Haylea Kostelnik, 15, was looking forward to showing her goat in April.
She had exhibited at smaller shows earlier this year, but the Wharton County Youth Fair was the prize opportunity to show off her hard work.
For many citizens of Wharton County, the fair is a gathering place — a community working toward a common goal, not just during fair week, but throughout the year.
The event was originally scheduled for April 13-25, then COVID-19 swept the U.S. in a global pandemic and fair officials announced most events would have to be cancelled, moving the shows to an online auction and sponsorship system.
From first-year participants and seniors, to parents and fair officials, the news hit home and it hit hard.
Despite the circumstances, the WCYF, alongside a community of support, pulled itself up by the bootstraps and raised $759,680 for exhibitors and the organization, walking with pride toward the future for the county’s youth.
‘We had been working up to the WCYF by doing these practice shows and jackpot shows. It would boost my confidence, doing so well at these shows. It was just such a thrill to work up to the fair and it just went away.’
This was Haylea’s first year raising and showing a goat, Mercury, whom she named after the frontman of Queen.
“I’ve always loved animals and I have always helped out my friends with feeding and watering (their goats),” the Boling FFA member told The County Gin. “I went to a couple of their shows and thought I was basically doing so much, I might as well have my own goat.”
Haylea is the first in her family to be involved in FFA and show animals, according to her mother Lea Anna, who says she has a natural talent, but had to learn the ins-and-outs of training and exhibiting along the way.
She went to train and feed it every day after school since June of 2019, working muscles in his back, walking him in different directions up and down the road, practicing how to pose him in a certain way.
“It was more difficult for me to understand because this goat was specifically for showing, but it was really interesting to be a part of it,” Haylea said. “It was kind of difficult, but I had really good people help me along the way. It was stressful, but fun at the same time.
“Being in the ring was probably my favorite part. Our faces look emotionless, but the whole time, we are trying to do whatever we can for it to be the best. It’s stressful, but at the same time, you have to be relaxed. The process of getting there is probably the worst part of it, like the hour or so every day. But it’s all worth it when you’re in the ring; it’s more of just a thrill.”
The young woman even won a second place buckle in Waco and was looking forward to wearing it in the arena of the Wharton County Fairgrounds.
“We did a lot of jackpot shows and it was hard for me to understand the showing because I had never done anything like this,” Haylea said. “We had been working up to the WCYF by doing these practice shows and jackpot shows. It would boost my confidence, doing so well at these shows. It was just such a thrill to work up to the fair and it just went away.”
“I was so disappointed; it was what I was looking forward to. I had just gotten my first (show) buckle and I wasn’t able to go to the big show. The little shows are fun, but it’s not the same as the county fair. I would actually know who was going to be there; these are my friends that I would be showing with. Even when I wasn’t showing and got to see who was showing at the WCYF, I got to see them do this really cool thing. I wanted to do that and I had the opportunity. Then that changed and it was just taken away.”
After COVID-19 crossed into the U.S. borders early this year, fair officials grappled with the difficult choice in the road ahead.
The event was only months away.
Following Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement of a disaster declaration, the “writing was on the wall,” said fair president Rodney Jedlicka, who has served in the position for three years.
‘The youth is what our county is made of and we can’t lose sight of that. The county fair is a big deal for some of these kids. They worked hard. For the kids not to be able to have the fair is the hardest part.’
“We made the initial decision to start cancelling some of the events after the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo announced it would be cancelled,” Rodney said. “It sent us a red flag.”
He has been on the board for approximately two decades and this was his son Colby’s last year to show a heifer as a part of East Bernard FFA.
The Jedlickas are what some participants call a legacy family — a baton of showmanship, training and work ethic passed down from one generation to the next.
Colby, who has been showing an animal since the third grade, said, “In our house, it’s a family deal.”
“Sundays were our day when we could go out and do a lot of barn clean-up and outside work,” Rodney said. “It was time together as a dad with my two sons.”
Rodney said for some kids, it’s a meaningful experience outside of the walls of the classroom.
