What is an Ancestor Fair?


[In 1992, following the third annual North Arkansas Ancestor Fair, founder James Johnston expanded his statistical wrapup of the Fair just concluded to explore more deeply what an Ancestor Fair really entails. That it was written for a campground-management publication becomes clear in the text. It’s also clear from this that the basic concept of the Ancestor Fair has remained in place, with only minor evolutionary adjustments, during the past three decades.]

On June 6, this year, over one hundred people came from out of state to the small Arkansas Ozark village of St. Joe, looking for information about their ancestors who had lived in north central Arkansas.

The third Ancestor Fair held June 6, 1992, in St. Joe, Arkansas registered 336 people, less than 25% were from local Searcy County, 44% were from Arkansas outside Searcy County, and 32% were from nineteen other states. Last year at Easter, in Marshall, the Searcy County seat, the second Ancestor Fair registered 141 people, 27% from Searcy County, 47% from Arkansas outside Searcy County, and 26% from nine other states. The first Ancestor Fair in 1990 was also held at Easter in Marshall; 95 people registered, 32% from Searcy County, 52% from Arkansas outside Searcy County, and 18% from seven other states. As the word gets around, the Ancestor Fair attracts a growing number of people and a growing percentage of out-of-staters.

What is an “Ancestor Fair,” which has drawn more than a threefold increase to small Arkansas Ozark villages in the past three years? And what does it have to do with campground management?

As a dabbler in local history and genealogy, I was impressed with the number of people I came in contact with who were doing family research, and who would go to great lengths to identify an obscure family relationship. (I have since heard that genealogy is the second most popular hobby in America, after stamp collecting.) I was also struck that genealogists were happy to share information with anyone who was interested. It occurred to me that many of my correspondents had pieces of the same puzzle, and that if they could share that information, all would be better off. Some of them had corresponded with each other for years, but there was always more to learn.

In late 1989, I began planning an event where family researchers with Searcy County roots would come together to share information. I enlisted help from the Searcy County History Group, and found a place to hold it – the dining room of a local restaurant. I decided to hold it at Easter, because there has traditionally been a Marshall High School alumni dinner and dance at that time. I hoped to pick up the out-of-town visitors, because the interest would be greater among expatriates than it would be among local people.

I sent press releases to regional newspapers – even got coverage in the Little Rock press – and invited the genealogical societies of two adjoining counties to have a table where they could sell their societies’ publications, answer questions, and enroll new members. A nearby Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp and a Daughters of the American Revolution Chapter were represented at tables. The Ancestor Fair filled the restaurant’s dining room. Eighteen genealogical organizations and individual genealogists had table space where they shared their information or sold their publications.

The only rule we had was “Information is free, but objects cost.” I felt that it was important to keep it from being a commercial operation. We did not charge for either admittance or table space.

So far, people have appreciated the sharing aspect of the Fair and have been generous with their information. In 1992 there were forty-one genealogists and genealogical societies sharing information on over two hundred north Arkansas families.

When asked to explain what an Ancestor Fair is, one involved person said, “It’s a genealogical swap shop.” The local dentist described the Ancestor Fair as a place where people went to show off their ancestors. Both statements are correct. Gatherers come to the Ancestor Fair looking for information. Providers display and share their information because they enjoy helping others, but also because they are proud of their research and would like a bit a appreciation for their years of work.

The second Ancestor Fair was also held during the Marshall High School alumni festivities. However, it was obvious that most people who attended the Fair were not alumni. The Ancestor Fair was drawing its own crowd. Several indicated that Easter was a bad time for many family-oriented people, so the Ancestor Fair Advisory Council (composed of Searcy County History Group members who helped with the Fair) decided to hold the 1992 Fair at the beginning of the tourist season, the first Saturday in June.

The timing, increased publicity, and a broader research base brought more than twice the number we had at the second Fair. I believe that we are off and running. We are planning the fourth Ancestor Fair the first Saturday in June 1993, in Leslie, Arkansas, another small village in Searcy County.

When I first began thinking about the Searcy County Ancestor Fair, it was a new idea with me, and as far as I was concerned it was unique. As I became more involved in the Fair, and have interacted with others, I found that the Ancestor Fair idea is not unique. Among others, Wayne County, Tennessee, has a Family History Fair in mid-July and had its fourth Fair in 1992. The Wayne County Historical Society sponsors and runs the Wayne County Family History Fair and charges a nominal one dollar admission to defray administrative costs. The Searcy County Ancestor Fair has existed almost entirely on donations, so far. We operate on a budget of $500.

There are also genealogical seminars sponsored by professional genealogical entrepreneurs who sell publications, services and charge admission that also covers seminars on family research. The Ancestor Fair does not do this. It is not a money-making operation; it is a service to local history/genealogy researchers and small publishers.

The Ancestor Fair was conceived as a Searcy County event and, for the first two years, only Searcy County researchers were encouraged to come. However, since many families with Searcy County roots had family lines in adjoining counties, it seemed only logical to invite those counties’ genealogical and historical societies to send representatives as well. From there, it was a natural extension to invite adjoining counties in their own right, and extend the base to include several north central Arkansas counties, and advertise that all families from those counties were covered, not just those with Searcy County connections.

