Tim Graber of Goshen has been on the Elkhart County 4-H Fair Board close to 14 years. His time spent with the fair boasts a longer history.
“I grew up in that fair,” he said.
Graber was in the 4-H Lamb Club as a youth, and now his children are, too. He said his father always had horses at the fairgrounds.
“I followed my dad around with those horses pretty much every day,” he recalled. “We were always at the fairgrounds.”
Graber’s childhood involvement with the fair extended into his adulthood. This year, he’s the fair president. He’s also at the helm during a pivotal period for the fairgrounds.
In July 2011, the grounds tripled in size after fair officials finalized a $1.4 million purchase of around 250 acres from Aggregate Industries. The land was to the east of the fair’s then-current 131 acres.
A fundraising drive was undertaken to cover the cost. The debt was retired at the end of August 2012.
Now what? Planning, certainly. Fair officials are looking to the future and assessing their options.
They’re eying a north/south road on the former Aggregate ground that would link C.R.s 34 and 36. Currently, C.R. 34 is the only way in or out of the fair. Graber anticipates an eastward expansion of 4-H programs, too. And providing parking on the “new” acreage is key.
The fair crew is taking a long view in charting the course of a festival that last year notched a gate attendance of 244,883. The visitors came to see the 4-H projects, stroll past the commercial exhibits, eat elephant ears, maybe catch the Styx show — all that and more. They’re the people who help make Elkhart County’s event what local organizers say is one of the largest county fairs in the United States.
With the new acreage, the Elkhart County fair went through a growth spurt. Graber is optimistic about its potential.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said.
A history lesson
Fair organizers are getting a handle on where the fair is going. Robert “Doc” Abel is among those with a perspective on where it’s been.
Abel, a Wakarusa physician, is the resident go-to guy on fair history, with good reason. A 4-H’er growing up, he’s been part of the fair since 1934. Abel’s been on the fair board since 1958, serving as president in 1977.
“I saw how important it was for our young people,” he said of getting involved with the fair as an adult.
Abel recalled that when his stint with the fair board began, the group consisted of 12 members. Circa 2013, the number of volunteers is around 130. He also remembers when there were two permanent buildings on the grounds. Today, there are 68.
Over the years, Abel has watched the fair grow and succeed. He attributes the success to volunteerism — and the volunteer spirit is due to the “4-H” in the fair’s name.
“That fair would never be successful if we didn’t have volunteers,” Abel said. “If you had to pay for all that help to run that thing, you could never afford it.”
4-H — the “learn by doing” program administered by the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service — is the central theme of the fair. Last year, 3,404 Elkhart County young people took part in the traditional 4-H program; another 530 first- and second-graders participated in Exploring 4-H. The youths were guided by 452 adult leaders.
In 2012, there were 149 10-year 4-H members in Elkhart County, according to Extension educator Laurie Sula. This year, the county is on track to have 175 10-year members.
“The 4-H program has been a big program in this county for a number of years,” said Stan Knafel, a retired Extension educator now in the new position of fairgrounds coordinator. He, too, sees 4-H as a prime factor in the fair’s success, plus community support.
“You have people here who are very community-minded,” he added. “They want to put together a showcase for the young people, I think, when it comes to the fair.”
And the fair serves as a showcase for the business community as well, according to Knafel.
Graber also sounded the theme of volunteers, as well as community and business support.
“We’ve been very blessed with people in the area who’ve seen fit to donate their own money to that fairgrounds to ensure that we be able to grow and offer new programs and that type of thing,” he said.
In his new role during the fair’s transitional period, Knafel’s duties include fairgrounds management and coordination. He also deals with rentals at the fairgrounds, and assists the fair president.
“When we get closer to fair, we’ll be problem-solving, I’m sure,” Knafel said. “That’s part of the job.”
Ground to grow on
One potential problem — a loss of parking — was averted with the 2011 land buy.
Before the purchase, some of the Aggregate ground had been leased for fair parking. Graber doesn’t relish the thought of what would have happened had the land been sold to and developed by someone else, and the fair lost its parking privileges.
“That would have killed us, I think, in terms of being able to continue with the types of programs we put on and the numbers of people we try to put through that place in nine days,” he said. “We just wouldn’t have had places to park everybody.”
The new acreage offers not only possibilities for parking vehicles, but also another way to get them in and out of the fairgrounds.
The new ground abuts C.R. 36. Graber foresees an entrance/exit off C.R. 36 that will be developed into a major thoroughfare in and out of the fair. The route will connect with C.R. 34.
“We’re just going to give everybody some more options as far as being able to get in and get out in a more timely fashion,” he said.
Graber also described the land purchase as being essential to the fair’s growth potential.
“We’re really land-locked in every other direction with the exception of the land we purchased there,” he said. “In terms of growth, that was our only opportunity ...because we couldn’t go in any other direction.”
Helping chart the fair’s course is the long-established Long-Range Planning Committee. Last year, a new group called the Land Development Infrastructure Committee was formed as part of the review process. That group is made up of three Fair Board and two non-Fair Board members.
Now it’s a matter of trying to make decisions, according to Graber, like where to put roads and where to locate utilities. Referencing the short amount of time the land was paid off, Graber said he doesn’t want people to think fair fundraising is finished.
“There’s as much money or maybe more money involved in now trying to develop that land and the infrastructure,” he said.
For those involved with sustaining the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds, this is a time of serious planning. It’s a period of transition. It’s also a time of excitement, Graber said.
“I think everybody that’s involved with the board now sort of sees this as a crossroad,” he said. “Certainly being able to look back 10, 15 years from now and saying ‘Hey, look what we’ve got now’ and knowing we were a part of that whole thing is really exciting.
“We’re at a crossroads here, and I think we’re headed the right direction.”