By Matt Reese
With delicious fair food, hard working youth exhibitors, extensive entertainment options, and countless other attractions, there is plenty to enjoy at the Ohio State Fair. Among my very favorite things, though, is seeing the familiar faces each year and stopping for a few minutes to chat in between livestock shows and the many other happenings of the Fair.
For those in the draft horse barn, there are not many faces more familiar than Gerald Harkness, who has exhibited Belgians at the Ohio State Fair for an astonishing 72 years.
“My grandpa and dad started showing in the late 30s or early 40s. I was born in ‘38 and I started showing horses at 8 years old,” Harkness said. “It was great to show horses and back then the draft horse people would have a big barn party. The people who showed draft horses were great people. Everybody got along. We were competitors but there was no knock down drag out stuff. All the exhibitors would help each other out. If a piece of harness would break, the other exhibitors would run out to help. It was almost like a family. I have a son and three daughters involved and a grandson and granddaughters who help. My great-grandson is two and he comes along too, so now there are six generations of my family that have been involved in showing at the Ohio State Fair.”
Harkness, from Erie County, has taken Belgians all over the country.
“Way back in the 40s and 50s we went to a lot of national shows all over. It didn’t cost then like is does today. We’d take off and get back about six weeks later going to all of those shows. We took anywhere from 15 to 18 halter horses — no hitches,” he said. “From the time I was around we’d have a heck of a show at the State Fair. I can remember when we’d have 25 to 30 horses in each class. It took two days to show the halter horses. It was really a big deal. In the mid 40s we had a couple of horses that were the champions all over and won every class they went in.”
Going way back into the 1800s the Ohio State Fair was an important stop for draft horse shows because of the proximity to railroads, the transportation method of choice for draft horse exhibition animals.
“The Ohio State Fair used to be one of the top three or four state fairs in the country for draft horses. Ohio was a big importer of horses back in the late 1800s. They were big time then,” Harkness said. “All the big boys went to Ohio and Chicago and they moved horses from fair to fair by train.”
Harkness has seen the Ohio State Fair draft horse shows thrive, then wane, then thrive again. He serves as a historian for the Belgian breed and is often asked to advise regarding judge selection and show schedule for the Ohio State Fair. And, for 18 years, he has provided the valuable service of helping at the exhibitor hospitality room by getting the coffee brewing by 5:30 a.m. His early start to the day may have something to do with the fact that he sleeps in the barn.
“We have always slept in the barn down at Columbus near the horses,” Harkness said. “If you’re sleeping in the camper and something happens, you don’t know about it.”
Harkness is known around the draft horse barn for his generous attitude, selflessness and dependability that have contributed to the general success of the draft horse show and many other draft horse exhibitors. He is being inducted into the Ohio State Fair Hall of Fame this year for his efforts.
The Ohio State Fair Hall of Fame (which is different from the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame that is also held during the State Fair) was established in 1976 for the purpose of recognizing individuals who have made outstanding contributions toward making the Ohio State Fair one of America’s premier expositions. The Governor selects the inductees into the Ohio State Fair Hall of Fame each year.
With so many draft horse shows under his belt, I thought it was appropriate to ask Harkness about his thoughts regarding our live streaming of the evening draft horse shows at the Ohio State Fair this year. He told me that watching the show (whether in person or online) was fine, but it simply cannot compare to the thrill of participating in the show.
“The added exposure of the live streaming is great, but watching the show is not the same as participating in it. To be involved hands-on in the show — to me that is what makes it,” he said. “The horses are popular. There are a lot of people out there with a couple of draft horses. They claim there are more draft horses in the U.S. today than back before there were farm tractors.”
The live streaming of the draft horse shows and some dairy events is being added to our usual offering of instant results from the junior market shows and the live streaming of the Sale of Champions. The OCJ/Ohio Ag Net staff puts in a HUGE number of hours over the duration of the Fair to serve the exhibitors, their families, the Ohio livestock industry, and you. The long hours at the Fair fly by, though, because we love seeing all of our favorite familiar faces each year (the food surely doesn’t hurt either).