Too Long at the Fair?

Illustration by Ryan Snook

I fell in love for the first time in my life at the Harvest Home parade. I was only 9 or 10, and so the relationship was not destined to last. It was also complicated by my not actually meeting the object of my affection. She was performing in the parade, an older woman, maybe 13 or 14, twirling a baton, the ends of which burned with dazzling flames. With her sequined costume and fiery baton, she shimmered in the twilight, buoyed through the air by the blare of a marching band. A year or two before that life-changing moment, I saw my first cow up close and personal at the fair. It looked considerably larger and more intimidating than the bucolic bovines standing in roadside fields toward which my brothers and I lobbed a “moo” from the car on family trips.

A few years later I saw a live band for the first time—teenage guys pounding out songs in the big white barn at the Harvest Home Fair. The thump of bass and crackle of guitar grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I knew immediately that I wanted to do what they were doing. And a decade later, I was. Even played once at the fair, where we won some award, though I can’t recall what or why. I was 20 and a rocker, and my memory of that time is a bit, well, hazy, for reasons I don’t care to discuss.

Years later, I marched in the parade with my sons, who were very young at the time and involved in gymnastics. Wearing mint-green T-shirts, dozens of kids cartwheeled on stick-thin arms and legs through a minefield of horse manure all the way down Harrison Avenue in the heart of Cheviot.

I don’t offer these memories because they’re exceptional. I offer them because they’re not. It’s a rare long-time west-sider who doesn’t have stories of the Harvest Home Parade and Fair—the tradition runs that deep. This year, however, I wondered if we would see a waning of interest. The west side diaspora continues, as former Westwoodians, Delhites, and Cheviotonians move farther west. Maybe these people have moved on emotionally as well, leaving behind the quaint entertainments of the old neighborhood.  

And if the appeal of a fair is largely to kids, do they even care anymore about seeing cows and pigs and horses? Maybe the little ones do, but even pre-teens live with their faces in their phones, on which they can access their Facebook pages, text a hundred words a minute, and post countless pictures of themselves looking silly with their BFFs. Ducks can quack and chickens can cluck, but neither can Tweet. Hanging out with animals probably seems dull in comparison to Wii and Rock Band and computer games in which entire worlds can be built and controlled, and best of all, destroyed.

It’s conceivable that adults, too, have grown tired of what seems like an anachronistic event. A month before the Harvest Home Fair, which is held on the first weekend after Labor Day, the Hamilton County Fair drew the smallest attendance in its 155-year history. Officials blamed the heat, but August is always pretty steamy in Cincinnati; tough to conclude that high temperatures caused the low turnout. Maybe the days of beamish boys and girls showing off their barnyard animals just ain’t what they used to be. In an interview in The Enquirer about the county fair, Commissioner David Pepper opined,  “A county fair is about coming around agriculture. Having it in the middle of the city—where it used to be more remote, but now is in the middle city—is just not working.”

He could be right. And the Harvest Home Fair is held in Cheviot, an inner-ring urban community that nary a cow or pig has called home in a long, long time. If the county fair can tank so miserably, what would keep the Harvest Home afloat?

The fair’s festivities always begin on Thursday with the parade, which runs east from the western edge of Cheviot along Harrison Avenue then makes a sharp left turn onto North Bend Road, where it wends its way to Harvest Home Park. In all, it probably covers a couple of miles. The placing of chairs along the curb begins as early as Tuesday. On Wednesday evening they fill the entire route—hundreds of them. Aluminum chairs, molded-plastic chairs, folding metal chairs, canvas camp chairs. For decades west-siders have reserved their spots in this way, and for just as long they’ve taken pride in noting that no one worries about the chairs being moved or stolen, such is the high moral character of our part of town. But confidence in that sentiment might be changing with the times, as a number of people have strapped their chairs together with ropes and bungee cords, some even tying them to parking meters. A level of trust in one’s neighbor is obviously eroding.

