Drugged steers, runaway Ohio Pen inmates, a flying banana cream pie and more than 150 years of scandal, bizarre behavior and political theater at the Ohio State Fair
Editor’s note: The coronavirus has put the Ohio State Fair on hiatus this year, state officials announced last week. The news—not the first time an infectious disease has upended the fair, believe it or not—adds one more unusual moment to the colorful history of the fair, as described in this 2007 Columbus Monthly story.
In 1849, a cholera outbreak in Cincinnati canceled the first Ohio State Fair. That inauspicious start, it seems, set the tone for Ohio's biggest showcase of all things rural. Since it found a permanent home on the North Side of Columbus in 1886, the fair has never wanted for scandal, surprises, wacky ideas or bizarre political theater. “The fair reflects our entire society—for good or bad," says LaVon Shook, the author of “A History of the Ohio State Fair.”
Some events were historic spectacles. At the 1977 fair, the Columbus counterculture enjoyed one of its finest moments when political activist Steve Conliff pulled off a famous stunt involving a pie and then-Gov. Jim Rhodes, perhaps the event's biggest supporter through the years. Fifteen years later, Billy Inmon turned the fair into a political soap opera and probably attracted more attention in just eight months than all previous fair managers combined. Even something as wholesome as the junior livestock competition turned controversial in 1994, when investigators discovered several prize-winning steers injected with illegal substances.
Other happenings are long forgotten, but just as surprising. In the early 20th century, fairgoers gawked at Ohio Pen inmates, entered their infants in the Baby Show pageant and adopted orphans on the spot at a booth operated by the Children's Home Society of Ohio. Meanwhile, Cold War politics invaded the 1960. fair when Cyrus Eaton, the controversial Cleveland industrialist, tried to exhibit three stallions and a carriage given to him by his friend Nikita Khrushchev.
The following is a collection of memorable moments that have brought the fair the kind of publicity you wouldn't normally associate with an all-American event featuring farm animals, merry-go-rounds and cotton candy—from political gaffes to phony attendance numbers to a 518-pound man called Big Billy Pork Chop. And one more thing: If you attend this year's fair, which runs Aug. 1 through 12, and see someone stalking Governor Strickland while carrying a pastry, you might want to stick around.
Billy Inmon's Fair
When Billy Inmon blew into Columbus, the used-car salesman from the small northwest town of Willard vowed to shake up the Ohio State Fair. He succeeded beyond anyone's imagination, turning the 1992 expo—the only one with him at the helm—into a hotbed of scandal and controversy. “It was a pretty wild ride," recalls Pieter Wykoff, Inmon's public relations manager during his tumultuous eight-month tenure.
Plucked from obscurity by then-Gov. George Voinovich, Inmon, a Voinovich campaign fundraiser, refused to let his inexperience temper his ambition. Given a mandate to run the fair like a private business, Inmon slashed the number of concessionaires by 30 percent, charged for midway rides for the first time, proposed building an arena with a Downtown railroad connection and signed a five-year, $2.6 million exclusive pouring-rights deal with Pepsi. In the process, he managed to offend everyone from powerful Dispatch patriarch J.W. Wolfe (now deceased) to fair stalwarts Wendy's and White Castle, both of which boycotted the fair because of the Pepsi deal.
Meanwhile, Inmon's zeal, bad decisions and slash-and-burn management style kept the controversies coming. He violated Ohio's prevailing wage law, hired a close friend who was accused of sexually harassing the granddaughter-in-law of former Gov. Jim Rhodes during the fair and tried unsuccessfully to boot the Columbus gay-rights organization Stonewall Union from the grounds. “I tried to negotiate an agreement between him and the Stonewall people," Wykoff recalls. “They came in to talk to him, and I thought I had something everyone could live with, and he starts quoting the Bible and everything fell apart."
To no one's surprise, the fair board fired Inmon a few days after the expo ended. But Inmon refused to fade away. Running as an independent candidate for governor in 1994, Inmon launched a 27-day hunger strike on the Statehouse lawn after Voinovich declined to debate him. Then near the end of his protest, Inmon pulled a loaded handgun on a gay man who Inmon claimed threatened to pee in his face in the middle of the night.