“There are so many friendships that are built out here. These kids learn just as much out here the week of the fair and through the whole year as they do in the classroom. The classrooms are important, but it isn’t for everybody.”
At the Weinheimer home, the organization is also a family affair.
Edmund, the youngest of three and a recent graduate of El Campo High School, and his dad, Ed, who has served on the board for 18 years, are involved in several facets of the Wharton County Youth Fair.
Serving as vice president on the board, Ed was beside his children every step of the way.
“My kids were involved in the fair and I enjoyed the time we spent out there and just wanted to help out,” he said.
With two older sisters who exhibited animals, it was a rite of passage for Edmund, who began participating at age five with El Campo FFA.
‘I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I know these kids will be supported by their community. I know our son, our kids have been and that’s what keeps them going on through school, through college and in life, knowing they’ve got a backbone right here waiting for them at home.’
The family shares fond memories of their experiences raising animals, highlighting one particularly humorous occasion, when young Edmund first realized the origin of a “bucket calf.”
“One of Bethany’s cows had a bull calf we decided to show as a bucket calf,” his father recalled. “He kept trying to get on this calf, which was only like 50 pounds, about half the size of a normal calf. So, he kept trying to get on it and ride it. Every time I was around him, I was yelling, ‘Quit getting on the calf. Leave it alone.’ So the day before the show, we’re grooming it and washing it and blow-drying it and everything and he’s over there trying to get on it again.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? Get off the calf!’ And he said, “Dad, I wanna ride it; it’s a bucking calf!’ I said, ‘It’s a bucket calf, it means you feed it out of a bucket with milk and now you get to show it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t want to do that!’”
It’s just one of many stories that come to mind for Ed and Edmund, as they laugh on a patio amid the backdrop of the setting sun and the shoreline.
“It’s a labor of love,” Ed said, sighing. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I know these kids will be supported by their community. I know our son, our kids have been and that’s what keeps them going on through school, through college and in life, knowing they’ve got a backbone right here waiting for them at home.”
As the county’s youth continued to dedicate their time and energy and invest in their animals throughout the year, no one could have predicted that a global pandemic would slow everything to a halt.
Then February turned to March.
‘We wanted to do something for the kids, so that’s when we came up with the recovery sale.’
“The board met and everyone kind of agreed that we would cancel or postpone some of these events,” Jedlicka said. “As far as ‘what we can do,’ my main goal as president and even the main goal of everyone here on the executive board was to try to have the shows. We wanted to have the market shows for the kids in some form or fashion. We care about the whole organization and all we had to do. At the same time, not long after we decided to pursue our main goal, Gov. Abbott made his announcement and our hands were pretty much tied. So, we went with our plan C, which was to go ahead and cancel all the shows for the kids, unfortunately, and we came up with a recovery sale.”
The recovery sale was a sponsorship or contribution to exhibitors, the vice president explained.
“We wanted to do something for the kids, so that’s when we came up with the recovery sale,” Ed said. “It’s not selling the animals. Basically anybody that was eligible with a market animal would have the opportunity to participate in this sale. It’s up to the exhibitors to decide what happens to the animal after that.”
“Our sale was unique,” Rodney added. “We have what we call fair fund organizations. Each town has one, pretty much. Anybody can contribute and then it’s tallied up. Basically, it’s a pre-organized sale. Anybody can outbid that sheet, so it’s also still a live auction, which has helped it be successful. Usually we bump almost $1 million in the sale of excellence every year. The fair charges 5.5% commission, so that’s a loss. It’s technically revenue, but it’s lost revenue for the fair this year.”
In gate admissions alone, the fair president estimated approximately $100,000 in lost revenue, not to mention the concessions and entertainment.
Rodney projected that the loss would likely affect next year’s budget as well.
‘I felt sorry for first-year exhibitors. To those kids, please dream big. Please come back to the fair. We want you to come back.’
