PRAIRIE GROVE -- While many people come to the Clothesline Fair for the arts and crafts vendors, the largest attended event over the Labor Day weekend during the fair is square dancing.
"It's ingrained in our community," says Craig Battles, who has served as square dance coordinator for the Lions Club for about 20 years.
For the 2023 Clothesline Fair, 81 groups, or 648 kids, will be square dancing on the amphitheater stage at Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.
The 20 older groups will participate in the Peggy Parks Memorial Square Dance Competition, named after Peggy Parks who is credited with starting the tradition at the Clothesline Fair.
The competition square dancing starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and again at 6:30 p.m. Monday. Scores are combined from both nights to determine a first place winner, along with second place, third place and the honorable mention square dance group.
Saturday and Monday afternoons are reserved for younger dancers, and 61 square dance groups have registered for the exhibition dances.
Battles said he has been looking at back issues of the community newspaper, formerly the Prairie Grove Enterprise, and sees the growth in square dancing over the years.
"This has gotten big with our growth," Battles said. "Even back in the 50s and 60s and beyond, the biggest attended event at the Clothesline Fair was the square dance."
He said it has been fun to watch as new families in the community get involved in square dancing.
"Everyone talks about it," he said.
New families to Prairie Grove learn about the tradition from those families who have had generations dance at the Clothesline Fair.
Cindy Kidd of Prairie Grove is the square dance caller for 15 groups this year, including her son's 10- and 11-year-old square dance group called Toe Tappers and Knee Slappers.
Kidd began square dancing at the Clothesline Fair when she was 3 years old. As a high school student, Kidd's dance group won the competition three consecutive years. Her older daughter was in a group that has the record for highest score and her middle daughter's group, Hometown Highsteppers, won the 2022 competition.
"I like it all," Kidd says about square dancing at the Clothesline Fair. "I like the small town tradition that we keep going."
For those coming to watch the square dances this weekend, Kidd's advice is to come on Monday night and stay until the end.
"You will be amazed at all the people there to watch it."
The competition dances are judged by members of Northeast Oklahoma Square Dance Association out of Tulsa, Okla. Battles said members of this group now call him to make sure they are on schedule to be judges.
"It is seemly small thing people assume but they do a good job for us," Battles said. "They are honest and care deeply about the square dancing."
Battles feeds them dinner both nights and it was only last year that they allowed him to give money to help with their gas costs. Otherwise, he said, they have offered to be judges at no cost every other year.
Battles said he is still working on a trophy that will be used to display the names of all winning square dance groups over the years. He had hoped to have it ready this year, but his commitment is to have it ready in 2024. This is a trophy, he noted, that will need space for 50 to 60 names.