In the early 1970s, a number of community leaders got together with Jesse Godbold, Clay County Agricultural Agent, and determined that the county’s agricultural identity and heritage were worthy of being showcased for the citizens of Clay County, especially its youth.
Some of the those original forward thinkers who dreamed up the Clay County Agricultural Fair included people like Claude Kelly [now identified as its “father”], the late Sam Saunders, Merrill Glisson, Lanny Lancaster and Tommy Thomas. They, along with a host of others including Sarah Boe, Jennings Murrhee, Jesse Godbold, Dr. William S. Bazley and Marcia Barber, helped generate the idea to put on the first fair — a fair that would continue to keep “agriculture” in its name and as its theme.
They all shared the dream that it was important that Clay County’s rich agriculture heritage was worth showcasing forever for future generations to enjoy. An annual county fair was the way to go, they said, but stipulated that “agriculture” remain the focal point of this event.
Their dream began to take shape in 1972 when 28 acres of land for the Clay County Agriculture Center was purchased by Clay County through a sizable donation by the Paul E. Reinhold family. The improvements were started by the county in 1973 with the construction of an arena, concession stand and restrooms. In 1976, through the work of Clay County Agricultural Extension Director “County Agent” Jesse Godbold, a grant was received from the federal government for construction of the Agricultural Extension Office complex.
A group of interested citizens got together, along with many community leaders and formed the Clay County Fair Association in the late 70s. They named Sam Saunders as president.
The first big events held on what today is known as the Paul E. Reinhold Fairgrounds were the 1980 Cattlemen’s Rodeo and Cracker Days. This event was coordinated until the first fair  by the county extension staff, which provided 4-H project exhibits and opportunities including youth livestock show, exhibits and shows of steer, rabbits and poultry.
Early superintendents of Cracker Day were the late Duke Webb (livestock); Wendell Hall (poultry) and the late Harry Null (rabbits). It is interesting to note that Wendell Hall and the Null family continue to supervise these events each year.
Rodeo facilities were constructed by the Clay County Cattleman’s Association. That same year, the Reinhold Corporation donated another 30 acres of land to the county for use for the fair.
The Clay County Fair Association was formally organized and a Charter granted by the state in 1982. The original Charter Members included: Donna Burnette, Lee McCabe, Richard E. Neville, Wanda Louque, Nita Goodson, Bob Barwick, William A. Wilkes, Joseph H. Walduck, Ted W. Hellmuth, John Bowles, Joan Shearin, Pat Kelly, Jeri Hurtt, Richard W. Post, Sam D. Saunders, Claude Kelly, John Keene, Jean Delp, Jesse Godbold, T. Hank Bruning, Betty Hauk, Marcia Barber, James C. Wilkinson, Eugene F. Shaw and Merrill Glisson.
Claude Kelly became chairman and began the drive for “big bucks” through the Patron Life Members and an auction. The auction was a lot of fun, but the push for memberships much harder. Virgil Fox entered the picture, assisted by Sarah Boe, Dr. William S. Bazley, and Jennings Murrhee, to continue the fund raising efforts. It took three and a half years to get the Fair Association its non-profit and tax exempt status.
Patron Life Members, along with the Clay County Commission, School Board and Corporate Sponsors formed a partnership with the Clay County Fair Association and with their generous support the Clay County Agricultural Fair continued to grow and became a bigger and better fair with every passing year.
In the beginning, following the purchase of the original 28 acres of land in 1972, the Clay County Commission was a major factor in the establishment and success of the fair by providing assistance in getting the buildings and infrastructure in place. In addition to the county support, the Florida Department of Agriculture, along with the Clay County Fair Association, provided funding assistance for construction of the livestock barns and the founder’s exhibit hall. In 1984 a pavilion was constructed along with a concession stand. Fencing and 30 acres of lighted parking area were added and the drainage installed.
The first fair was held on March 31 through April 4, 1987. The founding Fair Board officers and members in 1987 were: Claude Kelly, Chairman; Sam Saunders, Vice Chairman; Marcia Barber, Secretary; Tommy Thomas, Treasurer; Dr. William S. Bazley, Sherman Phillips, Sarah Boe, Jennings Murrhee, Inez Kennedy, Martha Maxwell, Virgil Fox, Merrill Glisson. The first fair was advertised and marketed by the Clay County Crescent weekly newspaper, with assistance of Managing Editor Elaine Williamson and Staff Writer Ann Williamson. Countless hours of work by volunteers finally paid big dividends when the ribbon was cut to open the first Fair in 1987.
