Franke: County Fairs

October 5, 2018

by Mark Franke

I suffer from nostalgia, a psychosis for which there is no known cure. My specter is the 1950s, the decade of my childhood. Other than my rose-colored memories, growing dimmer by the year, I see today only the remnants of that best of all times.

Fairs are one of them. I grew up in southern Allen County at a time when the Bluffton Street Fair in Wells County was one of the biggest events of the year. It was almost mystical in its attraction to youngsters and teens alike. I attended the township school near the county line for ninth grade, and the fair was all anyone wanted to talk about for several weeks prior and after.

I also recall vividly the congregational fair at the Lutheran church in Waynedale where we worshipped and I attended grade school. We children couldn’t wait for it, and bragged in school for weeks afterwards about how we overindulged in soda pop and ice cream.

This past month brought those memories to the fore as I attended both a church fair and a county fair with my grandchildren. I admit I am a pushover as a grandfather but I didn’t for one minute regret the money I was spending to watch an eight- and a two-year-old have pure fun.

(By the way, when did these things become so expensive? Note to self: Quit grousing about money all the time.)

The school fair at Ascension Lutheran, my family’s current church, was designed for the children to have fun and for some funds to be raised for one of the many off-budget expenditures parochial schools have these days. I was tasked with watching the two-year-old, who played every game involving a ball multiple times. I only lost him once, but not to worry.

Our church is a throwback to the 1950s so my grandson was well-known and had joined another family. I wish our children could be that safe everywhere.

North of my home in Fort Wayne is DeKalb County, which hosts its annual fair in the fall like Bluffton does. It’s called the DeKalb County Free Fair, but don’t let that word “Free” mislead you. I was at least $50 poorer when I left town, but much richer in knowing that once again I passed the grandfather test.

One nice thing about the DeKalb fair is that it takes over the entire downtown and extends to the fairgrounds just south of the central city. In spite of the number of booths and people, you don’t feel crowded or unsafe. Based on an unscientific poll of the high school logo-adorned apparel being worn, fair goers were coming from most of the nearby counties as well from DeKalb itself.

I especially liked the number of games oriented toward little ones. A bowling type game only cost a quarter to play, but those quarters can add up due to the addicting nature of the game. My ball-crazy two-year-old found one where he could toss small wiffle balls at liquid-filled jars and he eventually won a goldfish for his efforts.

The rides were the attraction for the second grader and fortunately she has parents who like them as much as she. I certainly wasn’t going to tempt fate on those things but then I’ve never been particularly courageous.

I know I can’t bring back the 1950s but it’s nice to know that there are small town communities like Auburn and Bluffton and Waynedale still thriving in these benighted times. And there is something special about the fall fairs that the summer ones just don’t capture. I don’t know what to call it but I saw it clearly reflected in the eyes of my grandchildren.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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