Still, everyone seems cheerful as the parade kicks off. If I was concerned about the diminishing appeal of fairs, the turnout for the parade is reassuring. The crowd—sitting and standing three or four deep—fills every inch of the route. I squeeze into a spot at the North Bend turn, squinting into the sun while the marching bands and horses and classic cars file toward us. Green Township Fire Department trucks and SUVs make the turn with lights, sirens, and horns blasting, followed by a van from Glier’s Goetta pulling a calliope that toots an old-timey tune. Soon after, the crowd applauds a contingent of Purple Heart war veterans, most of them in their 70s. Even louder applause greets Buddy LaRosa, waving from the back seat of a black convertible. A volunteer for a political candidate moves among us trying to unload plastic cups, telling us that they feature a “new design this year.” I wonder if the candidate does too.

It’s been years since I’ve been to the parade. After my kids lost interest, I stopped going. It had become mostly just a traffic hassle, having to plot one’s course to avoid it. Apparently I haven’t missed much. Parade entertainment hasn’t made great strides to meet the demands of a new generation, which may be the secret to its appeal—a slice of Americana, served up the way your mama and her mama and her mama made it. The high school bands look the same (though the baton twirlers lack the panache I recall from my youth). The politicians provide plenty of enthusiasm, stomping down the street with eager waves. And no parade would be complete without a brigade of Shriners weaving their frantic figure eights in the tiny one-man cars that must be manufactured solely for them. Many of the drivers feign a lofty indifference, but you can tell they love every minute of it, scooting along in mini-limos and mini-race cars and mini-SUVs, a maroon fez atop each head.

A mother with two little girls stands in front of me, sort of narrating the parade—along the lines of “Look, see the horses?” and “Here comes the marching band.” The girls, who are probably around 3 or 4 years old, wave at every passing person with a fascinated, if slightly stupefied, look. To them, this scene is utterly amazing. Clowns and teenagers and horses are walking right down the middle of the street and waving! Teenagers in band uniforms tromp past as the drummers snap a crisp cadence. The little girls’ curiosity is contagious. Those of us nearby begin waving too.  

I find myself getting more into the spirit of the event—for a while. Maybe an hour. But the parade keeps going. And going. My attention span falters as the shadows lengthen. The bright blue of the sky fades like a summer tan, and the evening begins to carry a hint of autumn. I mosey across the street to the patio of the Black Sheep, a restaurant and bar on the corner of Harrison and North Bend. From there I can sit and watch. After two hours, the parade is still going strong. And to my surprise, the crowd is too. It has thinned a bit, though not as much as you’d expect. But then there’s not a lot of competition for entertainment on a Thursday night. The fair itself might be another story.

Marketed  as  “The Biggest Little Fair in Ohio,”  the Harvest Home Fair is also one of the oldest. In fact, it’s almost as old as the state. According to The Bicentennial Guide to Greater Cincinnati, published by the Cincinnati Historical Society, it began in 1806, when Enoch and Ashsah Carson and their eight children invited neighboring farmers to celebrate a successful harvest. The annual gathering became a tradition, and was cancelled only once, during the war—I’m referring, of course, to the War of 1812. I know: Pretty amazing, when you think about it. In Middle America we don’t have many traditions that old.     

By the 1850s, the one-day celebration had grown so large that the Green Township Agricultural Society was created to manage it. In 1860 the Green Township Harvest Home Association was formed to take over what officially became the Harvest Home Fair. The Kiwanis Club of Cheviot-Westwood took the reins in 1939. Though the City of Cheviot owns Harvest Home Park, the Kiwanis runs the fair, which, from what I can see on Friday night, seems to be as popular as ever.

A procession strolls the sidewalks on both sides of North Bend Road to the fairgrounds. The Ferris Wheels and rides cast a neon glow among the trees while the games and food booths do more business than they can handle. The Rusty Griswolds—as cover bands go, a kind of ’80s version of Sha Na Na—provide the entertainment, while kids run from ride to ride. The most popular one seems to be the merry-go-round that features real horses—well, maybe ponies is more apt. Little kids clamor for another ride as soon as they dismount. One youngster tells his parents that he’s already named his pony and insists on taking it home; his parents convince him to settle for getting back in line “one more time.”

The mood calms on Saturday afternoon, which focuses on animal competitions. In the 4-H tents, suburbanites stroll past cows and roosters and sheep and goats and pretty much any other barnyard denizen you can think of. The people look much more interested than the animals, which lounge in hay-strewn pens. A pink pig whose snout and hindquarters are mottled with gray, snoozes soundly, oblivious to the hands stretching over the rail to touch him. I’m happy to learn the next day that he is crowned the “Grand Champion,” though I’m pretty sure he could care less.

