COLUMBIA — Inside a big metal building at the Boone County Fairgrounds, there’s a tractor rodeo: A blindfolded man steers around a figure eight of traffic cones while his silent wife sits behind him, telling him which way to turn by tugging reins tied to each arm.
Outside, 284 RVs are parked in row after row after row.
The Missouri Good Sam RV Club is hosting the 16th annual Missouri Samboree at the Boone County Fairgrounds through Sunday. Almost 570 people from across the U.S. — including people from Florida, New Hampshire and South Dakota — drove their RVs to the fairgrounds this week for six days of events including turtle races and gospel singing.
Missouri is one of six states in region four of the U.S.’s Good Sam RV Club, an international community of RV owners. The Missouri Samboree is the first of region four’s 2010 Samboree circuit. Next week, the Kansas Samboree will take place, and the circuit continues until November, when it will end in Louisiana.
The dues-paying crowd at Samboree is mainly of retirement age, and many are Samboree veterans.
“They come here on purpose, they’re not just traveling through,” Jean Gardner, the director of the Missouri club, said.
“First-timers” are labeled with tags, and one couple in attendance has been to 312 Samborees in the past.
The fellowship and goofiness is what keeps people coming back, year after year. Missouri Samboree’s theme for this year is “Beverly Hillbillies – Missouri Style.”
“We’ll be conducting business tomorrow in costume,” Gardner said. “We tell people that we’re old people acting like little kids. Sometimes we’re out having a ball together and say, ‘If our kids could see us now, they’d have us locked up.’”
The annual gathering is a boom for Columbia businesses. This year, the Samboree is keeping track of attendees’ spending by having them put their receipts in a drawing bucket for a prize. After the Samboree, the receipts will be added, and Gardner estimates the total to be about $40,000.
“We want businesses to realize that when campers come to their city, they spend thousands of dollars while they’re here,” she said. “They’re beginning to figure that out. We got a lot of support from Columbia this year.”
“Here in Columbia, we’ve been treated royally everywhere we’ve been,” said Don Woodward, “International Sambassador.”
Sambassadors travel to Samborees, answer questions and help however they can. Woodard and his wife have attended 275 of the gatherings.
“Region four is the tightest group of states, as far as Good Sam is concerned,” he said. “They have fun together, they work together, they help each other — it’s just a network of good people.”
One of the ways in which they help is through charity work. This year, 100 percent of proceeds from a book sale and other events at the Samboree will go to Hole in the Wall Camps, an international group that provides free camp programs to children with serious medical conditions.
“We have a lot of involvement of people from our chapters,” Gardner said of the 34 Good Sam chapters in the state. “Most of our work is done by people from the local chapters, and that’s different from other states.”
Gardner has goals to improve next year’s Samboree.
“Here at the fairgrounds, there would be many, many things that could be recycled. That’s one of the projects we need to start – we need to put out containers so it would be simple and easy for people to recycle,” she said.
And planning for next year’s Samboree is under way. Scheduling activities and entertainment is the biggest challenge for Gardner and the other organizers, and she said that some of next year’s entertainment is already booked.
It’s clear why a Samboree takes a full year of planning: the four days are full with beanbag baseball, line dancing, seminars about safe RV traveling, crafts and lots of food.
“Anyone who’s never been involved in this lifestyle, they don’t know what they’re missing,” Gardner said. “You’ll see some of the most expensive rigs on the road here, you’ll see some pop-up campers. But once you step outside that door, we’re all the same. We try to do charity, but mainly the purpose of Good Sam is fellowship.”