By Hank Nuwer
The fun and competition that distinguishes the Great Darke County Fair hails back to the first event in 1853. Darke County joined at least 33 other Ohio counties at the time with annual fairs.
Circumstances canceled the fair four times. The Civil War hostilities stopped the fair in 1862 and 1863.
The 1949 polio epidemic ended the ‘49 fair and the pandemic wiped out 2020 for many disappointed patrons and vendors.
The roots go back to 1852 when the Darke County Agricultural Society formed to unite Darke farmers. A key player behind the fair’s founding was farmer George Coover. He owned land situated near the Garst Woods.
That first fair lasted three days and was held in Garst Woods in Greenville. It remained at the 18-acre site through 1858 and experienced two more moves before settling in southwest Greenville in 1870.
In the decades after the first fair, despite its popularity, the event occasionally ran in the red. Miffed citizens debated how these deficits would be made up. Many years the fair paid bills by selling wagonloads of lumber that had served as fencing.
Darke County Agricultural Society members paid one buck for the duration of the first fairs, which allowed for the accompaniment of specified family members. Single entry tickets cost two bits.
Local residents competed in hundreds of categories for “premiums” as prizes, and in some cases for silver loving cups.
The Greenville Journal in 1857 printed a list of 13 rules that judges had to follow. Judges put together timely reports on event results and reported to the fair secretary. The secretary expected judges to explain the rationale behind the judging of the winning stock.
“The judges on animals will have regard to the symmetry, early maturity, size and general characteristics of the breed they judge. They will make proper allowances for age, feeding and other circumstances of the character and condition of the animal,” read one rule.
“They are earnestly requested not to give encouragement to over fed animals. No premiums are to be awarded to bulls, cows or heifers which shall appear to have been fatted for the butcher.”
In 1857, the president of the Darke County Agricultural Society was George Coover. Besides his planning for the fair, farming, and service to the community as a Mason, he twice served as Darke County Sheriff.
You might credit Coover as the esteemed “grandfather” of the first fairs.
In May of 1857, Coover and Darke County friend Henry Snell decided to travel to Missouri with plans to purchase acreage investments.
Coover and Snell paid for tickets on a stagecoach that was seriously overbooked with riders. They were at a stage stop called Haw Creek in Benton County, Mo.
Nine adults and three children rode as passengers inside the coach. Coover and Snell and three other passengers crowded with the driver into exterior seats.
Coover protested that the coach was carrying too much weight for safety. The driver paid no heed.
Worse, Coover saw that the driver intended to drive the coach in the dark without lighting the attached lanterns. Again, his protests fell on deaf ears.
The coach went a mere 150 yards. The team of horses went over a thick tree stump in the dark.
Snell was thrown and sprained his ankle.
Coover flew off and landed with a thud on the hard earth and then the overturned coach landed on his left leg, breaking and crushing it.
The spooked, driverless horses took off, dragging the coach with the interior passengers and the screaming Coover.
At last the front wheels broke free. The coach halted as the terrified stampeding horses continued to bolt.
Snell and a few of the lesser injured passengers lifted the coach off Coover and tended to other hurt passengers.
Rescuers took Coover to a nearby home. A physician recommended taking off the leg, but the injured man begged for a few days of grace.
Infection took hold. A surgeon finally amputated the leg, but Coover’s destiny was sealed.
He died in agony on June 12, 1857. Snell brought his friend’s body back to Greenville.
One witness who attended to Coover reported this: “He blamed no one for his misfortune — was only sorry that his family had to lose his services [and] submitted his fate to his God with perfect serenity and Christian devotion.”
Undoubtedly, that 1857 fair was one of the saddest of all time. Newspapers estimated that Coover’s funeral was the largest ever held in Darke County.
Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.