In the field on the north side of the park, at least a dozen girls sit astride horses arranged in a wide oval. A man on a microphone calls out commands, and off they go in canters and trots and gallops. Though they look tiny compared to their horses, they execute the maneuvers masterfully. Their parents sit in lawn chairs next to the field, taking pictures and videos.  

A soft but persistent drizzle falls throughout much of the afternoon, but it doesn’t appear to dampen any spirits. It does add a musty layer to the smell of the fair, which is pungent, an earthy cocktail of animals, hay, and excrement. The scent socks you in the nose the minute you step through the entrance, announcing that this event is not just another church festival. It’s tightly bound to a more distant past, when farms dominated the area, which was isolated from the rest of Cincinnati by the Mill Creek Valley. Even as seemingly half the crowd ambles around talking or texting on their phones, it’s easy to feel connected to the many thousands of others who, over the course of two centuries, have wandered on this very spot on a cool night in early September, celebrating the harvest and savoring a communal moment before the start of another long winter.    

A large crowd gathers in the stage area on Sunday evening to hear The Menus, five west side guys who, lead singer Tim Goldrainer tells us, have been performing for 27 years. One of Cincinnati’s most popular groups, The Menus are the perfect choice to close the fair. They’re a good-time band whose act focuses on Goldrainer’s smooth voice and campy stage antics. He opens the show wearing an Oak Hills basketball jersey, short pants, and a pink tutu. After the first song he runs behind a curtained corner of the stage and reappears in an Elder wrestling singlet. “I went to both schools,” he tells the audience.

The fair is winding down. Some of the vendors have abandoned their booths and a few others are packing up. Long shadows drape the crowd, which numbers in the hundreds, many sitting in white chairs near the band while others stand at the rear—most of them laughing as Goldrainer cartwheels across the stage, and singing along to pop standards like  “Sweet Caroline” and  “Jack and Diane.”

Though the band doesn’t electrify me like the one I heard at the fair many years ago and the stage is set up in a different spot from the one I played on, watching The Menus brings back those times. Many of the folks in the crowd are probably delving into their own cache of memories. The fair, ultimately, is about nostalgia, and Goldrainer plays to that feeling, even when dressed in a fright wig and a Speedo. Between songs he jokes about west side places that have been gone for a long time. “I miss Zantigo’s,” he tells the crowd, and a lot of heads nod, recognizing the name of a fast-food Mexican place on Glenway Avenue that closed more than 25 years ago. Words like community have been rendered trite with overuse, but this gathering exudes a sense of shared history.   

A week after the fair, its chairman, Pete Mingus, is pleased with the turnout. “It was probably one of our better years,” he says. “We had record crowds on Friday night and Sunday night.” Though he doesn’t have a final tally, he estimates attendance at between 25,000 and 30,000. He admits that in the struggling economy he wasn’t sure the fair would attract its usual crowd or that businesses would pay for booths.

A life-long west-sider, Mingus has his own memories of the fair, which he has worked on as a member of the Cheviot-Westwood Kiwanis for the past 15 years. As a member of the band at St. Catherine Grade School and LaSalle High School, he marched in the parade many times. “The Harvest Home Fair is such a west side staple,” he says. “It’s our end-of-summer ritual.” But the fair needs new blood to ensure its future. This year the managing committee created a group called The Harvest Home Fair Association to bring in people interested in working on the event without joining the Kiwanis. “It’s so new we don’t even have a membership list yet,” Mingus says.

It’s hard to imagine autumn without the fair. Something about its long tradition and loamy smell connects us to the changing seasons, and provides a comforting place from which to face an uncertain future. I’m reminded of a moment on Sunday, when a 4-H kid, a blonde young lady in her early teens, hopped into a pen with several sheep. One had become skittish, perhaps because of the crowd. She whipped her leg over the wooden rail and plopped down next to the black-faced sheep and patted its head, cooing, “It’s just me. I’m here.” The fair is a lot like that.

Originally published in the November 2010 issue.

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