“Our financials are unique because when the fair was established, we have what they call ‘base money’ that we can’t touch; these are contributions from foundations and some revenue from oil and gas (leases),” he said. “That money and the interest are what paid for scholarships. Our scholarship program in the past has been very good. We’ll have about 37 kids who get scholarships this year.”
Scholarships totaling more than $64,000 were awarded to graduating seniors across Wharton County.
Colby and Edmund were two such recipients.
After walking the stage in May and making plans for the next chapter in his life, both Edmund and his father can’t help but feel it’s the end of an era.
“We’d like to see our own kids out there one day and we’d like to take (my dad) with our children just to show them what he taught us and what we’re teaching them,” Edmund said. “The generation passed it down; it moves on and, I mean, it’s sad, but time moves on, time passes. Can’t do nothing about it.”
However, one thing that echoed in the sentiments of rookies and seniors alike was a sense of pride that comes with a long day’s work.
“It’s always worth it. After all these years of doing it, I wouldn’t trade it for a second,” Colby said. “It was totally worth it. Yeah, it’s sad we couldn’t do it our senior year, but it’s not like no one tried.”
Edmund added, “I think everything I’ve ever tried to do with my animals has been worth it. It’s taught me so many lessons I could never comprehend — just the responsibility from myself and for my animals, taking care of them, making sure they’re fed and cleaned and making sure their pens are clean, too. It’s just one of the experiences I don’t think many people will get to do, but I’m glad I did.”
First-year exhibitor Haylea told The Gin, “I still think it was worth it. It was a definite learning experience. I will be ready when I decide to do it again. Now I know what to do. I will be ready for the next time.”
The fair president shared a message with participants like Haylea, who wouldn’t get her moment to shine in the big spotlight with Mercury, surrounded by her friends in the arena after a year of early mornings and long evenings filled with sweat and sprints down the road.
“I felt sorry for first-year exhibitors. To those kids, please dream big. Please come back to the fair. We want you to come back,” Rodney said. “For the seniors, it’s the hardest part. There are failures in life and things don’t always come easy. It’s a hard lesson to learn. This is a hard lesson for our seniors. As a parent, it’s hard, too. I’m on the board as president of the fair and I’ve got kids who were going to show out here. The last thing I wanted to do was cancel that for anybody.
“It’s something we have to cope with. It wasn’t an easy decision for any of us. For me, I would wake up at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep because I showed out here and I know what it meant for me when I showed and what it means to my kid and everybody.”
Despite some initial negative feedback, Rodney said the board has received a lot of support for their main goal.
“The youth is what our county is made of and we can’t lose sight of that,” he added. “The county fair is a big deal for some of these kids. They worked hard. For the kids not to be able to have the fair is the hardest part.”
‘The generation passed it down; it moves on and I mean, it’s sad, but time moves on, time passes. Can’t do nothing about it.’
After all was said it done, the fair president said he was pleasantly surprised with the amount of support. With the total tallied for the recovery sale, it surpassed expectations and garnered $759,680 from 670 buyers throughout the county.
“My number was $500,000 and some of the board members thought we’d be in the $350,000 area. So, we surpassed those numbers and we’re pleased with the recovery sale and all the people that contributed. People throughout the county and several surrounding businesses in other counties stepped up. We couldn’t be happier with the turnout and the number that we received. It was the best turnout under the circumstances we could have predicted.
“Without actually having our event, it says a lot for the kids of our county. It says a lot for the organizations of our community. They supported us. We came up with a plan and they came through.”
The work is never over, however, as the sun rises on another day and another year of planning for the future of the event and the organization.
“We’re all going to get through this and our kids are going to survive. They’re going to be stronger,” Ed said. “Life is going to be different from here on out. Next year, I would like to think our fair will be back to normal. But the time that we’ve been off to spend with family, I wouldn’t change it for anything. We’re making the most of what we have, making lemonade out of lemons.”
For more information about the Wharton County Youth Fair and upcoming events, visit the organization’s website or Facebook page and stay tuned for the latest coverage by The County Gin by subscribing or liking us on social media.