State fair experience never gets old
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
HUTCHINSON -- The motto of the 2012 Kansas State Fair, in its 100th year, is "Never Gets Old."
That's what Opal Flinn will tell you, too.
Flinn today will complete her 44th year of working at the state fair in Hutchinson. She served as a supervisor in the 4-H encampment building on the fairgrounds along with her husband, Jim, for more than 40 years.
After Jim Flinn died in the spring of 2010, his wife decided she still would go it alone. So when September rolled around two years ago, 4-H'ers and others coming to spend their nights during the fair at the encampment building saw the same familiar face on the second floor of the women's side of the dorm.
"I did not want to miss the fun of everyone I work with," Flinn said.
Jim Flinn first started working at the state fair in the mid-1960s after staying on the grounds for another 4-H event the year before. A few years later, his wife joined him, and she's been a fixture ever since.
"We ran a dairy farm, so there were no vacations," said Opal Flinn, who worked alongside her husband for 33 years at their dairy operation north of Ellis until they sold out in the 1990s.
"This was like a vacation," she said of the state fair.
The Flinns, who started the Ellis Sunflowers 4-H Club in the '60s, had their children -- they raised a family of five on their farm north of Ellis -- tend to their dairy operation while they worked at the fair.
"It gave our children a lot of responsibility," Flinn said. "They have all said that they learned a lot from that, that it helped them later in life."
Memories of days gone by
The encampment building was built in 1934 as a place for 4-H'ers to stay during the fair so they could be near their livestock.
Each of the large dorm rooms, four on the boys' side and four for girls -- provide beds up to 48 people -- and was used for the first time for the 1935 state fair.
Donna Maskus from Hays, who grew up on a dairy farm in Pawnee County and showed dairy cattle at the fair, remembers well her times of staying in the encampment building in the 1970s.
"Coming from the farm, it was a real eye-opener for us," Maskus said. "We never got away from the farm much, and (the fair) was a fun environment."
Things were different back then, in the days of no cellphones or portable computers.
"Our free time in the evenings was spent visiting with other 4-H'ers from around the state and playing cards," Maskus said. "You got to know other 4-H'ers who were involved in other livestock projects."
Maskus, who still attends the fair every year as a judge, said she probably still would stay in the encampment building were it not for family living in Hutchinson.
"I have fond, fond memories of that building," she said.
The encampment building itself has changed since the days of open rafters when it "looked like a barn," Flinn said.
The building underwent a significant renovation in 1997, including the installation of an elevator, lowering of ceilings. This year, there are even new 3-inch foam mattresses on the bunk beds.
The aura of the building still is the same though, said Flinn, who added there still is no air conditioning on the second floor where the dormitories with their triple-decker bunk beds are located.
"We have a nice fan, and we open the windows," she said.
Leaving the windows open provides you the full experience of the fair, Flinn said.
"At nights, you hear the carnival going," she said. "And you always hear the pig races being called."
Reservations to stay in the building are made through the local Extension offices, and those staying for one or more nights are assigned beds according to when they are called in to the state fair.
"You might be next to a family member or a 4-H'er you know," Flinn said. "But more than likely you're next to someone from another county. It's a great way to meet people."
Never gets old
Flinn works the 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift in the girls' dorm. Always has. Always will, if she has anything to do with it.
"That's what we were given way back when," said Flinn, who isn't about to give up that time slot now.
"I have seniority," Flinn said with a grin. "It's the perfect shift. After I get done, I can go out and enjoy the fair."
"I even used to ride some of the rides," she added. "But my husband just loved watching the rides."
The encampment building, which includes several large meeting rooms and an auditorium on the first floor, is used throughout the year for a variety of non-fair activities. But come state fair time, it belongs to 4-H'ers and their families.
"I'm seeing children and grandchildren of 4-H'ers I first saw years ago," Flinn said.
Flinn, who turns 82 Oct. 1, has slowed down -- some -- although she still keeps a spry pace with her walker on wheels.
She admits she has given up carnival rides but already is talking about next year -- and her 45th fair.
"It's fun seeing the kids and talking to them about their exhibits," she said. "I wouldn't want to miss it."