The smell of fried foods filled the air Saturday morning at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds as families returned to the free fair for the first time in two years.

Norman resident Jessica Reed came to the Cleveland County Fair with her son, husband and mother. She said they attended the fair in 2019, but this year, there’s a sense of relief and enthusiasm from what seemed like a larger crowd than in pre-pandemic years.

Reed said the fair being back serves as a collective morale boost for the community.

“I think it’s bigger than ever because everyone is excited to be back and seems to be in a really good mood,” she said. “The car show’s big, we’ve got the carnival — they’ve pulled out all the stops and everything looks clean and organized.”

The 113th edition of the free fair features a petting zoo, an enlarged carnival area, livestock shows, antique tractor pulls, mini train rides for kids and all of the typical fair food favorites, like funnel cakes, Nathan’s hot dogs and corn dogs. Amid the current spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the Cleveland County Health Department also offered free vaccinations Thursday and Friday.

Sandy McClure and Holly Rains, administrative assistants for the Cleveland County Free Fair Association, said they were shocked to see the turnout Saturday morning.

The fair kicked off Thursday and will end Sunday, open from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. Main Building exhibits will be released from 6 to 7 p.m.

Sunday events include an arm wrestling contest at 1 p.m., wiener dog races at 2:30 p.m. and a princess/superhero show for kids from 1 to 4 p.m. The carnival will open at 11 a.m. and close at 10 p.m.

“In past years, it’s slow during this time, so I can’t believe how many people are already here,” McClure said.

McClure and Rains said they had multiple conversations with fairgoers who mentioned they were first-time attendees.

“They really seem surprised how nice it is because they’ve never been here, and some say they’ve lived in Norman their whole life,” Rains said. “I think with a bigger carnival and the rides that can be seen from the street helps to draw them in.”

Rains said the petting zoo was a big hit Friday evening.

“We were supposed to close the petting zoo last night at 10 p.m., and at 11, they finally told people that was it and shut it down,” Rains said.

Reed said her family came to the fair with the priority of checking out the farm animals and petting zoo.

“We may get [my son] on a ride or two, but we always love coming and seeing the pigs, chickens and livestock,” Reed said. “My mom grew up on a farm, so it’s really cool to get up close to some of them, because my son has never seen a pig in real life and I can tell he’s like, ‘Wow.’”

Brenda Hill, county extension director and family and consumer sciences educator for Oklahoma State University Extension, said Oklahoma Home and Community Education group members were glad to see increased traffic inside their exhibit room, with visitors purchasing country store baked goods, checking out quilt craftsmanship and grabbing Indian tacos from the locally-famous taco kitchen.

“The Indian taco station is usually popular, but we’re really having a banner year this year,” Hill said.

Oklahoma Home and Community Education uses the taco kitchen and fair goods to raise money for its scholarship program, which provides four $1,500 scholarships to graduating seniors in Cleveland County.

Hill said through the organization’s classes, the 140 Oklahoma Home and Community Education members gain self-esteem, further develop skills like baking, canning and sewing and get a dose of competition. The fair serves as a showcase for their efforts and accolades.

“These ladies get after it throughout the year, and it’s just a touch of home here at the fair,” Hill said.

McClure said she anticipated a busy last half of the fair, with tractor pulls, powerlifting, livestock judging and a beef show planned. Saturday evening also offers peak hours for the carnival.

She said if she was to sum up the atmosphere in one word, it would be “excitement.”

“You can just see it on their faces — even being able to get a funnel cake and walk around again,” she said. “Everyone’s just wanting to get out and have some fun.”

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.

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