Today, Inmon is back in Willard, where he avoids the limelight, manages business interests ranging from a storage-rental chain to a Tennessee resort and claims to · have put his fair experience far behind him. But that doesn't mean he's turned into a shrinking violet. “I'm more than a multimillionaire," he says. “And I made it the old-fashioned way. I worked hard." And he has no regrets about his time at the fair. “The further I get away from it, the more glad I am that I took the stands that I did and that I didn't sell out."
The Death of Big Billy Pork Chop
The Ohio State Fair's freak show tradition came to an end soon after a 518-pound man dubbed Big Billy Pork Chop rolled into town in a reinforced trailer in 1990. Big Billy, real name Dave Fleischman, was new to the job. The owner of the traveling sideshow had discovered him in New Jersey and hired him essentially to sit in a tent and answer rude questions. “He told me that whenever he went to the mall back where he lived, people would point at him and laugh and say things about him," the owner said, according to a column that year in the Chicago Tribune by Bob Greene, a Bexley native. “So as long as people were going to do it, why shouldn't he get paid for it?"
Fleischman's career lasted less than a week, however. About halfway into his run, he died in his sleep from heart failure caused by massive obesity. A day after his death, the sideshow boss filled Fleischman's tent with a new attraction, "Zoma the Deranged," from South America.
After the Big Billy saga, fair leaders stopped booking sideshows for several years. Last year, one appeared at the fair again, but it was a more humane version mostly illusions and unusual talents, such as fire breathing and contortionism. These days, rides and food are the big attractions. For instance, fair leaders are banking on the latest food craze—"deep-fried Coke," a funnel cake or elephant ear with Coke mixed into the batter—to keep the midway horde happy. “It's selling like bonkers at some of the Southern fairs," says Luis Perez, the assistant fair manager who oversees the midway.
The Governor and the Pie
On an August morning in 1977, Steve Conliff, armed with a banana cream pie, found himself just a few feet away from his ultimate prey—Jim Rhodes. Conliff and other yippies had longed for some time to pie the man they blamed for the 1970 Kent State massacre. And this setting—the opening day of Rhodes's beloved Ohio State Fair—made the opportunity even sweeter. “I squeezed in between two reporters, scooped the pie out of my paper bag and tossed it over the reporters' heads like a very soft, one-handed basketball jump shot," Conliff wrote in an essay included in a 1983 collection of yippie writings.
He shot a brick, however. The pie barely grazed Rhodes and the bulk splattered on the Dayton Daily News's Dale Huffman. Conliff was embarrassed. “He was worried about being kicked out of the yippies," recalls his attorney Fred Gittes. "At point-blank range, he managed to miss him." But his bad aim proved irrelevant as the fair incident snowballed into exactly what Conliff wanted—a media circus with him as the pie-throwing ringmaster.
In hindsight, Rhodes should have laughed off the whole thing and moved on. Instead, he took it personally, playing into Conliff's hands. Facing disorderly conduct and assault charges, Conliff announced he was running as a write-in candidate in the 1978 Republican gubernatorial primary. He also managed to stay in the headlines with pie-related stunts. He and his lawyers got an Ohio State lineman dressed in a tuxedo to throw banana cream pies at some 50 people from the very young to the very old-to demonstrate that the flying desserts were harmless. And on the eve of the trial, Conliff was hit with 26 pies at a press conference televised by all three local TV stations.
The trial itself was even more humiliating for Rhodes. On cross examination, Conliff's other attorney, Barbara Terzian, caught the governor in several contradictions about whether the pie covered his face, irritated his eye and forced him to miss fair events. What's more, Terzian got Rhodes to admit he dyed his hair; she suggested that the dye might have irritated his eye, not the banana filling.
The jury acquitted Conliff on the assault charge, the only one they considered. “I was very proud of that trial," Gittes says. “Nobody thought we'd get him off."
