow out of the party to nurse a stomach ailment.

If January doesn't take the fair to Meadow Farm, it won't be VDOT and its roughly $10 million in improvements to Route 30 that's the holdup, according to Rob Shackelford, VDOT's Fredericksburg district construction engineer. Like Dean, he missed the book-release party, but Shackelford says he's doing everything he can to maintain the party mood for fair officials.

"I'm under the assumption that they're going to be [at Meadow Farm] and that's how VDOT is proceeding to accommodate them for next year," Shackelford says, noting that even a critical bridge improvement over the North Anna River is "slightly ahead of schedule."

Perhaps it's the fair's own improvements that remain in doubt.

Not so, Roberts assures. First-phase development — which included purchasing the property and securing all the necessary permits and zoning changes from Caroline County — is moving along swimmingly, he says. Of $17 million earmarked for development, $14 million is already spent. But some road improvements that the fair must do itself, including two tunnels under Route 30, remain to be done.

For certain, whenever the move is made, a new chapter will open for the fair. It's a chapter already partly written in "More than a Midway." The book's 190 pages are an exhaustive look at the event's evolution from its beginnings in 1854 at Monroe Park in Richmond.

Among memories and remembrances preserved within is an appearance by the evening's hostess and her band, Country Roads, back in 1972. It's an appearance that Donna Dean recalls fondly. She gave a nod to the book's author, Lou Ann Meadows Ladin, for including her.

"I appreciate that, but I didn't know I ever had a career," jokes Donna, whose marriage to Jimmy Dean in 1991 often eclipses her own standing as a 1987 Academy of Country Music award nominee who was inducted in 1989 into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame.

The book also chronicles past appearances by presidents, prized pigs and everything in between.

"We thought it was going to be all cotton candy and candied apples," says Wayne Dementi, who served as project director for the book and whose company published it. "Instead, it was history; it was scholarship."

Some of that history is out for the book's unveiling at the Deans' home, where guests mingle over drinks and food in the banquet hall, a hunting lodge-like affair decorated with bearskin rugs, massive deer-antler-bedecked chandeliers and a sunken central fireplace reminiscent of something out of a James Bond film.

Legendary Richmond radio personality Harvey Hudson is here, but so too are other less well-known individuals who've made lasting impressions on those 11 days in September that each year draw cowboys and schoolchildren from around the state.

"It's kind of fitting moving from one history to another," says Monica Burrow, a fifth-generation and 30-year fair employee. She tells of her great-grandfather, Blanch "Dunc" Duncan, who became the fair's first superintendent of grounds at the Strawberry Hill site in 1946.

Duncan had two daughters, who by today's standards were probably barely tall enough to ride some of the rides. "He put them to work right away," Burrow says.

One of those daughters, Betty Duncan Garnett, still works for the fair. She met her husband there, as did her granddaughter, Monica: "There's a lot of memories there," Garnett says, sounding wistful as she ponders the fair's move to Meadow Farm. "It's going to be a big change." S

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