Ashley LaDuke, 23, and her fiance, Dustin Gordon, 26, are the new owners of the Springfield Fairgrounds. They are pictured during a Christmas event at the fairgrounds in December 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Ashley LaDuke

SPRINGFIELD, Maine — The Springfield Fair will return for its 173rd iteration in June but this time under a new vision from the youngest fair owners and operators in Maine.

Ashley LaDuke, 23, and her fiance, Dustin Gordon, 26, bought the fairgrounds earlier this year after shadowing the previous leaders throughout 2022. They worked out an owner-financing arrangement with Kirk Ritchie and John Krapf, who owned and ran the fair for 32 years.

A small portion of the 16 acres is also where LaDuke and Gordon run their business, Up In Smoke Auto Recycling, which buys and recycles catalytic converters, batteries and metals.

The couple previously operated the business in Prentiss Township and wanted to move it to Springfield. At the time, the fairgrounds was the only land for sale and seemed out of reach, LaDuke said. But the more she drove past it, ideas began brewing, and she realized she wanted to have a hand in continuing a decades-long tradition.

In just a few months, LaDuke and Gordon will host their first Springfield Fair. The event was established in 1850 and is one of 25 agricultural fairs in the state.

The Springfield Fair will return June 15-18 under new ownership. A young fairgoer poses for a photo with a new prop during last summer’s fair. Credit: Courtesy of Ashley LaDuke

Springfield is unique in that its fair is privately owned, and these two stand out as young owners and coordinators, said Melissa Jordan, who works with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. They are part of a wave of people under the age of 40 interested in getting involved, whether that’s because of a family connection to a fair and 4-H events or an interest in volunteering, she said.

“Across the state, up until about the pandemic, fair groups were trending older,” she said, regarding leadership roles and volunteers. “We’re seeing a renewed interest from young people, which is promising. We need young people bringing their ideas and passions.”

While traditions such as the demolition derby, tractor pulls and livestock displays will remain, the couple also want to bring their own flare to the fair, which will run June 15-18. The biggest difference is this year’s fair will feature carnival attractions, which haven’t been around since 2016, LaDuke said.

“I am full-hearted about this,” she said about the fair, which has drawn more than 2,000 people in recent years. “Our hope is to bring more activities and opportunities to our area, for both our small business to prosper and for our community to enjoy.”

LaDuke and Gordon signed a one-year contract with Smokey’s Greater Shows for carnival attractions including a variety of rides, game stands and food concessions. It meant moving the fair date up and losing three months of planning, but it was the top request from the community, she said.

LaDuke, who also works at The Forester Pub in Lincoln, wants to include animals beyond the livestock display of horses, goats, sheep and other favorites. It would be nice for kids to see birds, guinea pigs and reptiles as well, she said.

They also plan to move the historical museum from its barn to a walkthrough path under the grandstand and reintroduce the talent show for children, among other adjustments. LaDuke and a local teacher are planning that event.

Jordan, who works as an agricultural promotions coordinator within the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the agency licenses and inspects agricultural fairs each summer to make sure they meet standards and produce high-quality, educational and family friendly events for the public, she said.

When LaDuke showed up at the Maine Association of Agricultural Fairs’ annual conference in January, members were impressed and excited to see a young person taking on a leadership role, she said.

Jordan also noted the Bangor State Fair’s manager is in her 20s and Brittany Moon of the Cumberland Fair won the 2022 Rising Star Award, which recognizes an employee, volunteer or board member of a fair who is 40 years old or younger.

An undated historic photograph shows how the Springfield Fair, which began in 1850, once looked.

LaDuke and Gordon also plan to use the fairgrounds as a year-round venue. Though ideas are still in the works, they’d like to organize a gathering on Labor Day weekend that commemorates when the fair was traditionally held, and includes the previous owners’ slogan: “Our roots run deep.” They’re also thinking about Halloween-themed events and hosting the Christmas tree lighting again, which was a success in December.

Ahead of the fair, Memorial Mayhem is set for May 27 and includes a demolition derby, cornhole tournament and more, plus country artist Whey Jennings as the headliner.  

“Fairgrounds really are meant to be a hub for the community to come together,” Jordan said. “It makes sense that they would make that move in Springfield.”

LaDuke would eventually like to form a board of volunteers to plan the fair, which could draw inspiration from others around the state. Approximately 20 longtime volunteers are sticking around to help this summer, and she’d like to bring in young people to shadow them, she said.

LaDuke hopes that despite Springfield being a small community, people recognize the hard work that goes into planning a major event like the fair and attendance grows. She and Gordon will work hard as new owners to make the fair the best it can be, she said, but in some ways, the fair’s turnout determines whether carnival rides, for instance, can remain a consistent attraction.

“I hope people respond well,” she said. “The future is in the hands of our community.”

The Springfield Fair is scheduled for June 15-18. It will run from 3 to 10 p.m. June 15 and 16, and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. June 17 and 18. Information is available online.