From then on, Conliff and Rhodes were linked. When the former governor died in 2001, reporters called Conliff for comment. And even friends of Rhodes looked back on the incident fondly. "Several times at bars, guys came up to Steve and said, 'I'm an old golf buddy of Rhodes, and I'd be glad to buy you a drink. That was the funniest thing ever," " says his wife, Suzan Bird-Conliff. In fact, Conliff, who died last year at age 56 from cancer, appeared to have just one regret: He chose the wrong day to throw the pie. Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, cutting into the publicity.
The World's Biggest Fair
Folks had long questioned the fair's awe-inspiring attendance figures, which, according to legend, managers calculated based on a complicated "secret formula"—essentially, visitors and workers were counted several times a day, it was later revealed. When Rick Frennette came to Columbus from Minnesota in January 1993 to clean up the mess left behind by Billy Inmon, the new fair manager's first order of business was to stop inflating attendance figures, which people had begun to question more loudly under Inmon. At the end of his first fair, Frennette announced a total paid attendance around 675,000, far below the previous year's alleged 3.4 million, which a subsequent audit put at about 500,000. The fair no longer could claim to be the world's largest—it dropped to 19th—but at least it wasn't the most deceptive anymore.
Inmates and Babies
During its early years, the fair forged curious relationships with two vastly different Columbus institutions, the Children's Home Society of Ohio and the Ohio Penitentiary.
In the early 1900s, the Children's Home Society sponsored an annual, hugely popular Baby Show—a beauty pageant of sorts for infants and toddlers. It also backed an even weirder idea: For at least a couple of years, the private charity operated a booth in which people could adopt orphans on the spot.
Jack Foust's parents entered him into the Baby Show in 1922 and 23. The first year, Foust came in second place in the 2 to-4-year-old category. The next year, Foust took home top honors, thrilling his folks. “I lived with it for I don't know how long," says Foust, 87, of Marysville. Foust would continue to make his mark at the fair; from 1982 to 1991, he was the fair's manager. Today, his basement is filled with memorabilia from his years running the expo, but the most intriguing souvenirs are the newspaper articles and score sheets from his two baby contests. Foust laughs as he points out where a judge marked his score down for the size of his head (too big).
Meanwhile, fairgoers made the Ohio Pen a regular part of their itineraries when they came to Columbus. Until a 1930 fire in which 300 prisoners died, tourism flourished at the Spring Street prison, demolished in the 1990s to make room for Nationwide Arena. And fair week was one of the busiest times of the year, with 15,000 sightseers in 1903 alone paying 25 cents a pop to tour the infamous lockup and gawk at the execution chambers, according to "A History of the Ohio State Fair."
Even after the 1930 fire and a deadly 1968 riot, the fair and the Ohio Pen continued their relationship. In the early 1970s, "honor inmates" were allowed to attend the fair with minimal surveillance. The first few years went off without a snag, but the 1973 fair was a disaster. On Aug. 29, a 50-year-old inmate escaped and got into a fight at a nearby bar. The next day, two more inmates, both murderers, fled from the fair and beat and robbed a cabdriver who took them to western Ohio. Both were captured later that night in Dayton. One more group of honor inmates was supposed to visit the fair in 1973. Wisely, prison officials canceled the trip.
The Steer-Tampering Scandal
After the 1994 Ohio State Fair, meat inspectors found something disturbing when several prizewinning steers were slaughtered—mysterious oil oozing from the carcasses. The discovery led to a multistate investigation that uncovered the worst cheating scandal in the fair's history.
In total, seven steers were disqualified, including the grand champion. Investigators discovered animals injected with vegetable oil to improve their coats or a dangerous illegal drug called clenbuterol to boost muscle tone. The case spread to Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, recalls Larry Pontious, the retired Ohio Department of Agriculture investigator who led the probe that resulted in 16 felony convictions. Pontious says money motivated the cheating, which was mostly perpetuated by parents and "fitters"—people hired to groom the animals. Not only could a winner make a pretty penny—around $64,000 in 1994—at the Sale of Champions, but offspring of the animals would increase in value, too. "It keeps skyrocketing," Pontious says.
