MORE STRANGE STORIES OF THE OHIO STATE FAIR

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Smokey the Bear at the 158th Ohio State Fair, July 2011.

SMOKEY BEAR- The entrance to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources area is dominated by a 15 foot tall, animatronic, talking Smokey Bear. Smokey debuted at the fair in the late 1940s. Smokey speaks to the children who visit him, addressing them by name and warning them about fire safety. Smokey knows all children’s names because of MAGIC. (He went to Hogwarts when they admitted giant, animatronic, talking bears.)

The old version of Smokey, which entertained Ohio children for 55 years, saw its last fair in 2014. In 2015, it was replaced with a new, state-of-the-art $80,000 animatronic Smokey. In 2016, Smokey was joined by a 50' tall fire tower from Pike County.

New Smokey the Bear at the 163th Ohio State Fair, July 2016.

JOHNNY CASH- The Man in Black, often with his wife June Carter Cash, was one of the most popular acts in the history of the fair. Beginning in 1970, Johnny Cash appeared at the fair 10 times.

 

FOOTBALL- Ohio LOVES football. Supporting the Ohio State Buckyes is a state religion and Woody Hayes is a secular saint. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is here. The Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns have devoted followings. Ohioans got their first look at football at the Ohio State Fair. In September 1894, squads from Ohio State, Miami, Denison, Akron, and Wittenburg played each other in the in-field of the grandstand. When one game ran long, officials started the scheduled horserace while the players were still playing.

 

U.S. GRANT’S CABIN- In 1888, the fair celebrated the centennial of American settlement in the Ohio Country. Columbus streetcar and real estate mogul Henry T. Chittenden arranged for a special treat. Out of his own pocket, he paid for the Point Pleasant, Ohio birthplace of Civil War hero and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant to be brought to the Ohio State fairgrounds. Grant’s cabin remained a tourist draw at the Ohio State Fair for nearly 50 years. The Fair even built a special building in 1896 to cover the cabin and protect it from the elements. By the 1930s, Civil War veterans were either dead or very old and interest in the building was waning. In 1936, it was returned to Point Pleasant, Ohio where it stands today.

Grant's birthplace in its special protective housing, c. 1910

 

THE ORIGINAL BATCOPTER- A bane to near-fairgrounds residents (constant overflights from morning until night), The Original Batcopter from the 1966 Batman theatrical movie (based on the 1960s TV series) gave helicopter rides to fair-goers for decades. The Batcopter has a website. Somebody else has posted video of a ride over Columbus in The Batcopter. There are still helicopter rides at the fair but The Original Batcopter last flew there in 2010.

 

THE MOVING FAIR- In its early decades, the fair was held in the first weeks of September. Later, the date shifted into late August then for many decades in mid-August. In recent years, the fair has started in late July and run through the first week of August.

 

MAYNARD AVE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH- Food stands come and food stands go but the Maynard Ave. United Methodist Church (from right here in the University District) had staying power. The Maynard Ave. Methodists sold quality meals at the fair from 1916-2011  The food tent was a fund-raiser for the church but also an outreach ministry. Unlike other food stands, which closed for the day when the fair did, the Maynard Ave. restaurant was open 24-7 providing not just food but fellowship to carnies, fair staff, Highway Patrolmen, and families showing animals at the fair. In 2012, the church determined it couldn't make the numbers add up and declined to reopen for a 97th season. They are missed.

The All-Ohio State Fair Band serenades the Maynard Ave. United Methodist food stand in 2011. Home of the Big Maynard.

 

THE FARMBOY- Ohio-born Bob Evans Sausage and Bob Evans Restaurants have been a big part of the fair for decades. The Bob Evans homestead is in Rio Grande. The first restaurant serving Bob Evans sausage was in Gallipolis. The first Bob Evans Restaurant was in Chillicothe. Bob Evans is honored in the Ohio Agriculture hall of Fame. In the 1970s and 80s, Bob Evans was a big presence at the fair from support for 4-H and FFA and big bids at the Sale of Champions to an always busy food tent.

Back in the day, Bob Evans sold a delicious grilled pork sausage cheeseburger with a red onion slice at the fair called The Farmboy. It quickly became a popular favorite.

