KENDALLVILLE — Where have all the fair queen candidates gone?

From 2002 to 2009, the Miss Noble County Fair pageant averaged about 13 contestants per year. From 2010-2018, that average has dwindled to just about 7 per year. In 2016 and 2018, only four women competed, not enough to fill out a court of a queen and four runners-up.

And this year, only one woman stepped up to run.

So in 2019, Miss Noble County organizer Deb Robertson and Miss Noble County Fair Sierra Gonzalez will be focusing a lot of their energy on sparking interest back into the program.

As to where all the candidates have gone, Robertson thinks the main issue that’s impacted participating in an age change that had been put into effect in recent years.

Previously, the fair queen contest was open for girls 16-20. But that’s since changed to a narrower 18-20 window.

On top of losing two years of eligibility, the older girls simply have a lot going on in their lives at that point, said Robertson, who’s been running the fair contest for “20-some years.”

“I think the age change that the state did, because they’re wanting to have insurance on the girls and employ them, the ones that win, has caused us and many counties to lose girls,” Robertson said. “And those girls are in college, they’re finishing up high school, worried about scholarships, not able to give the time to be in the pageant. I think that’s 90% of it.”

In Noble County specifically, the fair queen pageant has also either overlapped with or run close to the Miss Limberlost pagaent. Last year, both contests were on the same night — the fair contest in Albion and the Miss Limberlost in Kendallville.

Despite the proximity of two similar events, though, Robertson doesn’t see much of a problem there. Part of the reason is the two pageants tend to attract different girls and have different paths.

The fair contest typically gets a lot of people who are in 4-H or just love spending time at the fair, while the Miss Limberlost is a qualifier for Miss Indiana on the Miss America contest route.

“I don’t think that’s a conflict, I really don’t,” she said. “In the history of Miss Limberlost, I think we’ve had one girl that’s done both. They’ve been more to do our as a preliminary to that. But it’s a complete different venue, it’s a different path they’re taking.”

According to The News Sun archives, at least 10 girls competed every year for the Miss Noble County title from 2002 to 2009, including a high point of 21 contestants in 2004. There were also 15 contestants in each 2003 and 2008.

Since 2010, though, the pageant hasn’t topped double digits once. There were nine candidates each in 2019 and 2012. The contest attracted seven candidates in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 — seemingly to establish a new normal — until that fell off with four in 2018 and just one this year.

But for a contest that’s dwindled down over the years, Robertson is excited to have Gonzalez wearing the crown this year. She’s the right person at the right time to spark new interest in the program, Robertson said.

“I’m really excited to have Sierra as queen, because Sierra is what we’ve been looking for in a girl that wants to promote this and promote the fair and get other girls excited,” Robertson said. “She’s already calling kids to be in Little Miss and Mister. That’s what this is supposed to be a girl who shows that Noble County has all these things to offer.”

In combination to having Gonzalez drumming up new interest, Noble County is also introducing two new programs this year to help. The county launched a Miss Noble County Fair Princess contest for the younger girls now put out of the county fair eligibility and will also be running a Miss Noble County photo booth daily at the fair.

The princess contest also only had one contestant, but being new this year, it creates an opportunity to promote that program. LaGrange County also has a princess contest, but also only had one candidate this year, Roberston said.

The photo booth, which will be set up daily near the Merchants Building at 5:30 p.m., will give people the opportunity to catch up with the queen and get a photo and learn more information about being fair queen.

“She can talk to girls about what this means, plus our previous queen Kaylie (Warble) will have a video running constantly of what a whole year of queen looks like so they can see the parades you get to ride in, the people you get to meet, the things you get to do,” Robertson said. “And we’re just going to beat the streets again and get every 4-H 10-year member we know.”

It’ll take until next year to see whether the additional promotion helps, but Robertson is hopeful the contest will bounce back.

As a long-time tradition of the fair, she’d hate to see it fade away.

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