EATON — Thousands of people will flock to the Preble County Fair before this week comes to a close, and the beloved annual tradition received a major shot in the arm this year from major site renovations that are drawing raves from attendees.
“We were given $875,000 by the government for improvements,” said Preble County commissioner Chris Day, “and then, beyond that, the county engineer donated $120,000 of materials for repaving the roads on the fairgrounds, and donated the time and effort and tools as well. So, we’re looking around here at about a million dollar project, and we’re very happy with the results.”
Long lines stretched from the windows of favorite vendor booths like Bowman’s Texas Tenderloins, Martin’s Old Fashion Lemonade, Skyline Chili, and Kemo’s Submarine Sandwiches as people returned again and again for treats and cold drinks. West Alexandria’s Community Christian Church served up comfort food — perhaps the fair’s most affordable edibles — and kind words while raising funds for their parish. At a booth nearby, a man handed out pocket copies of the New Testament with a heartfelt “God bless you.” Chick-Fil-A set up a trailer in the middle of the action, drawing many visitors who usually have to leave the county to get their hands on the chain’s famous chicken sandwiches.
In every direction, there was the kind of last-blast joy of people riding the final great wave of summertime. A carnival barker handing a plush toy to a beaming toddler. An overheated man pouring a newly purchased bottle of water over his head and laughing. A woman squealing while being flung from a mechanical bull. A young girl, alone in a barn, quietly hugging the horse that had served her well. A married couple in their eighties smiling from the grandstands as their offspring bucked through a rodeo. Teenagers — laughing, joking, holding hands — populated most of the midway’s thrill rides, while proud parents waved to their children on the milder attractions. In multiple buildings, throughout each day, giant smiles lit up countless youthful faces as ribbons and trophies were held aloft in celebration of a year of hard work rewarded with success.
“I’ll probably be here every day this week,” said Marcia Sullender of Eaton. “My sons are showing hogs, but also I just like seeing what all the kids are up to. My favorite thing is watching the kids show their animals and work through the adversities they face in the show ring and learn from that experience.”
“I grew up in the county,” she said, “and showed hogs at this same fair, so it’s good to see my kids do it and learn responsibility, time management, and discipline. For us, it’s a family tradition.”
“I was born and raised in the county,” said Preble County commissioner Rodney Creech, “and I’ve been coming to the fair as long as I can remember. To some people, the fair experience is more the rides, the food. For others, the experience is about livestock and showing animals. For me, it’s always been the relationships. When I was young, it was the time to hang around with my friends and have fun, and now, as an adult, I love being involved and talking with everybody. We have a lot of people who come from out of county and out of state, and I get to meet some of them and hear their perspective coming from outside the community. I love it.”
For Amos Gilbert, the fair is a homecoming each year. He can be found operating the mechanical bull at the foot of the midway, always sporting a broad cowboy hat and a flinty smile. “This is my hometown,” he said. “I’m from Gratis. I’ve been doing fairs since 1987. I’ve sold toys, I’ve done food, and now I have the bull. I did rodeos for 28 years, all over the country, and won some mid-state championships, so this is right up my alley.”
Gilbert does 28 fairs each year — last week was Warren County, next week Miami County — and covers Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, then packs the bull up and drives his RV down to Florida for the cold months, working winter fairs in warmer weather.
“I’m a snowbird,” he said. “Gets cold in the winter time! But I like being able to come back here.”
Among the facility’s improvements, perhaps the most praise from attendees has been reserved for the new bathrooms.
“Most of the women who’ve come up to me have been more than grateful,” said Day, “over the restroom renovations and the cleanliness. I would say, out of everything, that’s one of the biggest things people see and utilize the most, and they appreciate it.”
“It’s been a joint effort,” he said of the overall improvements, “with everyone working together for the betterment of the site. People from the top levels all the way down have been willing to step up to the plate and do small things to make the place better. This is a community facility, and I see the whole community pitching in, and that’s what it’s all about.”
2016’s capital budget announced that the Statehouse will give another $400,000 for further improvements, which will mean a major renovation of the Expo Center, Creech said. The county, he said, also hopes to demolish the fair office and sheriff’s building in favor of building a new structure housing both. The sheriff’s building is uninhabitable this year, and the department’s on-site office is currently housed in a mobile trailer for fair week.
Hunter Lewis has been at the fair daily as well. Lewis, 18, graduated this summer from Tri-County North, and serves on junior fair board as well as being first runner up in the fair royalty court.
“This is my 11th year showing in the fair,” he said. “I show rabbits, chickens, and turkeys.”
“The fair is my life,” he said. “Some of the friendships you make here will not be broken, and you’ll always remember them. It means family.”
Reach Duante Beddingfield at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @DuanteB_RH.