‘Our own little country’: Volunteer shares lifelong passion for the Grange Fair

Wanda Decker smiles for a portrait Wednesday, July 26, 2018 at the Grange fairgrounds in Centre Hall. Decker has volunteered at the Grange Fair for 35 years and handles the process of inputting fair entries and reporting show and sale results.
Wanda Decker smiles for a portrait Wednesday, July 26, 2018 at the Grange fairgrounds in Centre Hall. Decker has volunteered at the Grange Fair for 35 years and handles the process of inputting fair entries and reporting show and sale results. psheehan@centredaily.com

For Wanda Decker, the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair has had an effect on almost every aspect of her life.

Ever since she arrived at the Centre Hall fairgrounds for the first time as a teenager, Decker has made the late-August event a huge part of her life.

She started dating her husband at the fairgrounds. They had met previously through their involvement at Centre County 4-H, but made it official at the Grange Fair and were married two years later. She even brought her newborn son to the fair when he was only four weeks old.

“I don’t know what I would do if the Grange Fair wasn’t here,” Decker said. “I just like anything that has to do with Grange Fair.”

For 35 years, Decker has devoted a large portion of her life to support Grange Fair operations. She has been responsible for the entire process of inputting fair entries, producing show catalogs and reporting show and sale results.

“There’s an excitement whenever you get over to the fair,” she said. “I always felt like I was in another world when you walk up to the fairgrounds. Because it is so different from what it is outside the grounds. It’s like we have our own little community, our own little country.”

While helping at the Grange Fair and volunteering with Penn State Extension Centre County, Decker worked as a full-time administrative assistant to the associate dean in Penn State’s College of Agriculture.

Through her connection with the university, Decker helped pave the way to modernizing the fair. She had the opportunity to learn how to use computers when they were just arriving at Penn State in the ‘80s. She used her training to create an electronic input system specifically tailored for the Grange Fair, making it faster and more efficient to collect data for their livestock shows.

“The computers just fascinated me,” Decker said. “I’m not an expert or anything on computers, but I enjoy doing what I do.”

To this day, Decker still uses the fifth version of the electronic program.

“I’m still working on the old one but I understand it,” she said. “If they want to upgrade it they can after I retire.”

Decker has a keen system of doing her job. Every year, Decker receives hundreds of entries from farmers who want to show and sell their livestock at the fair. First, she sorts through the entries into different categories of species — everything from hogs to chickens.

Though she gets a small stipend for helping out at the fair, Decker thinks the greatest payment is having free admission to the fair. What fuels her dedication to helping out at the livestock shows is seeing the children get excited when they participate in showing their animals.

“I get a kick out of watching those kids in the show rings,” she said. “I just enjoy the way they tend to their animals, I’m just sitting there urging them on.”

Decker said the Grange Fair reminds her of its own city.

“We don’t need anything from the outside basically,” she said. “We’re almost self-sufficient in there, with all the vendors and things that they sell.”

One of her favorite things to do at the fair is to just sit and watch people go by.

Since her tent space has been kept the same within the family, Decker has been around long enough to see three generations go by. She plans on passing her tent space on to her son.

“Those tents are established and they’ve stayed with the generations for years now,” she said. “Mine was my mother-in-law’s tent, so now I have it, and I’m going to be turning it over to my son. It’s going to stay in the family.”

Decker said she wants it to remain a family tradition because she’s brought all three of her children to the fair ever since they were a few months old. She said she has gotten to know her tent-neighbors, who have been there almost the same amount of years, very well.

“We sometimes get into arguments about who’s been there the longest,” Decker said. “It’s like an old homecoming.”

As Decker’s commitment to the fair has spanned more than three decades, she is now considering someone to eventually take her place.

“Right now, I’m trying to find somebody that may have the same kind of passion I have for it,” Decker said. “I’d like to move on, I’m not young anymore. So I need a younger person who can feel for the program the way I do — you are doing something for the kids.”

Decker said the right person for the job has to have a lot of stamina, as the job requires long hours in the beginning of the festival.

Whether being part of the operations or not, Decker said she does not plan on missing out on the fun.

“I’m going to the Grange Fair until the day I die,” she said.