The pop of paintball guns filled the baseball field. Nine boys ducked behind inflatable cover, the barrels of their guns waggling above them.
One boy was hit and headed for the exit. Several others soon followed, and though they left with small welts, their clothes bore none of the paint that usually covers participants following a paintball game.
The nine had just finished a round of paintless paintball at the Teton County Fair, a game introduced at the 2017 fair.
“We were the first ones to play this last year,” Tipton Wilson said. “We’re the first to play this year, too.”
Paintless paintball, along with the Ultimate Ninja Warrior challenge course, is a new offering at the fair, part of an effort to bring in a younger, more diverse audience. The hope is that they are merely gateway activities.
“If done right, bringing in those new events promotes the heritage more,” Fair Board Chairwoman Emily Feuz Beardsley said. “It gets people onto the fairgrounds asking questions and learning.”
Started 62 years ago, the Teton County Fair is rooted in tradition. Honoring that while expanding the fair to a wider audience is a delicate balance. Across the country, fair organizers realize that rural towns are changing, and with that demographic shift, new attractions might be necessary.
“The trend is less people participating in the rural lifestyle,” said Greg Felsen, the 4-H extension agent for the La Plata County Fair in Colorado.
Felsen’s county fair has expanded its offerings beyond the typical livestock shows and rodeos. The 4-H program is strong in La Plata County, he said, so as part of it, kids participate in robotics and woodworking classes. He said his fair is also considering adding a mini-maker’s fair, a chance for kids to learn entrepreneurship.
That diversification is also present in Teton County.
“Sometimes I don’t think people know what the fair is,” Fair Manager Rachel Grimes said. “It’s multifaceted.”
One avenue the La Plata County Fair is exploring to diversify its audience mirrors efforts made by the Teton County Fair. Musical talent is a sure draw, and La Plata County has added country concerts to its offerings. Teton County, which already offered music, is tailoring most of its shows to the Jackson community.
Concerts have long been offered under the big top, but in years past they were national and regional bands, which are expensive to book and have no inherent connection to Teton County. This year, fair organizers dipped into the well of talent in Jackson, inviting performers like Bogdog, Eckert and the Community Jazz Band to play.
“We’re trying to draw out the local audience to make it a celebration of local community,” Beardsley said.
To see that some of the measures are working, one need look no further than the kickoff concert with Robert Earl Keen, a choice meant to attract a wide assortment of people.
“Everyone kind of knows him,” said Fair Board Treasurer Peter Long.
The crowd started out small, but it grew as the lights on the rides turned on and the sun dipped behind Josies Ridge. A scan of the faces showed cowboys in crisp Mountain Khakis shirts, kids in skinny jeans and Vans, Latinos in cowboy hats and enough plaid to stock the Pendleton store on Town Square.
For a couple of hours a microcosm of Jackson Hole had assembled to begin the biggest celebration of its heritage.