COLUMBIA — It is 7 a.m. Saturday, and fruit, pastries, eggs, hashed browns and country-cured hams have only minutes before being consumed by nearly 650 people at the Boone County Fairgrounds.
The annual Boone County Fair ham breakfast continues to be a popular event for fair-goers, who appreciate the more than 60-year-old tradition.
“We come every year to support the fair,” said Ray Beck of Columbia, who has attended the breakfast for more than 30 years with his wife, Dee.
Mike Webb, his wife Cami, and sons Brock and Baylor drove from Auxvasse to show their support for the fair Saturday morning.
“I think it (the breakfast) is great,” Cami Webb said. “Supporting the community is important, and the number of people here is impressive.”
This year, more than 300 hams were cured for the event by Steve Baumgartner of Baumgartner’s Boone County Cured Hams Inc. Curing hams “is a tradition,” Baumgartner said, “and we’ve got to keep the tradition alive.”
Virgil Gardner, who was involved with the ham check-in on July 16, has seen the ham breakfast through more than six decades and three Columbia locations. About 50 people attended the first event at a local Methodist church in 1945, with about 100 attending in 1946 at the Tiger Hotel, he said. The breakfast became affiliated with the Boone County Fair in 1947.
The ham breakfast used to see sold-out crowds of 1,000 people, Gardner said, but numbers decreased because many of the regulars grew old or were unable to attend. However, he said he was happy to see a lot of children attending in recent years.
“The fair, as far as I’m concerned, is for the kids of Boone County," he said. "The fair doesn’t make any money, but it’s not supposed to."
Admission to the breakfast is $15, and all proceeds go to the Boone County Fair Board to cover costs associated with hosting and catering the event.
Former Gov. Roger Wilson was the breakfast's "toastmaster," or master of ceremonies. After introducing the fair's royalty and those leading the breakfast, Wilson talked about how much he enjoys the fair.
“This is probably one of the best things for our county,” he said. “It’s a great environment for our kids to learn good values, and it doesn’t get much better than this.”
As the breakfast drew to a close, an auction of high-scoring hams from last weekend's ham contest started. Nearly 200 hams were judged, but only the top 40 hams were auctioned Saturday.
The grand champion ham in the contest, scoring 97 points and cured by John David Bullard of Ashland, was first to the auction block. Though his ham started at $15 per pound, a bidding competition ensued. The final price was $60 per pound, making the 19.25-pound ham worth more than $1,100. The Boone County Fair Board will keep 1 percent of the profit, with the rest going to Bullard.
“It’s shocking,” said Bullard, 73, who has cured hams for 10 years. “This is due to the support of our local merchants. If it wasn’t for them, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Neil Randall of Ashland cured the reserve grand champion ham, which scored 96 points and sold for $15 per pound.