Can Hillsboro’s 2003 fair top last year’s success?

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
It’s hard to imagine the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair could go much better this year than it did last fall.

Perfect fall weather, a new Friday-night setup policy for exhibitors, and a return to relative normalcy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 came together for record crowds and strong sales for artists and vendors.

“The 2002 fair was a very good event for all of us,” said Donna Diener, now in her third year as fair director. “But that doesn’t mean we aren’t working toward something even better this fall.”

Diener’s positive assessment isn’t just the biased notion of the person in charge. The February issue of Sunshine Artist magazine, a leading publication in the arts and crafts industry, contained more than a page of overwhelmingly positive feedback about the 2002 fair.

“We were pleased to see those responses,” Diener said. “It affirms a lot of what we’re trying to do-including the Friday-night-setup experiment. And we always appreciate suggestions from artists for improving the fair in the future. We’ve always said ‘the artist is the No. 1 attraction’ at our fair.”

Feedback from the 400 artists accepted each year at the Hillsboro fair has frequently placed the event among Sunshine Artist’s top 100 in the country in both major categories -fine arts and fine crafts.

This year, the September issue of Sunshine Artist ranked Hillsboro’s fair 55th in the nation.

The only other Kansas festival to make the list ranked 90th.

The 2003 fair, set for Saturday, will again cater to quality artists and vendors. That, in turn, has drawn crowds around the 50,000 mark two of the past three years – with post-9/11 2001 being the exception.

Browsers and buyers traditionally hail from more than two dozen states-plus Canada-and uphold the fair’s “good sales” reputation. The exhibitors generate record sales almost every year.

“In a lot of ways the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair has helped put our community on the map, at least in Kansas,” Diener said. “Almost anywhere you go in our state, if you say you’re from Hillsboro, people will mention the fair.”

Unlike some fairs, the organizing committee of the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair carefully screens the applications of artists who want to come-and the list of hopefuls is far longer than 400. In addition, the artists who do come are evaluated by the committee for the quality of their product. Many, but not all, are invited back the next year.

“We go to great lengths to make sure we invite the best artisans,” Diener said. “And then we do our best to treat them right so they want to come back.”

To keep the fair fresh, the committee makes it a point to invite new artists and products each year.

A second factor in the fair’s success is the local food concessions. You won’t find “professional” vendors in Hillsboro. Organizers have limited the list to local churches, organizations and families – many of whom have ties with the Dutch Low-German Mennonites from South Russia who began settling this area in the mid-1870s. Traditional concessions are also available, but those ties provide a definite ethnic flavor to the eating options.

“We have people who come back to our fair year after year just because of the ethnic food,” Diener said.

Some of the favorite ethnic entrees include verenike (a cottage cheese dumpling covered with ham or sausage gravy), peppernuts (a small holiday cookie), New Year’s cookies (raisin fritter), borscht (cabbage soup) and noodle soup, bierrocks, and Hillsboro’s famous smoked sausage, which patrons can enjoy as part of a verenike meal, barbecued in mouth-watering sandwiches, or simply by itself on a stick.

Local eateries, such as the popular 1887 Olde Towne Restaurant, will be busy serving the masses, but so will churches and more than two dozen street concessions. Even the local city hall, renamed the “Kaffee Haus,” shifts its emphasis from good government to good food for this event.

“Our people here who make the cinnamon rolls, peppernuts, pies-they’re really artists, too,” Diener said. “I admire these people who can do all these things. It’s really a lost art.”

A third factor that has made this fair so successful are the hundreds of friendly and ambitious local volunteers who work behind the scenes.

Almost every resident in town, it seems, has a task to carry out on fair day.

“Volunteers are a big part of the Arts & Crafts Association,” said Diener. “Without them, we could not possibly have an event of this size in a community with a population of 3,500.”

Thanks to volunteers, public parking and free shuttle rides are readily available. Strategically located within an hour of central Kansas’ main population centers- Wichita, Hutchinson and Salina- Hillsboro offers an environment of comfort and safety, complete with police and fire protection, a first-aid station, rest areas and personal assistance from trained personnel.

“Volunteers make the fair happen,” Diener said. “It is a total commitment from the people in Hillsboro to make this event what it is.”

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