DOSWELL, Va. -- Route 30 is a 40-mile bucolic stretch through Caroline and King William counties, where mostly grain silos rise up to meet the skyline. Except right now at the western end, where two landmarks are clustered, hulking steel structures cut through the panorama of green and meet the skyline with promises of family fun.
The State Fair of Virginia opened at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 29 and runs through Oct. 8. For the next two weeks, the Ferris wheel greets folks, with the roller coasters from Kings Dominion waving on in the background.
The emphasis of the State Fair has evolved from just thrills and fried foods, with an attentive shift back towards the agricultural roots that first shaped the event over 150 years ago.
Until 2009, the event was previously held at the raceway on Laburnum, and the focus was entertainment. In 2013, the State Farm Bureau bought the State Fair – becoming the only such entity to own a fair.
With agriculture being the state’s number one industry, the whole affair makes sense. Even though the Richmond-metro locals grumble about the new location, with a move up north and just parallel to Interstate 95, the event jockeyed for greater access to the families of both the Tri-Cities and Northern Virginia.
If you build it, they will come. Attendance has trended upward, with crowds well over 200,000 recorded – though ultimately those final numbers are weather dependent.
“Probably the main reason we bought the fair was to use it as an education tool,” said Greg Hicks, vice president of communications for the bureau. “Obviously people have to be entertained, and we get that -- the carnival is important -- all the elements are.”
“It’s a good balance of agriculture, exhibits, education, rides, fair food and everything in between,” Hicks added.
Promises of funnel cake (pumpkin flavored too!), tater tots smothered in sausage gravy, and barbeque are still abundant, and beacons of deep-fried delights beckon from vantage points throughout the fairgrounds.
Fairgoers need the nourishment as the fairgrounds sprawl over 330-plus acres. This year, however, a more convenient layout reflects consumer feedback.
“The biggest change was shrinking our footprint, making it more walkable,” Hicks said. “We put Midway Madness in the middle for easier access.”
This moves the midway closer to Festival Loop area, and gives customers a much shorter distance to walk and better access to food concessions and entertainment. The Kidway children’s amusement feature has moved to an asphalt area, after its previous gravel location made maneuvering difficult with strollers.
New this year is also a craft beer event, a farm-to-table dinner, a recycling program and expanded VIP parking.
The farm-to-table dinner Barn Appetit that showcases local farmers and their products, will be held Oct. 6 in Meadow Hall. Tickets can be purchased online and includes admission to the fair and a free ride on the giant Ferris wheel.
That event also overlaps with the fair’s inaugural beer festival. The Virginia Craft Brewers Guild is a partner for the Blue Ribbon Craft Beer Fest, which will take place from 2 – 7 p.m., Oct. 6-8 at The Meadow Event Park.
Tickets get you a souvenir tasting glass and unlimited four-ounce tastings from over 30 Virginia craft breweries like Alewerks Brewing Company, Reason Beer, Rock Bottom, Rusty Beaver, St. George, Starr Hill, Tradition, Kindred Spirit, Legend. Lickinghole Creek, Maltese, 7 Hills, Ardent Craft Ales, Backroom, Bald Top, Beltway, Brass Cannon, Bull Island, Dirt Farm, Escutcheon and Hardywood Park.
Each participating brewery will offer a sessionable beer and one of their flagship brews. Malt, honey and hops producers from Virginia also will be part of the event, to highlight beer’s direct tie to agriculture.
Tickets are $15 per person and must accompany an admission ticket to the State Fair.
That same weekend, on Oct. 6, the Richmond-based Three Sheets to the Wind blows onto the stage with classics from the 70s and 80s. FireHouse from nearby Charlotte, N.C., which includes Richmond-based band members, will perform Oct. 7.
New entertainment this year includes the stilt walking, hoop dancing performances by The Amazing Giants, acoustic music from the Crooked Road Music Series, airborne antics by the Xpogo Stunt Team, and demonstrations by the Virginia Loggers Association. That’s in addition to crowd favorites like racing pigs, pro-rodeo, demolition derby, and a Brunswick stew competition.
As for food, joining the lineup of fair favorites are the country tots (covered in sausage gravy and topped with bacon), poutine tots, super villan whoopie pie, peanut butter bacon dog with spicy jelly, redneck nachos, bbq soft tacos, and fried chicken on a stick.
Another change – good weather on tap for days, versus the dated catchprase: “It’s raining, the fair must be in town.”
“We hear that a lot. We’ve ordered some beautiful weather this year,” Hicks said.
For more info, see the State Fair of Virginia website.