Heggemeier brings ‘ag ec’ experience as new BHC Fairgrounds manager

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Photo by Andrew Turck

Wayne Heggemeier stands in front of gates meant for livestock at the Big Horn County Fairgrounds. On Dec. 17, he took over as manager of the area, located south of Hardin.

People along Center Avenue in Hardin over the past few days may have noticed a new person in town, relatively talkative, who sports a handlebar mustache and baseball cap. While he makes his rounds to buy a vehicle and find a place to stay, Wayne Heggemeier also is settling in as the first manager for the Big Horn County Fairgrounds.

Located south of town, the Fairgrounds often is a site for community events – from family reunions to when it’s filled with student projects and animals during the Big Horn County Youth Fair.

Heggemeier, from age nine onwards, spent much of youth involved in fairgrounds events as a member of 4-H, where he raised market lambs in Spokane County, Washington, then breeding stock (Hampshire and Southdown sheep) once he reached high school. In addition, he also showed market lambs for FFA and and traveled to southern Illinois to work for his uncle on a family farm originally established in 1840.

His father served as the Spokane County extension agent for 40 years, spending his entire career as livestock agent and 25 years as 4-H agent. When Heggemeier joined Washington State University, he earned two bachelor’s degrees in subjects that reflected his upbringing: one in animal science and a second in agricultural economics. His “ag ec” degree will be especially useful, he said, because “in a lot of ways, a fairgrounds – particularly in a rural setting – is an agricultural business.”

“I’ve been on a lot of fairgrounds – little ones, big ones – the biggest one was the Illinois State Fair,” he said, referring to an event in Springfield, Illinois that drew about 370,000 people last year. “I’ve been around this kind of stuff all of my life. I enjoy fair people, I enjoy farmers and ranchers, and I also enjoy city people.”

Taking inspiration from the late Cherokee comedian Will Rogers, Heggemeier commented, “I’ve never met a person I didn’t like, unless they proved otherwise.”

Big Horn County’s Fair Board chose Heggemeier for the position, Chairman Bill Uffelman said, because its members “were all busy” and wanted someone who could “get out and try to promote things.”

“Most fair boards have a fair commissioner, and so we thought we’d try that and see if it helps us a little,” he said. “The [county] commissioners would like us to get a paying thing out there.”

One of Heggemeier’s main goals is to bring business to the area, which he added could result in a positive economic “overflow” through the south end of Center Avenue.

Uffelman said the board spoke at length about its Fairgrounds manager’s business acumen. Heggemeier ran West Plains Feed from 1998 to 2003, which he said often involved nine-to 10-hour days, but “there wasn’t a day I didn’t want to go to work.”

His feed store “met its demise,” Heggemeier said, as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center. Plains Feed, according to Heggemeier, was located four and a half miles from the main gate of Fairchild Air Force Base. For two weeks after the attack, he noted, traffic “was backed all the way up to the store.”

“Our customer base disappeared for two weeks – literally disappeared,” he said. “The Friday after the attack, we normally had a minimum of 45-50 customers. We had three. That put us into a death spiral.” Not one to give up, Heggemeier continued to search for new careers.

“I’ve been a restaurant cook, I’ve been a realtor,” he said. “The last job I had in Spokane, I was driving cars through a wholesale auto auction.”

With Fairgrounds work, Heggemeier said, he has found a career that makes him feel the all-day sense of satisfaction he had at West Plains Feed. Community members helped him reach this point, he continued, through advice and assisting him in finding a place to live. For them, he said, “payback is coming.”

“Good payback,” he said, “not the negative kind of payback.”

To reach the Fairgrounds, call (406) 665-1163.