Rural Spencer, Iowa resident Charlie Elser has got the time and thoroughly enjoys giving that time to the Clay County Fair.
Not only does he serve as president of the Clay County Fair Board, Elser is co-chairman of the 4-H swine committee, serves as host for special guests at the fair and will be physically at the fair during all nine days, Sept. 7-15. In the past he has hosted such notables as the Iowa secretary of agriculture and the Iowa State Fair queen.
“If anything comes up, special meetings, the time varies quite a bit. That is one of the advantages of being retired. I’ve got the time. We really enjoy the fair so we probably spend more time there than we have to,” Elser said.
Elser retired in 2017 as open class sheep superintendent of the fair, a job he held for some 20 years. His wife, Donna, was the assistant to the sheep superintendent and now volunteers in the oven products division of the fair. “We worked together and really enjoyed it,” Elser said.
Born in Spencer, his family moved to a farm south of town. In kindergarten the family moved to Lake Park. He served his country in the Air force in 1968 and 69, returning as an honorably discharged Vietnam veteran. After marrying in 1970, the couple purchased a farm near Webb, Iowa.
“I volunteered on the 4-H swine committee 40 years ago. I went from there to being elected to an open spot on the fair board in 1997. In 1998 I was elected to the executive board and still was involved in swine. 2018 was my first year as president,” he added.
In 2008, Elser retired from farming and turned the operation over to their middle son, Tim, who has three children in the local 4-H program. Two other sons, their wives and children round out the family. And if their schedules allow, Elser said all the children and grandchildren try to come home for the Clay County Fair.
“The fair is basically the same but in another breath it has changed with who manages the fair. I started with Jim Frost, then to the late Phil Hurst and now Jeremy Parsons. During this time, we started the charitable trust campaign to improve and modernize the fair facilities. It is going quite well. The cattle barns need help but we are in the process of trying to replace those,” Elser said.
Last year, cosmetic renovations at the fair topped $1.6 million according to Elser. He said the fair continues to move things around such as parking. One big change he has noticed has been in the number of swine. Elser and his co-chairman, Randall Anderson, used to tag and weigh-in 1,400 head. That number is now down to 300.
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“There are big changes at the fair in the livestock industry. We now see the ag sector in general changing. We want to try to maintain the ‘Big Four,’ which includes Case IH, John Deere, White and AgCo. We still boast of the largest machinery exhibit in the world. Our philosophy is for our guests to come and get a value and an experience in whatever area they want whether it be entertainment, textiles, grandstand shows, baked goods, commercial, free entertainment or food,” said Elser, who admitted his favorite fair food was a pork tenderloin.
To make the Clay County Fair more people friendly, the board is working toward having more paved streets and finishing Centennial Plaza.
“Handicapped folks deserve a good time too. As funds come it, we will be paving more streets. Our direction in our mission statement is to be ag oriented and family friendly. We want to maintain the largest ag exhibit. The future of the fair is that it will be here but the fair industry is changed,” he added.
“The exhibits will change also. We will see more urban type exhibits and more mergers of businesses. We still have a waiting list for exhibitors to be offered the opportunity to exhibit at the fair,” Elser said.
From his humble beginning, Elser said he never thought he would someday be in this position.
“It is quite an honor, in my opinion. We have worked hard at the fair but we have had help along the way. You can’t do it alone,” he said.
He noted that amongst his greatest memories will be from 2018 when he was inducted into the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame.
When he is not at the fair or attending a fair meeting, Elser likes construction. He and his wife built the house they currently reside in and have two hog houses, a garage and a remodeled house on their completed project list.
“The entertainment at the fair is great but I am a farmer at heart. I like the machinery,” he said.