While still months away, Great Geauga County Fair Secretary Paul Harris gave members of the Burton Chamber of Commerce a hint of new attractions planned for this year’s fair.
Mr. Harris had been invited to speak to the group, providing the history of Ohio’s oldest fair and a preview of what’s to come.
For the 197th running of the fair this year, Mr. Harris said a new attraction will be ROI Drag Racing at the Main Grandstand. The organization, out of Kentucky, specializes in “dirt drag” and provides an ATV rodeo. The popular demolition derby showings will be restricted to one Saturday night to accommodate the new attraction, he said. Special discounts will also be available for ride bands purchased in advance.
Mr. Harris said also new to the fair this coming year will be a circus on the midway and the Heritage.
While the upcoming fair was part of his presentation, Mr. Harris spent the majority of his time telling of the fair’s proud history since its founding in 1823. As the state’s oldest fair, it earned the moniker of “Great” as in great granddaddy of all fairs.
Mr. Harris identified himself as a “product of the program” with his great-grandfather and grandfather serving as directors of the fair. The fair board is made up 21 members, one from each of the 16 townships and five at-large. He said seven members are elected each year. Members must be 21 years of age and a resident of the county.
Fairs are governed not by the fair boards looking for the “weirdest ways to impose our will,” Mr. Harris said, but by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Ohio Revised Code. He said its rules are spelled out a “Red Book.”
He told of his office at the northwest gate that once served as a station along the old Interurban Railroad. Just across from the station was a luggage and ticket office that now has been replaced by the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office during the fair.
The fair has 116 buildings on 151 acres, Mr. Harris said, which requires a penny-pinching attitude as only $100,000 is available each year for maintenance. The fair’s Main Grandstand once had a giant arrow atop it, to guide airplanes during the early days of aviation.
Good times and bad times
The fair has not always enjoyed good times. In 1870, he said, the fair showed a surplus of $142, but four years later had a debt of $191.
Changes in attitudes also came along as time passed, he said. In 1899, Mr. Harris said, the fair banned Oneida soda, although no one is sure what it was. “It must has been pretty good stuff,” Mr. Harris noted. Another ban was placed on cider at the fair in 1887.
The fair, now in its 197th year, also had to do a little adjusting when it was found that its math was a little off in calculating its age. It skipped the 186th running of the fair, jumping from the 185th to the 187th to accommodate the miscalculation.
That was not the only time there was slip up on the fair’s history. Mr. Harris explained that the actual Centennial fair was held in 1931, not 1922 when it actually reached 100 years old. He said fair officials have no intention of messing up the next one in three years, having begun preparations 10 years ago. The Bicentennial celebration will include an extra day with a Wednesday opening.
He said the fair drew 224,018 visitors last year, but the number is misleading, he said. When the comp and concession passes are taken out of the equation, he said, the fair actually had about 60,000 or 70,000 paying customers pass through its gates.
Preparing for fairs begins as soon as one fair closes for the year. “It’s like going for zero to 120 in a matter of hours,” he said.
The fair now has an operating budget of $1.9 million, but much of that is paid out before money is left over to begin again. Payouts to the junior livestock sales account for $500,000 in yearly expenses.
The fair does have a good reputation with ride companies, vendors and concessions, Mr. Harris said, with a 97 percent return rate. He said the fair restricts the types of food and refreshments sold to avoid having too much of the same thing.
University Hospitals of Cleveland is the fair’s largest sponsor, he said, and the fair will not seek big name entertainment because of past experiences. He said the fair budgets about $115,000 to $130,000 each year for entertainment. A performer, like Toby Keith, can seek a payday as high as $325,000 for his performance.
The fair’s experience with top-notch entertainment when Tanya Tucker and Lady Antebellum appeared soured the fair on going after big name acts. He said not only did they demand top dollar, but also special dishes, water and pasta.
Providing security costs $40,000 to $45,000 annually through a contract with the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office. The fair also spends another $40,000 to remove the 63 tons of trash left behind by fairgoers.
He said times have also gotten tougher to promote the fair through advertising. He said print media has all but disappeared and in Mr. Harris’ opinion, “Facebook is going to be a fad.”
The best publicity in recent times came two years ago when a masked bandit raided the baked goods building. The bandit, a raccoon, drew the attention of national news and got a feature on Inside Edition. Mr. Harris said all that was left in the baked goods building after a couple nighttime rounds by the raccoon was a Bundt cake. Wanted posters and souvenirs of the masked bandit became a standard part of the fair after the experience.
While the Junior Fair Board was created in 1938, the fair continued to push to involve youth and began contests to keep youth motivated in 1966. The Diaper Dash, Rooster Crowing and Frog Jumping contests were all added to keep the fun rolling along. He said officials learned a lesson in how well frogs could smell water when the event was held at the Natural Resources Area one year. The frogs, on being freed by their owners, scurried to a pond’s edge and made their escape, stopping any hope of a contest that year.
In 1966, the apple pie contest and auction was added to the fair.
Each year, school superintendents from Kenston and West Geauga pin their hopes on winning the chicken flying contest to hold a trophy for a year.
Each year, Mr. Harris said, about 741 youth provide the more than 900 exhibits on display at the fair, including more than 500 livestock projects.
An auxiliary was founded in 1932 as each director was asked to select a woman from their township to help in organizing the fair. “They’re responsible for keeping this fair going and if anyone tells you otherwise, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Mr. Harris said.
Another regular feature of the fair is the Geauga Fair Band, formed in 1937. Mr. Harris said it makes daily appearances at the fair, but also performs throughout the year at Blossom Time in Chagrin Falls, at Bessie Benner Metzenbaum Center, the Hiram House Camp and nursing homes.
During the winter and summer months, the buildings on the fairgrounds are rented for storage of boats and campers and the pavilions are rented out for family affairs in the summer months.
The Natural Resources Area remains one of the most popular attractions, he said with 13 different groups from parks to conservation groups having displays. Each year a pond there is stocked with $4,000 worth of fish for the fishing derbies held each year.
The fair board also established the Geauga County Fair Foundation in 2008, Mr. Harris said, with the hope of raising $1 million. He said the hope is to live off the interest on the foundation. The foundation currently has just over $400,000, he said.
“The foundation is our savings account,” he said.