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Ventura County Fair : Pulling an All-Nighter for County Fair : Ventura: Hundreds of workers labor to prepare grounds for today’s opening.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kim Leach spent Tuesday planted at the registration desk inside the hot,dusty, musty pavilion that is the Ventura County Fair’s floriculture building.

Wednesday morning, she figured, would find her glued to the same spot, frantically tabulating all the judges’ scores on the 82 garden exhibits constructed for competition at this year’s fair.

“Come tomorrow morning, at 7:30 in the morning, we’re going to have people here knocking on our doors wanting to know what won,” she explained at noon Tuesday. “I know I’m going to be up all night.”

With the fair opening at 11 a.m. today, Leach was only one of hundreds of workers who labored away Tuesday, readying the grounds for the expected onslaught of visitors.

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Fair officials say first-day attendance usually ranges between 15,000 and 25,000 people, depending on the weather, the economy and the opening night’s featured entertainment. Tonight, it’s country music stars Hal Ketchum and Carlene Carter.

But on Tuesday, the walkways and buildings filled with volunteers, laborers and eager contestants as they made one last push to get ready for the crowds to surge through the iron entry gates.

In the home arts building, a kaffeeklatsch of women settled into folding bridge chairs, plastic forks at the ready, the Formica tables before them strewn with a potpourri of baked sweets.

Judy Eldeb of Oak View put her taste buds to the test on spiced cookies.

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The first sample proved too bland. The second cookies were so dry they crumbled at the touch. But the third caught her fancy.

“Now these are moist, the blend is good and they’re not overpowered by any particular flavor,” she said, bestowing a first place on the spiced snickerdoodles.

Eldeb and her fellow judge, Bernita Grey, are still marveling over the Asian pears they tasted last week in the preserved foods competition. The pears won best of show.

“Her getting the flavor and keeping them looking so good is extremely difficult, because pears usually go mush,” Eldeb said. “Oh, they were just wonderful.”

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While Eldeb and Grey reminisced over canned fruits and honed their palates for homemade cakes and cookies, Karon Work of Thousand Oaks shepherded her children and their prized produce over to the agriculture building.

Briana, 6, lugged a zucchini the size of a watermelon, and her brother, Clayton, carried another zucchini which was not much smaller. Karon Work hauled in a massive pumpkin that she estimated weighed at least 20 pounds.

“We just raised them in our back yard,” Work said. “There must be good dirt out there in Thousand Oaks.”

Work also entered three preserves last week and 23 baked goods on Tuesday.

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“I did everything yesterday,” she said. “I sent the kids to grandma’s and baked until 1:30 this morning. It’s just a system you got to get down.”

Outside the agriculture building, the grounds were a haphazard jungle of workers, partly erect food stands and half-assembled amusement park rides.

A man picked his way carefully along the spokes of an empty white Ferris wheel, doing last-minute maintenance at a height dizzyingly far above the ground. Concessionaires tacked vinyl awnings onto hot dog and nacho booths. Laborers stretched brightly colored banners across walkways and nailed signs into empty dirt patches.

The large livestock barn still smelled of fresh hay Tuesday morning. The sole sounds were those of a plastic garbage bag rustling in the breeze and the bleat of a lone goat, an early entry, already housed in a distant pen. Most of the 1,010 animals due for opening day would not arrive until late Tuesday, officials said.

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But over in floriculture, the pressure was on and intense even by midday. Leach, who rose at 4:30 a.m. to arrive at the fairgrounds early, kept telling herself she only needed to get through the next 36 hours.

Because by the time the fair gets under way, Leach’s exhausting task of tallying garden exhibit winners will be done.

“These first two days are really hard,” she said. “But after that it’s much easier. For now, I just go on sheer energy.”

* SCHEDULE OF EVENTS: B2

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