July 2007 Issue
At Ohio's seven independent fairs - such as the one held for the past 115 years in Richwood - a distinct blend of history, town pride and tight-knit community makes the event feel more like a family reunion.
Think corn dogs.
Think cotton candy sticking to your fingers, the cries of a carnival barker luring in his next customer, and the image of a father carrying his satisfied but spent child back to the car at dusk.
Think of the sights and sounds that seem to accompany every festive summer event, and you'll find them at all 95 of Ohio's annual fairs.
But for those who frequent our state's seven independent fairs, there's something even more appealing in the air. Something not easily captured by the senses.
Take, for instance, the one held in Richwood, a small central Ohio farming town an hour northwest of Columbus. It isn't just that, as with other independent fairs, nearly every resident seems involved in the planning: Last year, 140 locals -- out of a population of about 2,000 -- paid a $1 membership fee for the right to elect the fair's 18 volunteer board members.
It's also the celebration of community pride and agrarian roots that has been the Richwood Independent Fair's hallmark for 115 years. It's a focus on history that's seen in such things as displays of antique farm machinery and an 1895 veneer mill - believed to be the oldest one this side of the Mississippi River - that's brought to the fair and operated by Marc Iman (photographed above, left), a man with a love of all things vintage and a desire to share old-fashioned methods with a new generation of Ohioans.
"Richwood's fair is the kind that those of us around here over 40 grew up with ... more traditional, more family-oriented, more agriculture-oriented," says Iman, 51, who faithfully works the steam-engine-powered mill -- discovered in a fruit orchard in Toledo in the 1960s -- to educate others in the old manner of making plywood.
Iman lives outside Richwood, in Plain City, and his profession is hardly dated; he works in the high-tech machine shop at the Honda plant in Marysville. But gearing up for the independent fair each year brings back fond memories: of ordering toy steam engines out of the Montgomery Ward catalog as a boy, and of his father (now deceased) who "busted his tail" working on similar machinery for years on a steam threshing rig.
"The fairs back then weren't all about being commercial," he says. "You'd have your games and food and rides, but they were about getting the farmers out there with displays, getting the kids out there with their animals.
"That's what Richwood is about."
Of course, as comforting as the nostalgia is and as educational as those displays are, the town also knows that for the independent fair to survive another 115 years -- Richwood too, for that matter -- you have to get the children involved.
"The independent fair is like a church, in a way," says Pat Hamilton, president of the Richwood Area Business Association. (That statement, she notes, proves literal on the Sunday of the fair, when local ministers set up folding chairs beneath a tent for an outdoor service and gospel singing.)
"At a church, you have your adult community. But if you don't have the youth participating in it, you're not going to have that church for very long."
|Richwood Independent Fair Aug. 29–Sept. 3,
off Race Road in Richwood. Events include baking contests, livestock sales, live music and more. For information, call 740/943-2200 or visit www.richwoodindependentfair.com. For dates and locations of Ohio’s other independent fairs, visit www.ohiofairs.org.
There are lots of kids there like 4-1/2-year-old Preston Crabtree, who spends his fair days deliriously happy, kicking up dust as he runs from ride to ride with friends, before collapsing dog-tired in the most available place. Last year, it was the counter of the snack booth where his mom, Pam, was a volunteer.
But the tight-knit town also has plenty of 4-H youth for whom the event's livestock shows make the Richwood Independent Fair a sacred place.
They're children like Dustin Lowe, 14 (previous page), an aspiring farmer who lives a field away from the fair. In preparation for last year's event, Lowe tended to three American Sable rabbits that eventually became like pets, raising them from the time they were small enough to fit in his dad's palm, until they were big enough to walk with a leash.
"Runny, Calmy and Nosy ... they were fun to play with," he says, reciting the rabbits' names -- so given because, well, one was hyper, one was laidback and one "was into everything."
He knew what the judges would look for, so he read a book on how to pick up the rabbits properly, how to hold them, how to rub them so that the oil from his hands infused their fur, making them as soft as down.
The fair came, and more expert handlers prevailed: Lowe ranked fifth in his animals' class. But his rabbits did catch the eye of one man, who decided they'd make great pets.
Lowe remembers crying. Like so many 4-H kids at the fair, he remembers the pride of raising something, and the pain of letting it go.
But, like the farmer he wants to be, he learned how to balance the two. As happy as he was when the man who bought the three rabbits decided to return them to him, Lowe was even happier when he ultimately gave them away to another family as pets.
"I'm going to do rabbits there again this year," he says.
It's those types of life lessons -- mixed with a passion for the place, its people and its past -- that have turned into beloved memories for generations in Richwood.
And it's the reason why, when so many loyal visitors think of the independent fair, they think community.