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Alaska State Fair’s John Harkey wraps up 35-year run of working fair circuit

Published: Sep. 3, 2021 at 8:36 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - This weekend at the Alaska State Fair marks the end of an era for one of the fairgrounds’ most recognized vendors, John Harkey, who started running the fair circuit in Alaska and across the nation 35 years ago. After all this time, he’s finally packing it in and ending his long run.

Harkey said the fair lifestyle started for him when a friend of his suggested he set up a booth. At the time, a friend of his owned another vendor booth that’s still running today, Granny’s Fry Joint.

“So I went into the fair, selling some balloons and swords. Went to Delta Junction for my first fair 35 years ago,” Harkey said. “And it was kind of fun. So I just kept doing it. I went to the Fairbanks Fair and then went to the Palmer Fair.”

Eventually, the suggestion from his friend turned into the trailers and tents that would become Ruppy’s Toy World. Today, a large yellow, pink, and purple 20′X30′ with no sign - just Harkey’s voice yelling “toys, toys, toys!

“Just yesterday, we had grandmama, mom and dad, and their children come by. All have been customers of mine,” Harkey said.

He didn’t go it alone. Harkey’s career of carnivals wouldn’t be possible without his wife Cheryl. She’s been helping with Rumpy’s as well as help manage several other booths, like the log cabins where they sell all sorts of sweet goodies. The ones near the bumper cars.

“It’s very sentimental to him, the Fair is,” Cheryl Harkey said, “and it’s going to be a little tough, and a little bittersweet.”

The State Fair is a very sentimental place for Harkey. It’s not just where he set up a booth for half his life. Eventually, he found himself changing the very face of the Fairgrounds as a board member, current treasurer, and from 2007 to 2013, he was the board president.

“Sometimes it’s a juggle, but I’ve managed to do it successfully,” Harkey said.

In the 15 years he was on the board, Harkey said a lot got done to change the Fair for the better.

He said he helped start a multi-million dollar project to set up a sewer system; played a part in getting the sprinkler system set up in the barn; helped quadruple the entertainment budget; and then some.

In fact, Harkey said he’s been pushing for a three-week-long fair for 10 years and that happened this year. Granted, he said that the pandemic probably gave the rest of the board a push in that direction to see it through.

“My customers don’t know that. They don’t know a thing about it. But yes, my imprint is all over the fairgrounds and I know that. It’s not just my imprint, but the imprint of our management, it’s the imprint of the rest of the board. Because we’re all doing a job collectively. I’m just glad to be a part of it, and just so happens some of those ideas were mine. So I will take credit for them,” he said with a laugh as unknowing customers passed by the tent.

At 70 years old, he said it’s just time to wrap it up and start traveling -- not from fairground to fairground though.

Although, after such a long run, he said he’ll miss his ‘Fair Family’ of people he’s seen every year for most of his life.

“This is the gathering place of Alaskans,” Harkey said. “I won’t miss the 18 hour days, 19 hour days, but I’m going to miss the people.”

Harkey said he’ll definitely stick around the Fair in one way or another. As for Ruppy’s Toy World, Harkey said there is a successor ready to take over, who is a longtime friend who’s been a customer of Harkey’s since he was a child.

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