They served The Farmboy in the restaurants too--up until a couple years ago. In late 2016, they finally brought it back.

 

 

ENCAMPMENT OF THE G.A.R.- 1888 was a big year at the fair and one of the biggest things was The Twenty-Second Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. From September 12-14, as many as 75,000 Union veterans descended on the city and the fairgrounds for a grand reunion of old comrades-in-arms. On September 13, over 50,000 marched in one of the largest parades the city has ever seen.

 

1960s AND 70s TELEVISION- Back when local radio and TV stations actually produced some of their own programming, stations from around the state flocked to the fair for live remotes and special programming. There was even a "TV and Radio Row" at the fair. In addition to interviewing the stars performing at the fair, covering the Sale of Champions, and following campaigning politicians, the stations improvised programming with fair visitors. There were game shows, dating shows, news broadcasts, and talk shows. For years, WLWT's Bob Braun hosted his popular daytime talk show live from the fair. Flippo the Clown hosted afternoon movies and later an interactive show from the fair for Time-Warner's pioneering QUBE service. I even remember WBNS Channel 10's late night movie host Fritz the Night Owl hosting Disco Fever, a disco dance contest, at the fair in 1978.

 

SUPERSTARS ON STAGE AT THE OHIO STATE FAIR- The 1978 Ohio State Fair was featured in an October 23, 1978 ABC TV special hosted by model Cheryl Tiegs and comedian Dan Rowan. Featured acts included (who else?) Bob Hope, Donny and Marie Osmond, Pat and Debby Boone, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Pride, Eddie Rabbit, Tavares, and Sha Na Na.

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A 1937 aerial view of the fairgrounds from somewhere over E. 11th and Clara.

 

COLD WAR- Some odd things have been displayed at the fair over the past 158 years but the displays during the Cold War years were pretty unique. Back in 1950, a gigantic B-29 bomber (fuselage only) was exhibited at the fair. In 1959, a 65 ft tall Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile was displayed. Less the nuclear warhead of course.

 

FAIR-POCALYPSE- No Ohio State Fair was ever so controversial as the 139th in the summer of 1992.

Billy Inmon, a colorful used car dealer, Republican fundraiser, and conservative Christian from Willard, Ohio, was chosen by his friend Governor George Voinovich to be fair director. Inmon's first outrage was to attempt to ban the Stonewall Union from the fairgrounds, claiming it was recruiting young people to homosexuality and distributing pornography. Even more disruptively, Inmon signed an exclusive 5-year pouring deal with Pepsi, driving Coca-Cola pourers and longtime fair boosters Bob Evans, Wendy's, Donato's, White Castle (all Ohio-based firms), and McDonalds from the event. Ending the long-standing policy of free rides on the midway alienated fairgoers and the vendors who depended on them. Attendance suffered. The fair's expensive but underpromoted concert series was a disaster with pricey, big-name acts playing to half-empty venues. The concerts alone lost $500,000. In the midst of it all, one of Inmon's staffers was accused of sexually harassing a fair employee. Further charges and allegations involved cronyism, misuse of state monies, labor law violations, and grossly inflated attendance figures. The 1992 fair lost $3.8 million. Inmon was fired just after the fair closed.

 

ELECTRIC STREETCAR- 1888 again! Columbus saw its first electric-powered streetcar in 1888. It ran from High Street at Chittenden (location of H.T. Chittenden's streetcar barns) east on Chittenden to a special gate at the Ohio State Fairgrounds. The vacant lot south of Chittenden at the railroad tracks is approximately where the streetcar turned around and headed back down Chittenden to pick up more fairgoers.

 

FLIES- The animals at the fair produce a lot of manure. Fairgoers produce a lot of trash. In the late summer heat, this breeds lots of flies. While the fair is on, the flies stay there. After the fair ends, they spread out to adjacent neighborhoods looking for meals. Back in the early and mid 20th Century, the infestation of flies after the fair was like a Biblical plague. In 1914, city fathers feared a fly-borne typhoid epidemic. Recent decades have seen profound improvements in cleanliness and reduced the post-fair fly swarm from a plague to a nuisance.

A great source of information about the fair, its traditions, oddities, and history is C. LaVon Shook’s History of the Ohio State Fair (2000). Recommended.