An Ancestor Fair operation has two elements: publicity and administrative support. The North Arkansas Ancestor Fair received favorable publicity in the Searcy County weekly newspaper, which has wide circulation among Searcy County expatriates inside and outside the state, and in regional newspapers throughout Arkansas. The Searcy County Chamber of Commerce encouraged the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism to include the Fair in its 1992 calendar of events and to provide press releases to stateside newspapers. I prepared special press releases for the Arkansas Historical Association and the Arkansas Genealogical Society publications. I also sent press releases to the Oklahoma Genealogical Society (many North Arkansans went to Oklahoma in the early years of this century) and to Everton’s Genealogical Helper, a bimonthly publication for genealogists. It was probably through the coverage in the Genealogical Helper that the Fair received publicity in several genealogical/library newsletters. The Fair also appeared on computer networks, such as Prodigy. I realized our publicity was effective when I received advertising materials from publishers catering to the genealogy market, and requests for table space at the Fair.

Administrative support requires a bit more than setting up tables and chairs. The 1992 North Arkansas Ancestor Fair was held in the St. Joe school gymnasium, using forty 8′ tables, capable of seating two Providers with small displays/information, or one Provider with a great deal of information. I found that some societies needed two tables, and some big entrepreneurs would like two or three tables for all their publications. At the entrance, we provided brochures with seating charts with the names of Providers and the families they represented.

We also asked for and received donations for door prizes (most Providers who had publications for sale donated). Everyone who came was asked to complete a form with his name, address and families he was researching, which was put in the drawing box for door prizes. These names are then used as a contact list for next year’s Ancestor Fair.

I hounded genealogists whom I knew to set up at the Ancestor Fair and tried to get their commitment to attend, not only to get some idea of tables and chairs required, but also to use for publicity. Committed Providers were assigned tables, given signs and included in a seating brochure.

Because some scheduled Providers do not show up and others show up that were not expected, a seating chart is always only approximate. We therefore developed large signs for each Provider’s family names, or vendor’s sale items. Now we are developing sign poles for the signs to get them up above the patrons’ heads so they can be seen. Large signs are very useful, whether they are prepared before the event for Providers who commit to attending the Fair, or whether they are prepared at the Fair by Providers who show up unannounced. We had a few unassigned tables for those who showed up unannounced. As we grow, I expect the demand for unexpected Provider tables to grow.

We had a service desk that sold coffee and operated two rented copy machines. The copy machines are as important as the tables where people sit. The pages of information which Gatherers are collecting are so voluminous that one cannot begin to capture all the information by copying it by hand. Therefore, we needed two copying machines, both of which were capable of reduction. Although we stated that information was free, we charged 10 cents per copy to recover our costs.

We also learned that lunch must be readily available, and a local person contracted to sell lunches at the Fair. Researchers do not want to break for long lunches in order to hunt up a distant restaurant.

The Ancestor Fair must be location specific, that is, it must be able to provide information on families that lived in a discrete area, and the families cannot be too numerous. One comes to the North Arkansas Ancestor Fair because they are researching families who lived in five or six small, rural, north Arkansas counties. There is no information about families from Louisiana, New York, or North Dakota, unless of course the families came from those states or went to those states. We were fortunate at the 1992 North Arkansas Ancestor Fair in having Wayne County, Tennessee, represented, because many north Arkansas families came from Wayne County. We were also fortunate in 1992 to attract VIPs from the West Coast who had been researching and publishing for years about north Arkansas. They all helped attract visitors and lent credence to the Fair.

People who have traveled far to attend the Ancestor Fair will also want to spend time researching their families in the local county records, at the local museum, and at the local library, and visiting family plots in the cemeteries and visiting old home places or schools that have family connections. Researchers will be looking for relatives who still live in the area and for oral history about their family. Wayne County, Tennessee’s, Family History Fair has a local photographer who copies old family pictures for a fee so family members can share.

At the ’92 Ancestor Fair, we found that it is beneficial to schedule in conjunction with a family reunion. The ’92 Ancestor Fair featured a local family, provided two tables for that family’s memorabilia and let them give a program in the afternoon. The Featured Family brought in many who would not ordinarily be tempted to attend, and the Featured Family members visited with Providers about their other family lines, giving more business to Providers.

A campground that plans such an event would find it helpful to do it in conjunction with a local history or genealogical society. The society would have the contacts with those who are doing family research and who live out of the area, and they have access to the information network relating to the area, such as state historical/genealogical societies. The campground staff could provide the administrative support, while the society could help with publicity and contacts.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of publicity, and creating the right sized base. (A track record of achievement also helps.) Our first Fair only covered Searcy County families, received only minimal press coverage and had no track record. The third Ancestor Fair covered six north Arkansas counties, received good publicity from several sources – especially out-of-state genealogical publications – and had developed a good track record of filling up the building we were working in.

We have had guest speakers, and we will have them again, as a “side show” that people can go to if they wish. However, we found that people wanted to visit with others researching their families, or look at publications which had information about their families. Rewarding spin-offs are that people who have been writing to each other for years met for the first time at the Ancestor Fair; people who have been looking for specific pieces of information to tie their families together find it at the Ancestor Fair; and most people want to know when we are going to do it again.