It’s early August 32 years after they first unveiled Game Fair, and Chuck and Loral I Delaney are watching as the 80 acres of woods and fields that surround their picturesque exurban home and kennel are transformed from private retreat to public playground.

Circus-like tents pop up as far as the eye can see. Electric cables coil on the grounds like snakes. Griddles and deep fryers are slid into food tents.

Opening Friday for a six-day run over two weekends, Game Fair will attract tens of thousands of hunters and anglers to the Delaneys’ home turf.

Joining the visitors will be their moms, dads, kids, hunting dogs — and guns.

Guns?

“When Loral I and I first went to Britain in 1980 to see that country’s Game Fair, and saw all of the shooting games and competitions they held, we knew we had to offer similar opportunities at our show,’’ Chuck said.

So it is, and has been for more than three decades, that at 9 each morning, a line of shotgun-toting fairgoers forms at the event’s entrance, their dogs tethered to them by leashes — eager to see the latest outdoor gear and gadgets, while learning from hunting and fishing experts, and also testing their dogs’ field skills.

That the Delaneys’ rendition of Game Fair has succeeded where others in the United States have failed is testament perhaps equally to their understanding of Minnesota’s unique outdoor culture, and to stubbornness.

“I was confident we could make it go, but it didn’t catch on right away,’’ Chuck said.

Confidence was needed five years into the project, when the Delaneys and their partner had lost all of their seed money.

For the partner, the temptation to quit was too great, and he walked away.

• • •

“But 32 years later, we’re still here,’’ Chuck said.

A lifelong outdoors sportshow promoter, Chuck had focused primarily on operation of the couple’s expansive Armstrong Ranch Kennels in the years leading up to Game Fair’s launch.

But his heart, and experience, were in hunting and fishing shows. So when an English friend told the Delaneys about the British Game Fair, they flew abroad to take a look.

It wasn’t that they needed a new project to stay busy. Their boarding and training kennel was highly successful, and had been since Loral I’s dad, Fred Armstrong, founded it in 1926.

Armstrong was a well-known and widely respected hunter, trapshooter and hunting-dog and field-trial-dog trainer who held the first U.S. field trial for German shorthairs at his kennel.

It was from her dad that Loral I learned to shoot, hunt, ride horses and train dogs, and she burnished her reputation as a nationally known outdoors­woman from a young age.

“I was 6 when I first appeared with my dogs at the Minneapolis Sport Show,’’ she said.

For many years, Loral I and her highly disciplined Chesapeake Bay and Labrador retrievers traveled the national sport show circuit, appearing regularly at big extravaganzas in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Kansas City, Denver and Harrisburg, Pa.

She met Chuck in 1960 at the Chicago show, which he promoted.

It was a match made in the outdoors, as it were, and in the years since, the two have been crowned husband-and-wife national trapshooting champions, and for many decades Loral I traveled worldwide as a top international trapshooter, and as a four-time world champion in live pigeon shooting, squeezing the trigger countless times in Italy, France, Portugal, Morocco, Mexico and other exotic locales.

• • •

Now approaching 80 years old, Chuck is uncertain who will carry on Game Fair after he and Loral I call it quits — assuming someday they do.

“We have people interested in buying it,’’ Chuck said. “But if the show is going to go to someone else, I want to make sure it’s successful if it’s going to be held in another location.

“This location, on our grounds, has been great for us. But it can’t continue here forever.’’

Over the years, promoters from around the country have come to look at Game Fair, trying to discern the secret of its success.

“But it’s difficult to duplicate Minnesota and the interest people here have in hunting and fishing,’’ Chuck said. “Minnesota has more of just about everything that outdoors people want, from lakes to rivers and parks. They’re very active, and very interested in anything to do with the outdoors.’’

Though approached by various beer companies over the years to offer their products at Game Fair, the Delaneys have been steadfast in their belief that Game Fair’s success depends on kids, parents and grandparents alike feeling comfortable at the event.

“Alcohol wouldn’t be something we’d want to have at the fair anyway, because of the shooting we do on the grounds,’’ Chuck said. “But even aside from that, we’re a family event, and we want to project ourselves as such.’’

Additionally, the show’s success, the Delaneys say, is in some ways built from the inside out by the scores of dog clubs and wildlife and conservation groups that promote themselves at Game Fair — something that might not be possible in other areas of the country.

“This year we will have a combined total of 44 sportsman’s groups and dog clubs exhibiting,’’ Chuck said. “We allow the dog clubs to be here for free, and the conservation and wildlife groups get a reduced price.

“We believe in what they’re doing and their importance to Minnesota, and they, in turn, help make Game Fair the success it is.’’

Fishing, over the years, has played a relatively minor role at Game Fair, even though big names like Roland Martin have appeared occasionally.

“Timing is important to any show of this kind,’’ Chuck said, “and August is when everyone is anticipating the coming fall, and the fall hunting seasons.

“That’s why our duck calling contest — we’re giving away $10,000 this year to the winners — is so big, and why the shooting and dog events are so popular.

“People who come to the show love summer, but arguably they love fall even more. And Game Fair, in the end, is about the coming fall.’’

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com