Delaware State Fair more than tradition for 98-year-old Harrington man

Kenny McKnatt, 98, of Harrington, has been to every Delaware State Fair since he was 10 years old and has no plans on missing a day when this year’s 97th annual Delaware State Fair opens its gates at 9 on Thursday morning and runs until July 30. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Kenny McKnatt, 98, of Harrington, has been to every Delaware State Fair since he was 10 years old and has no plans on missing a day when this year’s 97th annual Delaware State Fair opens its gates at 9 on Thursday morning and runs until July 30. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

HARRINGTON – The dizzying rides of the midway, the tempting smells of the food stands wafting through the air on summer nights and the chance to win a giant stuffed animal are not what keep Kenny McKnatt coming back to the Delaware State Fair year after year.

For McKnatt, a 98-year-old Harrington native who attended his first state fair with family when he was around 10, what keeps him coming back is really quite simple – it’s the people.

“I really like the people,” Mr. McKnatt said. “I just enjoy meeting the people. At night I just walk the carnival grounds. I’ll tell you something else, I couldn’t take rides. I could ride the merry-go-round and the bumper cars and I could handle that, but anything else with a twirl or a swing I couldn’t handle. I’d get sick.”

The fair quickly turned into a passion for Mr. McKnatt ever since he attended his first one. He has been to every one since and has no plans on missing a day when this year’s 97th annual Delaware State Fair opens its gates at 9 on Thursday morning and runs until July 30.

When Mr. McKnatt first visited the state fair in the 1920s – the first fair was held on July 27, 1920 – the Delaware State Fairgrounds consisted of nearly 30 acres.

Nowadays, it has grown to 300 acres in size and boasts an annual attendance of more than 300,000 people.

“It’s increased 10-fold. It’s terrific,” said Mr. McKnatt. “When somebody mentions the fair to me, the first thing I think of is the Rockettes [famous dance troupe from New York City] … they used to perform on the stage and Captain Proske and his Tigers used to also perform.

“The Rockettes really impressed me. They were the first stage show I saw and they stayed at a home across the railroad track right outside the fairgrounds.”

Mr. McKnatt noted that back in the fair’s earlier days many of the performers stayed at the homes of people in

Kenny McNatt, 98, stands with his daughter Kenna and her husband Dave Adams at the Delaware State FairGrounds in Harrington. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Kenny McNatt, right, 98, stands with his daughter Kenna and her husband Dave Adams at the Delaware State FairGrounds in Harrington. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Harrington. He said it was a much more community-oriented event back then.

Nowadays, musicians and performers have luxurious buses that take them from show-to-show. They are in, and out.

That’s just one of many things that Mr. McKnatt has seen change in his 90 years of attending the state fair every summer. But he doesn’t mind the change, he said it’s inevitable.

One thing he’s never done in his life is worked at the fair. In fact, he said he couldn’t imagine doing that.

“I never worked the fair but a lot of my friends did,” he said. “They would take to the booths and the shows and those things but I never got involved in the job. I was always into the fun part.”

That fun part involved trying to get a glimpse into what he jokingly called the “hoochie coochie” tent when he was a youngster. He wouldn’t provide any other details as he laughed in remembering the experience.

Mr. McKnatt still likes the simple things, like walking the fairgrounds a week before it officially opens every day to watch how the rides get put up and the magnificent giant puzzle that is eventually pieced together, creating one giant celebration.

“This is a farming area and the people would bring their animals, cows, sheep, pigs, horses, chickens, everything, to display them,” he said. “It’s more or less a farmer fair.

“I just enjoyed everything about it. I never stayed still. I went from building to building … I was in every building out here, all the stables and I stayed around the horses and ponies in the stables most of the time because my cousin had a pony.”

This year’s state fair will feature its usual array of farm animals and Future Farmers of America contests as well as needlepoint and craft competitions.

But it will also be home to a wide-variety of events such as a Jeff Dunham show, a George Thoroughgood concert, Monster Trucks, a demolition derby and lots more.

Mr. McKnatt doesn’t have any particular event circled on the calendar that he absolutely “has to see” yet this year, though he said that could change as the fair draws closer.

“I make sure I never miss getting some cotton candy and popcorn,” he said. “And I never go home to eat. I’d eat hot dogs out here [at the fairgrounds] most of the time.”

To Mr. McKnatt, the fair is a time to make memories.

“Now he has four generations out here,” said Kenna Adams, his daughter. “Me, I’m an only child and I’ve been [going to the state fair] probably since I was two-years-old, and then [husband] David and I have two daughters, Dana and Kelly, and they come with their families and we have four grandchildren, and they come every day.

“So four generations of us are out here most nights [during the fair] and [Mr. McKnatt] just circulates. He still comes every day.”

Danny Aguilar, assistant general manager and director of marketing at the state fair, said he is left in awe at many of the stories Mr. McKnatt has to share about his lifetime at the fair.

“I’m just amazed at the multiple generations of fair fans he has created and his great granddaughter interned for me one year,” he said.

When Mr. McKnatt was a teenager he said he would go to the fair at around 10 in the morning and stay until around 11 at night.

“I’d stay all day,” he said. “In other words, I lived at the fair.”

Nowadays, he doesn’t arrive at the fair until around 6 at night at leaves at around 11 or so – not bad for a man whose birthday is Sept. 3, 1917.

Before Mr. McKnatt leaves the fair he always heads to the Collins Root Beer Stand to meet up with family and friends to discuss the news of the day.

“That’s where we meet before we go home,” Mrs. Adams said. “It’s become a tradition for us.”

For the past 90 years, Mr. McKnatt said he has seen just about everything at the Delaware State Fair, and he’s not about to stop searching for something new this year.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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