COLUMBIA — The Boone County Fairgrounds are mostly quiet in the middle of the night. Rides are shut down. Lights are turned off. Concession stands are closed.
An electronic sign still flashes its welcome message, casting an eerie red glow over the darkened scene.
But at 1:30 a.m. Saturday, tucked away in a kitchen at the fairgrounds’ multipurpose room, a man was engulfed in sound: fans humming as they beat the air, ham sizzling on a griddle and a radio blaring music over it all.
Philip Schopp was hard at work preparing for the county fair’s annual ham breakfast, which took place at 7 a.m. Saturday. The event, which serves as a fundraiser for 4-H, is one of the most popular events at the fair each year.
Fairgrounds manager George Harris used the analogy of a wheel to describe the breakfast's importance.
"Each event is one spoke in the wheel," Harris said. "But this is probably the hub of the wheel."
Harris said about 700 tickets were sold to this year’s event, which is approximately 100 more tickets than last year.
Harris attributed the increase to the upcoming primary and general elections. Indeed, politicians and supporters from a variety of races turned out to promote their campaigns.
The crowds and campaigners arrived early. A line for the breakfast began to form outside the multipurpose room 45 minutes beforehand.
But long before customers showed up, Schopp was at work in the kitchen.
He arrived at the fairgrounds around 10:30 p.m. Friday, after a quick catnap, and he didn't anticipate heading home until 10 a.m. Saturday.
But Schopp, in his 23rd year preparing the ham breakfast, doesn't let the long hours — or the lack of sleep — get him down.
"To be right honest with you, I feel kind of honored they ask me to do it every year," he said.
Schopp was one of 14 employees from Regional Catering Services who worked overnight to prepare the breakfast. He was the only employee who spent the whole night at the fairgrounds, he said.
While Schopp cooked ham and hash browns, others prepared more transportable items, such as fruit, at Regional Catering's headquarters in Moberly.
Regional Catering Services owner Virgil Thurston said his company prepared about 40 hams for the event. That's equivalent to 400 pounds, he said.
The ham is cooked according to Thurston's own recipe. Thurston said he no longer does much of the cooking, but he has passed his cooking wisdom on to his workers.
"It's kind of like pie crust," Thurston said. "You can have a recipe for pie crust, but if you don't really know how to make pie crust, that recipe don't mean much."
In addition to ham, Thurston said, the company prepared about 140 dozen eggs, 300 pounds of hash browns, 35 gallons of country gravy and 80 gallons of coffee.
All told, Thurston said, the company spent about $5,000 to put on the event. The ham alone cost about $1,400.
But the ham breakfast is not about the money, Thurston said, adding that Regional Catering has handled the event for the same price since the fair moved to its current grounds in 1992.
"It's not really an event you try to make money on," Thurston said. "I try to do that to help the cause out some."
Former Missouri Gov. Roger Wilson, who frequently greeted and waved to politicians and other attendees, served as the master of ceremonies for Saturday's breakfast.
Former U.S. Representative Kenny Hulshof was the keynote speaker. He spoke about the importance of farmers in today's society and touched on the inspirational work ethic of his late father.