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Every year at the Sonoma County Fair, some of the visitors pass through the gates and head straight for the arena to see a concert, or directly to the racetrack to place a bet.

Some linger in the exhibit hall just beyond the front entrance, listening to sales pitches for vegetable slicers and hot tubs, and some start with a walk through the Hall of Flowers.

Others are content to watch the 4H and Future Farmers of America kids groom their sheep and shampoo their pigs.

Running July 25 through Aug. 11, now in its 77th year, and themed "Home-Spun Fun" this time, the fair still packs a nostalgic wallop for local fans who look forward to returning every year.

When we asked readers to name their favorite things about the annual celebration of Sonoma County's agricultural traditions and heritage, livestock rated high.

Sonoma County restaurateur John Stewart said he enjoys wandering through the livestock sheds at the back of the fairgrounds, revisiting "all that stuff we learned from local agricultural friends who attended the fair as kids. ... You could go for years and never know it was there."

Stewart, co-owner of Zazu restaurant with his wife, Duskie Estes, also was among many who cheerfully embrace the guilty pleasures of fair food.

"We go one day just to eat junk food," Stewart wrote. "We take off our wine country chef hats and go to town. The kids love it."

Many couldn't imagine a visit to the fair without a platter from the Pasta King stand, or a turkey drumstick from Willie Bird's.

Sebastopol teacher and stage actress Mary Gannon Graham said she looks forward to "my one and only corn dog of the year, and the fresh squeezed lemonade."

But musician David Petri, who comes just for fun to the Santa Rosa fairgrounds from Middletown in Lake County, best summed up the tawdry allure of fair cuisine: "Eating junk food that tastes GREAT at the fair, but would taste terrible outside the gates."

Petri also spoke for many when he voiced his fascination with the romance of the Ferris wheel at the fair's annual carnival, explaining he loves "riding the Ferris wheel with my wife, so I can get a kiss when we stop at the top."

Jane Engdahl, longtime special-events coordinator for the Sonoma County Fair, agreed that the Ferris wheel is an enduring symbol of county fairs everywhere.

"It just wouldn't be the fair without a Ferris wheel," she said.

Engdahl also showed great enthusiasm for some of the newer traditions at the fair, including "Wizard Weekend" on Aug. 3-4, celebrating fictional wizard Harry Potter's birthday; and the Tiny House Town, where every structure is limited to less than 300 square feet.

"We'll have one guy actually living in his little house," she said, "which is hilarious, because he's very tall."

Engdahl also encouraged fairgoers to check out this year's new "Butterfly Experience," with hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

Suyin Stein, coordinator of the fair's "Inspiration Stations," urges visitors to drop by and learn skills ranging from making corsages to painting in watercolors to making a fort out of Popsicle sticks.

"The Inspiration Stations are similar to pop-up restaurants," Stein said. "They will change daily, and they will be a feast of creativity and fun."

Fair fans spoke just as highly of the event's free, continuous, live entertainment on four smaller stages as they did of the grandstand shows. A particular favorite is the Park Stage, near the racetrack, with 32 different bands booked this year.

And don't overlook the exhibits of arts and crafts by local folks, with some 20,000 individual entries expected.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at <a href="http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com" target="_blank">arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com</a>.</em>