Wednesday, July 31, 1996
Fair work brings fond memories

The Cincinnati Enquirer

On a grassy hill in the middle of Carthage, Al Bicknaver can stand next to his favorite telephone pole and see 33 years of memories.

Or, he can tell what kind of business he's doing today at the Hamilton County Fair.

From that hilltop spot, he can lean against the pole and look down on a grassy infield by the fairgrounds' racetrack.

''We used to have politicians race ostriches down there,'' he says and points to the track's finish line. ''Ooo, those ostriches are powerful runners. To stop 'em, guys had to catch them and put a bag over their head.''

He shivers at the thought. Then he reels off the names of the political turkeys who rode the big birds.

Switching to the present, he turns toward the infield. ''I can stand up here and see how many cars we're parking out there. That's seven acres of grass. Fill that and we're doin' good.''

The fair opens today and runs through Sunday. Al's hoping for five straight days of car-covered grass. This is the fair's 141st annual edition. And, Al Bicknaver's last.

He's retiring after 33 years of running the show as its secretary-manager. He first came to the fair as a 12-year-old city kid from Fairmount who loved animals and wanted to be a farmer. He remembers taking a streetcar across town and paying 25 cents ''just to see this thing they called: 'The horse whose head is where his tail should be.' ''

This was no freak show. It was just a con. ''They had him backed into a manger. They weren't lying. His tail was where his head should have been.''

Al laughs at the memory.

''I always wanted to do that here,'' he says, ''and tease the little kids.''

He never did. He was too busy keeping the fair alive.

Over the years, several county commissioners tried to close the fair, wreck its old buildings and sell the land. One plan called for building a new Reds stadium on the grounds where city-dwelling fairgoers can still see cows being milked.

The commissioners and their plans are gone. Al and the fair remain. Next year, he's off to run his farms, travel and spend time with his wife, three daughters and seven grandchildren.

But first, he must make his rounds to make sure everything's right at the fair.

Al hops on his golf cart - with me scrambling into the passenger's seat - and floors it.

He meets his successor, Joe Shields, at the Memories building. Threading their way between an antique car and a vintage firetruck, they inspect the restrooms.

''Always check the toilets,'' the 67-year-old man instructs the 32-year-old who will run 1997's 142nd Annual Hamilton County Fair.

''Flush 'em yourself. Know they work. Don't just take somebody's word for it.''

After sharing this piece of fair-management theory, Al's back on his golf cart and driving to the midway. He wants to see how the game trailers are lining up.

The answer is: They're not.

Trailers holding fish ponds, shooting galleries and basketball backboards, where you shoot some hoops to win a stuffed animal, snake along the midway.

''They're supposed to be arrow-straight,'' Al tells a crew of roustabouts.

They complain about some early birds who refused to park in line. Al listens. ''I know,'' he says with an understanding smile. ''But, you'll get it looking good.''

They smile. He waves and he's off.

His golf cart throws up some gravel as it skids to a halt in front of the Fine Arts building. Inside, Sandy Cohen, her mother, daughter and granddaughter are counting the blue ribbons for the fair's Crafts and Hobbies exhibit.

Al walks by, praises their display and ambles on. Sandy finishes counting and nods toward the secretary-manager.

''His heart is in the fair. This is not a job or a business. To him, it's a love.''

You can hear that in his voice. At his hilltop vantage point, he turns the key in his golf cart to the ''off'' position. Looking out over the fairgrounds, he sees a peaceful oasis in the middle of hectic urban life.

A train whistle blows. Al glances at his watch. There's no time to waste. He still has to get ready for one last fair.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.