While the 1987 Clay County Agricultural Fair had surprising acceptance and went smoothly, the 1988 fair was much improved. Learning from the year before, the volunteers gained considerable experience and each year extras were added to make the next years fair much better.
The Clay County Agricultural Fair is unique in that it is put on by volunteers and coordinated with a limited paid staff [general manager, office manager and office assistant]. The list of individual volunteers grow larger as these individuals join with the area service clubs, schools and various community groups each year. This fair is truly “The People’s Fair.”
As the local fair grew, it became clear that there needed to be a fair manager and soon, one of the faithful volunteers, Joan Bazley, was named to fill this position in 2001. Bazley retired in 2006, and Pete Sutton is the current Fair Manager.
Today, the Clay County Agricultural Fair has its own administration building, and is named in honor of Claude Kelly. The pavilions and exhibit buildings are named after others who have donated their efforts along the way and there are plaques throughout the fairgrounds honoring the names of those who are members of the Clay County Fair Association, including the original Patron Life Members.
A visit to the administration building also reveals a display of wooden rocking chairs with plaques in honor of those who have been associated with the success of the Clay County Agricultural Fair along the way. The entrance gate off Highway 16 W, that accesses the free parking area and ticket office, announces to fairgoers that they are entering the “Paul E. Reinhold Agricultural Fairgrounds”.
Each spring the Clay County Agricultural Fair is at hand and is put on by well over 900+ volunteers generating attendance of 100,000+ over its ten day run. Recent fairs include 200+ vendors and stretch over 65 acres at the “Paul E. Reinhold Agricultural Fairgrounds” west of Green Cove Springs.
Following the 2011 fair, when officials had to close the gates early on the last day due to lack of parking, the Fair Board acted immediately and took steps to authorize the construction of 1200 additional parking spaces on 28 acres of property south of the existing parking area. The old parking area accommodated 1700 vehicles, while the north parking area offered over available 100 spaces.
Construction was completed in time for the 2012 fair and this valuable addition provides for a combined total of over 3000 available parking spaces for fairgoers each year. Parking continues to be free at the fairgrounds.
For the 2013 fair, the ticket gate was relocated to a new area. This was used as the entrance and the old area to be used as the exit.
The new entrance is located behind the gazebo and flag pavilion. The ticket booth has been replaced with four new buildings increasing the number of windows from five to 16, including Will Call.
This relocation is expected to help serve guests better. In addition, the walkway near the midway and exhibit buildings has been expanded.
The 2013 fair theme “Country Pride . . . County Wide” manifested itself in every way when approximately 50 members of Mid-West Fair Association arrived by bus on Saturday, April 6, 2013 to tour the 27th Annual Clay County Agricultural Fair.
Fair Manager Pete Sutton welcomed the group as they arrived at the administrative offices. They were treated to a great tour of the fairgrounds in full operation and no one could have purchased the beautiful weather in Clay County on that particular day. Sutton said, “It was a perfect setting for us to show off to fair managers and guests from all over the United States. Post visit feedback was very complementary. This was a real tribute to our volunteers. They are passionate people who are the backbone of our success. We are grateful for their dedicated service.”
The groups of fair executives were from all over the country representing the following states: Virginia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wyoming, Washington State, Texas, Montana, Maryland, Arkansas, Iowa, and Florida. It was special to welcome the Clay County Fair from Spencer Iowa . . . we have a lot in common.
Every fair in the state of Florida must follow certain guidelines from the state. In 2003 The Clay County Agricultural Fair was awarded the “Champion County Fair” in the State and continues to receive the Blue Ribbon recognition for the Florida Federation of Fairs each year since 2003. The federation's Blue Ribbon Fair Improvement Program is designed to highlight improvements the fairs have made, award excellence in different programs, and promote the exchange of information and knowledge between fairs. The continuing tribute to Clay County’s agricultural identity remains alive thanks to those forward thinking community leaders of over two decades ago, and is showcased each spring at the annual “Clay County Agricultural Fair . . . A Family A * Fair”