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Exner reflects on time as Stutsman County Fair Board member

He was named to the Hall of Fame for Heartland Association of Fairs, Festivals & Events in November.

Exners 2023.jpg
Jim and Carolyn Exner hold the plaque honoring Jim on his selection in November for the Heartland Association of Fairs, Festivals & Events Hall of Fame at SMP — Ave Maria on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. Jim Exner retired from the Stutsman County Fair Board in 2022 after 37 years of service.
Kathy Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
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JAMESTOWN – Jim Exner worked at the Stutsman County Fair when he was 15 years old. At that time, the fair was located in McElroy Park in Jamestown.

Exner said he took tickets and worked as a “maintenance man.”

And as an adult, he worked at the fair, too. For 37 years, Exner served on the Stutsman County Fair Board before retiring from the board due to health in March 2022.

Exner was named to the Hall of Fame for the Heartland Association of Fairs, Festivals & Events on Nov. 19 at the group’s convention. The award is given for distinguished achievements in or contributions to the Fairs, Festivals & Events in the Heartland area. That includes North Dakota, South Dakota and the surrounding region.

“It was quite a surprise (to learn about the award), I’ll tell you,” Exner said.

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He said he felt very honored.

Exner was nominated for the Hall of Fame by Rod Wilhelm of Jamestown, who is a board member of the Heartland Association of Fairs, Festivals & Events. In his nomination, Wilhelm said Exner was “very dedicated and hardworking,” noting Exner served as secretary and treasurer of the fair and on a number of committees.

“For the past 37 years, Jim was the face behind the fair, the smile, the great personality, the welcome everyone could count on,” Wilhelm wrote.

Exner said he was asked to serve on the board in 1985 because a banker who was on the board moved to take another job. Exner was working for Stutsman County Bank then, what would later become Unison Bank.

“They needed somebody from the bank that had access, a key to get in the bank late at night to deposit funds from the fairgrounds,” he said.

In those days, Exner was escorted by Stutsman County deputies at about midnight to the bank so he could deposit the cash on each of the four days of the fair.

Exner served as treasurer for 14 years before adding the duties of secretary as well when a vacancy occurred. He said he worked with commercial vendors, in public relations, record keeping, paying the bills, being in charge of the gates, parking attendants and other tasks.

“People” is Exner’s response to why he served for so long on the board as a volunteer.

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“I tell you, you run into some of the best people and first of all, the other board members I served with … it was a nine-member board and it was always a bunch of people that were willing to do a job … to put on the fair for Stutsman County,” he said.

Chances are, if you knew Exner and saw him at the fair, you also saw his wife, Carolyn.

“I worked in the office there for over 30 years during the fair,” she said. “Answering the phone and cashing checks and answering questions and taking care of lost kids. So that’s where I got really involved.”

Carolyn said they’ve always been involved in each other’s groups and activities. A few readily mentioned were serving on the committees that originally started the Dine and Bid at the University of Jamestown and the HOPE Dinner for St. John’s Academy as well as the advisement council for the project that added the chapel and other amenities at SMP Health – Ave Maria, where Jim has lived since December of 2021.

Exner is quick to note Carolyn’s contributions to his work for the Stutsman County Fair.

“My 37 years on the board would never have lasted if it wasn’t (for) the support I got from Carolyn over all those years and her involvement with the fair board too with the Stutsman County Fair,” Exner said.

The Exners

Carolyn Linstaedt and Jim Exner began dating as freshmen at St. John’s Academy. They spent time together at the fair when he worked there as a teenager

“I grew up on a farm south of Windsor so I would come into the fair with my folks and then we’d go to the gate where Jim was and he’d always let me know what time he’d be done,” Carolyn said. They’d go on rides after he was finished and then meet up with her parents later when it was time to go home.

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The two dated for six years including when they went off to separate colleges. They married in 1961, celebrating their 61st wedding anniversary in August. They lived in Casselton and Minnesota, eventually returning to Jamestown, Jim’s hometown, in 1982.

Jim worked for 34 years in banking during his career and began working for Stutsman County Bank in 1985, where he worked for 18 years. He also served on the Jamestown City Council for 12 years and in the National Guard/Army Reserve for six years. Carolyn taught a total of 25 years including 18 at St. John’s Academy. They have three children and six grandchildren.

Changes to the fair

The Stutsman County Fair moved to its present location in 1963, according to the "Century of Stories," a book on the history of Jamestown and Stutsman County compiled by James Smorada and Lois Forrest. Exner says the biggest changes during his time on the board included constructing the multi-purpose building that is known as the beer garden.

“The striped building across the road from that is what was the beer garden and it wasn’t nearly as multipurpose as that (new) beer garden when that was built,” he said.

The present beer garden building is not only a popular spot during the fair.

“People use it for weddings, for high school graduation receptions, reunions and then when racing is going on up there they use it for dancing out there,” Exner said. “It’s used for so many different things. Many businesses in town rent it to have their company business during the summer months.”

Exner said other changes through the years included improvements such as adding fencing, a bandstand, parks and trees. Separate Boy Scout Eagle projects provided landscaping and matching signs for all the buildings.

Two shelter areas with trees were added to the midway area.

“A lot of the parents like that, because the parents or grandparents, they can sit there and watch the kids on their rides,” Carolyn said.

Board members

Exner said it takes more than a few months to put on a fair and along with the board are others who help make it run smoothly, from the people who work at the gates to the superintendent of the grounds.

“It takes a community to put on a county fair,” he said.

Exner also said a number of groups are operating on fair property. From rodeos to racing, motocross and others, the fair board has worked with many people in the community, he said.

Exner said 11 board members served for more than 30 years, noting current board members Pat Stockert and Marvin Frey have that distinction.

“... I nominated Rod Wilhelm and he has turned out to be an outstanding board member because he’s so community minded, you know,” Exner said. He says he also nominated Deb Hatlewick to the board.

“She was involved in a lot of 4-H and other activities up there but she was not a board member and I felt she should be,” he said.

Hatlewick being chosen to serve starting in 2021 marked the first time in the history of the fair that a woman would be a member of the board.

Exner noted that Hatlewick spearheaded the project to add the 4-H open arena where animals are shown and the Parade of Champions is held.

Exner also noted that he isn’t the first local board member to be chosen for the fair Hall of Fame. Also receiving that honor through the years were Dr. G.A. Ottinger, Jack Wilkerson, Chuck Meikle, Bill Wilson and Al Lindberg.

This year will mark the 125th year of the Stutsman County Fair, which is scheduled on June 28-July 1.

Kathy Steiner has been the editor of The Jamestown Sun since 1995. She graduated from Valley City State College with a bachelor's degree in English and studied mass communications at North Dakota State University, Fargo. She reports on business, government and community topics in the Jamestown area. Reach her at 701-952-8449 or ksteiner@jamestownsun.com.
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