It takes a village: Dozens hard at work to make Fair fantastic

Tony Casey • Aug 17, 2013 at 10:21 PM

As soon as you make the turn onto Gray Station Road, two things become quite apparent: a Ferris wheel on the horizon and your nostrils filled with the smell of that food you can only find at the fair.

Come Monday, Tabitha “Tabby” Gonzales of Johnson City will be the culprit of that smell. Gonzales, who is the cook and store manager of Good Samaritan Ministries, brings her cooking expertise for the first time to the fairgrounds in Gray for this year’s installment of the Appalachian Fair.

She and her crew have been working up to 12-hour days to prepare her food stand for the fair.

“It’s work, but I really enjoy my job,” Gonzales said of all the preparation work, which includes painting, replacing screens, stripping and cleaning all the tables and cooking surfaces and changing out all the lighting.

On Saturday, Gonzales was getting help with her work. She said she had 11 workers, with three on the payroll.

She said the food comes in today and then her crew can organize their menu, which will include barbecue, hot dogs, hamburgers and the meal she recommends the most –– kielbasa with peppers and onions.

With a multitude of different concerts, rides, contests and attractions to see at the fair, which will run from Monday through Saturday, the ticket booths have been busy in the days leading up to opening day.

Sandra Conley and her daughter, Caroline, have been helping sell tickets since they first went on sale July 27. Their lines have been busy, as fair patrons have incentive to get their ride tickets early. Ride tickets have been marked down to half-price until the end of today.

“The lines have been out the door, past the outside gate,” Caroline Conley said.

Conley said their family has attended the Appalachian Fair for more than 40 years. Their family has a dairy farm in Jonesborough, where they raise and show cattle. After they sell tickets leading up to the fair, they return to their other initiative at the fair ––showing off their livestock.

They bring 24 cattle of the Holstein variety, and spend their time grooming and preparing them for showing.

The Conleys and Gonzales are far from the only people neck-deep in preparation work for the fair.

At 6 feet, 5 inches, it’s fitting that Clarence “Tree Top” Ruffin would be in charge of the ride with a title referencing some of the tallest structures on the planet, “Himalaya.”

Ruffin works for the James H. Drew company, which supplies the rides for events like the fair in the southeastern United States.

He says he’s the mechanic for his ride, which is a 2,750-piece puzzle that takes four days to put together.

His five-man crew call themselves “ride farmers,” and Ruffin says they share a very comfortable bunkhouse with four beds and a shower and are on the road nine months out of the year before he returns home to Augusta, Ga.

There are perks to the job, as Ruffin says he takes joy in seeing a change of face in people after getting off his ride.

“I love seeing some people getting on the ride not very excited, or even frowning,” Ruffin said. “Then, when they get off, they have a huge smile on their face.”

Maintenance supervisor at the fairgrounds Danny Clark said as he installs lights in Gonzales’ food stand that it might surprise people to know that the entire production process begins in May. He says he’s got to be able to do a little of everything, and his position is year-round with all the events that take place at the fairgrounds.

The Truck Pull will kick off festivities at the CresPoint Health Appalachian Arena at 6 p.m. Monday. The Fairest of the Fair contest will be the first event on the Museum Stage on Monday at 8 p.m., with Easton Corbin headlining the Main Stage at the same time.

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