PALMER — The Alaska State Fairgrounds is bustling with activity as vendors and fair staff gear up for another fair season. Many people there have known each other for years and said that it feels like a seasonal neighborhood with a life of its own outside public hours.

“It’s a family. After the gates close, we have our own little family, our own little life,” Mermaid Imports and Design owner Tina Baugher said. “Some of them call themselves carneys. I call myself a fair-ey because we do fairs, a lot of fairs.”

The days leading up to opening day is the only time you’ll see more cars than people inside the grounds, with people popping in and out of their booths and the sound of electric drills whirling to construct new booths or remodels.

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There are three new food vendors this year: Aloha Whip, Russian Eats and Main Events Catering with their mac and cheese bar, according to MK Keefe, ASF Marketing Coordinator.

Chad Carpenter, Tundra cartoonist and local filmmaker, sat at his booth with his son Castle and his film colleague Logan Dillinger. They were taking a break from setup. Carpenter said that he started setting up on Friday.

“It’s just a real slow process because it’s fun not have to rush. Six miles down, so it’s easy compared to other fairs,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter grew up in the Mat-Su Valley. As his Tundra comics began to spread, he started hitting the state fairs across Alaska. He recently returned from the state fair in Fairbanks. He said the weather was rough but overall the trip was well worth it.

“I just love doing the fair. It’s fun because you get to hang out and visit with people basically. My booth here’s almost like a talk show. Different guests come through for a few minutes…” Carpenter said.

Carpenter said that he actually enjoys the rainy days because he gets to talk to more people that way.

“It’s just one big social event,” Carpenter said.

Some of Carpenter’s favorite fair foods include pork chop on a stick on a stick and fried curds. This year marks his 25th time vending at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.

“Every year is totally different. I look back at all of them and they’re fun… you never know what each year’s going to bring,” Carpenter said.

Just a few yards up the path, Baugher was setting up her iconic tent filled with exotic items with help from Lisa and Jeff Strivers. Lisa said that everyone on the grounds helps one another with whatever need arises, be it for a windblown tent or help breaking down booths at the end.

“Everyone watches out for everybody,” Lisa said.

Baugher runs Mermaid Imports and Design out of Anchorage and the bright blue store is easily recognizable. She collects goods during her travels across the globe, particularly in South East Asia. She gathers frequents places like India, Thailand, and Nepal.

She’s a wandering soul and she’s made travel a staple of her life since the age of 20. Each year, she brings back various tapestries, incense, furniture, decorations, figurines, dolls, clothes, and various other dry goods.

She said this year marks 30 years for her shop’s presence at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. She said that one her favorite highlights has been watching three generations grow up and cycle through her shop, seeing mothers bring their daughters and remind her of stories from they were little.

“That tickles my heart,” Baugher said.

Desiree Cholok and her husband Moses are spending their second year working the fair together, helping vendors set up booths. After setup, Cholok will work at several booths. She said that she’s been working the fair since she was 13 years old.

“I grew up at the fair,” Cholok said.

Cholok gets excited for the fair each year, not just because it’s a good seasonal job opportunity but for the familiar faces. She loves catching up with people she’s known for years. She said that she enjoys seeing everyone get setup and ready to go for another season.

She spends much of her time traveling the state with her husband but she also grew up in Palmer. She said that her father brought her to the fair ever since she was little.

“Every year, we got a photo button,” Cholok said.

Cholok said her father was always talking to vendors because he was just friendly and social like that. She said that’s how she was indoctrinated into the state fair way of life. She works the fair each year and never stops looking forwards to it.

“I like how everyone comes together and they become a fair family out here. And then, everybody who comes out here to enjoy the fair, we get to see that and it fills our hearts with pride and joy,” Cholok said.

The first day of the Alaska State Fair in Palmer is Thursday and the gates open at 12 p.m.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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