Paul Harris knows family.
As secretary for the Great Geauga County Fair, Mr. Harris might have one of the biggest extended families in all of Geauga County. “Once you are part of the fair, you are family,” Mr. Harris said.
And for all of his 53 years, Mr. Harris has never missed one yet.
As for his favorite part of the old continuous fair in Ohio, it is the chance to see even more of his extended family. “It’s the one time that the people I grew up with come home. It’s the one time everyone comes home.”
Don’t, however, expect Mr. Harris to be at home when the family is there.
Last year, his wife’s great-nephew won the apple pie contest. “He made the pie at my house, and I didn’t even know because I’m always here.”
He even will tell you he has a “home wife” and a “work wife” because he likely spends more time with the work wife than his home wife.
There is one advantage, he said. “It does keep you from having to go out of town for family functions,” he said.
The fair tradition for Mr. Harris likely got its start before he was born.
His family arrived in Bainbridge in 1818 and began operating a family farm. It’s a tradition Mr. Harris maintains to this day, operating one of the last dairy farms in Bainbridge. Newcomers to the township have found his Howard’s Apples farm market on Bainbridge Road. Open May through September, it’s the go-to place for fresh produce.
Kenston High School, his alma mater, was built on land the family once farmed. “I was the closest one there and always the latest to arrive,” he said of the school built a few steps away from home.
From the age of 10, he was taking his calves to show at the fair. By the age of 15, he was a member of the junior fair board. Then it was time to follow his family tradition of serving as director just as his grandparents did.
In 1992, he ran to serve as a director for the fair and by 2005 he served as president. Then in the summer of 2008, long-time secretary Dick Moss passed away 45 days before the opening of the fair. Mr. Harris was called on to guide the fair. “I’ve been filling in here ever since,” he said.
And while the public may not see the changes county fairs have gone through in recent years, Mr. Harris said the work involved has. Reporting requirements by the Ohio Department of Agriculture are just one part of the growing responsibilities for those who put on fairs. “The restrictions have made it a little less fun.”
The closing of the fair each September used to provide a little time to catch their breath before planning the next one. Now, Mr. Harris said, you “hit the ground running” with filling in reports for the state in addition to getting the planning off the ground.
The never-let-up activity peaks, however, in the week before a fair. The secretary’s office becomes a hub of activity, handling 13,000 fair entries and 2,000 animals. Even when he’s not on the job, he can’t get away from the fair that week. “My phone will ring past midnight the week before,” he said.
Mr. Harris essentially becomes a prisoner in the office during the fair. He said he wished he could roam the grounds, but his responsibilities keep him in the office. “I don’t get out as much as I used to except for emergencies,” he said.
And those that venture into the office during the fair don’t usually come to tell them what a great event the fair is that they have worked hard to put on. “We never get compliments in here, only the complaints.”
As the fair plans to make history, celebrating its 200 years of fairs in 2022, Mr. Harris said there are two sides to the coin.
“We’ll be the first (in the state) to say, ‘Happy 200th birthday,’” Mr. Harris said.
But the proud moment is eclipsed by the fact that it is the oldest. He said that means the fair also has the oldest electrical and sewer systems in the state. “At the same time, it is a challenge,” he said in maintaining the fairgrounds.
While maintaining and guiding one of the oldest events in the state as it moves into the future, Mr. Harris said it is important to remember those who preceded him in making the fair the best in the state. Men like Dick Moss and Aubrey Blair, who was a fair director 15 years before Mr. Harris was born. “The hardest part is the people we’ve lost because they’re part of the fair,” Mr. Harris said.
Loss is something Mr. Harris is accustomed to, having seen the changes that have come to his hometown Bainbridge.
At one time, he said, there were 40 pickups being made at dairy farms in Bainbridge. Today, there are three. “I’m the only one milking cows in Bainbridge,” he said.
“I feel isolated.”
He has watched a potato field, where his father toiled, turn into the Tanglewood development. Condos now take the place of a corn field. The population growth in Bainbridge is a “catch-22,” Mr. Harris said.
While all of his new neighbors have become customers at his farm market, he said he is “sad to see” the county’s traditions of farming fading into memory.
Those newcomers bring changes to a township that don’t always mesh with those traditions.
The Fourth of July celebration in the township draws in the crowds, and Mr. Harris has come to accept that it is now a new tradition for those that came after him.
Few know, however, that the much-loved and attended fireworks show brings changes to those who have followed in the county’s earliest traditions.
For Mr. Harris, the Fourth of July celebration means he will be up all night. “I spend the night with the cows, trying to keep them calm,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”