State officials cracked down in the aftermath of the 1994 fair. New rules capped earnings, required regular tests of animals and established a controversial zero-tolerance policy. Pontious says Ohio now has the toughest regulations in the country.
Still, cheating probably never will disappear from the fair. Shook, the fair historian, says the state opened up a Pandora's box the moment it allowed junior-fair winners to sell their animals, noting that cheating in the fair's livestock show goes all the way back to the late 19th century. And sure enough, in 2003, participants found another way to break the rules. Three people were disqualified when inspectors discovered hairpieces hiding imperfections on dairy cows.
Cyrus Eaton wasn't your typical industrialist. A protégé of John D. Rockefeller, the Cleveland tycoon was a fearless businessman who merged and sold companies ruthlessly, made $100 million fortuned before and after the Great Depression and at one point controlled $2 billion worth of railroad, steel, iron and utility interests. But he also was a political iconoclast who befriended communist leaders, including Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, during the height of the Cold War. "He was an amazing, complicated person," says Henry Gulick, Eaton's son in-law and the treasurer of the Cleveland based Cyrus Eaton Foundation.
And Eaton was never more controversial than in 1960, when he wanted to display at the Ohio State Fair a gift he'd received from Khrushchev a year earlier—three stallions and a traditional Russian carriage. However, in May the Russians shot down an American U-2 spy plane photographing Soviet missile installations and captured pilot Gary Powers. After Dwight Eisenhower admitted he knew about the flight, an angry Khrushchev canceled a planned summit meeting with the president later in the month.
But Eaton didn't let the U-2 affair spoil his relationship with the Soviets; a few days after Powers was shot down, the Soviet Union awarded Eaton with the Lenin Peace Prize for his outreach to communist nations, and the industrialist met with Khrushchev despite the summit cancellation. Eaton's actions made him anunpopular person in conservative Ohio and a lot of other places. After receiving dozens of angry letters and phone calls, and with protesters planning to picket the fair, state officials nixed Eaton's horse exhibit, according to “A History of the Ohio State Fair.”
"I wouldn't doubt that the people in Columbus wouldn't want to see godless communist horses," Gulick says.
Every now and then, Jack Gilligan's acerbic sense of humor threatened to derail his political career. And perhaps his most infamous wisecrack occurred at the 1972 Ohio State Fair. "Gonna shear a sheep?" a radio announcer asked the governor, who was on his way to the sheep barn, according to the 1994 book “Ohio Politics.”
"Nope. I shear taxpayers, not sheep," the governor responded.
It didn't take long for Gilligan's critics—particularly his chief rival, Jim Rhodes—to use the comment against him. “Gilligan was a person who had a good wit and often would make offhand comments," says David Larson, a former OhioHistorical Society division chief who wrote a political biography of Gilligan. "And that was probably one he wished he hadn't made."
Intellectual, urbane and unabashedly liberal, Gilligan pushed the state's first income tax through a skeptical state assembly in 1971. The levy allowed Ohio to modernize its government, as well as provided a permanent revenue source for the expansion—airports, colleges, highways, mental hospitals—that occurred under Rhodes, who held the governor's office from 1963 to 1970. However, when Rhodes and his Republican allies sought to defeat Gilligan in 1974, taxes were the heart of the campaign, with Gilligan's state-fair line featured prominently. “They thought so highly of that quote that they used it extensively in radio advertisements—’Here's a governor who admits he shears taxpayers,’ " Gilligan recalls.
The effort worked, and Gilligan lost by a tiny margin: less than one vote per precinct. After the loss to Rhodes, Gilligan—who retreated to academia, among other things—remained in political exile until 1999, when he surprised politicos across the state by winning a seat on the Cincinnati Board of Education at age 78. Today, Gilligan doesn't blame the state fair line for his defeat 33 years ago, but he does regret saying it. “It was one more instance of my big mouth getting me into trouble," he says.
This story originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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