It’s a tradition dating back 170 years, and only World War II has ever stopped it. But now the Ohio State Fair is the latest victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
Fair General Manager Virgil Strickler grew emotional Thursday as he discussed the cancellation of this year’s event, a decision he called the biggest challenge he has faced since taking over in 2004.
But with nearly 1 million people visiting each year, and vendors and artists and guests coming from across the county and even outside the U.S., he said he saw no other choice.
"It hurts me for canceling," Strickler said after the Ohio Expositions Commission unanimously voted at its meeting Thursday to cancel the fair, which had been set for July 29-Aug. 9. "But it’s the right thing to do."
Fair spokeswoman Alicia Shoults said the commission is hopeful it can get out of contracts that had been signed. Many of the performing acts who had been scheduled to come have said they are willing to work with the fair, she said.
Because the state has not allowed any new contracts to be signed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said the fair didn’t yet have everything inked and in place.
The fair’s budget is as much as $7 million annually, Strickler said. Even though many other events on the fairgrounds also have been canceled so far this year, the commission does have some savings and a rainy-day fund to fall back on.
The commission posted on Facebook that its members understand how much the fair means to so many.
"Instead of coming together in person, we’ll celebrate agriculture and our great state at a distance, with a collection of educational digital content and sharing some of your favorite memories on social media," the post read.
Virtual celebrations, of course, don’t help the thousands of businesses and vendors who rely on the fair for a good chunk of their summer sales income.
Brian Shenkman — known as "The Candy Man" — owns the Bulk Candy Store in West Palm Beach, Florida, and has been coming to the fair since 1992.
What he makes in Columbus accounts for about 30% of his gross income for the year. It’s tough, he said, but he understands the decision.
"The whole thing is terrible, but there’s nothing we can do about it," he told The Dispatch. "I have an old saying, 'It is what it is. Man plans and God laughs.’"
Virtual celebrations also don’t help the 4-H and FFA youth and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts who spend a year investing in and preparing their livestock for the show ring or their other projects for exhibition. Nor does it make up for what’s lost without the annual Ohio State Fair livestock Sale of Champions, which rewards them handsomely for their work.
Strickler said he understands that disappointment.
"I am a past 4-H member, a past FFA member. I know how much the ... fairs mean to the youth, " he said. "It’s just tough on all of us."
The Expo Commission said a reduced-capacity fair was not an option because people still come from all over the country. And rescheduling later wouldn’t work because the grounds are used for so many other events.
Last year, just under 950,000 attended the fair during its 12-day run, including people from every county in Ohio, all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Canada and Mexico.
The first Ohio State Fair was held at Camp Washington (two miles east of downtown Cincinnati) from Oct. 2-4 in 1850.
In 1886, the fair found its permanent home at the current site off the west side of Interstate 71, with the purchase of land and buildings costing $140,000, according to Dispatch archives.
A tidbit from the fair’s history and how disease has played a role before, according to its own website: "The first Ohio State Fair was planned for September 1849, but an outbreak of Asiatic cholera forced the cancellation of those plans. The following year, later dates were set to lessen the risk of cholera. Even so, Darius Lapham, the superintendent of the grounds, died of the disease just a few weeks before the opening date."
Shoults said the fair has been canceled before: From 1942-1945, the Army Air Corps used the fairgrounds buildings for the World War II effort.
So far, the Paulding County Fair has been canceled and Franklin, Madison and Marion counties have canceled their traditional fairs but plan to have some opportunities to spotlight Junior Fair projects.
Strickler said the Ohio State Fair will come back stronger in 2021, when it’s scheduled from July 28-Aug. 8.
Shenkman, the vendor from Florida, said that could be too late for many vendors who are losing their entire festival/fair season right now.
In addition, he said, the break in tradition is tough, especially for those who have traveled the same circuit for decades.
"To everybody it’s a fair," he said. "To me it’s family."
Dispatch Reporter Erica Thompson contributed to this story.