Nothing compares to Jug Day at the fair!

Sep 24, 2002 8:45 AM

   Everyone should recapture their youth, or whatever small part of it they can, so I jumped on a jet this week and flew to Columbus, Ohio, and then drove 30 miles north to the little town of Delaware, home of Ohio Wesleyan University.

   I’m not from Columbus or Delaware. I didn’t go to Ohio Wesleyan. I don’t fly cross country for junkets or joy.

   So why this madness?

   Delaware is the site, annually late in September, of one of the biggest county fairs in the world, and one of sport’s biggest horse races, the Little Brown Jug.

   I’ll fly anywhere for a jug, but this trip involves nostalgia, not nausea.

   My father took me to my first county fair, in a little town in Pennsylvania, when I was 8 or 9, and the sights and sounds, and tastes and smells, have stayed with me ever since.

   It might have been there that he gave me his first piece of advice-“Don’t get old”-and foolishly I didn’t listen to him. But at least I could take a quick shot at growing young again, and Delaware is a good place to do it.

   Ohio shuts down for Jug Day. The whole Buckeye state eyes Delaware, and seemingly converges on its huge county fairgrounds. Actually, only 40,000 or so show up, but they are deadly serious. They come early in the morning of Jug Day and chain their chairs to fences for a choice seat, and roam the giant midway, and hold tailgate parties, and fill two big grandstands and enjoy life as it used to be, and still is in Delaware on this late summer day.

   I used to work in these parts, in Columbus, running a magazine, and one year I hired a young kid who had written a letter looking for a job. The letter was a masterpiece, and I hired him immediately. He could write like a dream, and I assigned him a column, and one week he called the editor of the Columbus Dispatch and told him he would like to write a Sunday edition story about the backstretch orgy at the Little Brown Jug.

   He did, and zeroed in on what used to be-but is no more-wild revelry on the backstretch following the big harness race, which now carries a purse of $618,000, inflation being what it is these days.

   The story was accurate, detailing the boozing and brawling and lovemaking that was part of the scene in the orchard behind the racetrack in those days. The Dispatch loved it, but the guy who ran the association that the young writer and I worked for didn’t, and he fired young Charlie Leehrsen, which was the young man’s name.

   He had a tough time after that. He went to New York and got a job with Newsweek, then People, then US, and today he is managing editor of Sports Illustrated. All of which illustrates what a good county fair, and a boss with a small town mind and no taste or recognition for literature, can do for you.

   But this is about what the Delaware County Fair can do for anyone.

   It can bring back elephant ears and funnel cakes, cotton candy and waffle cones, Hoover’s fudge (“On the Ohio fair circuit for 47 years”), ducks and geese and sheep and goats and chickens and beef and dairy cattle and enough 4-H kids riding horses to staff the U.S. cavalry. It brings back the carny crowd and stuffed toys, and whirling rides and ferris wheels, and quilting and sewing and arts and crafts, and pies and cakes and the best lemonade under the sun, freshly sqeezed with chipped ice.

   And it presents the Little Brown Jug, the most under-publicized major horse race in the world.

   Everyone in harness racing knows what it is-the most sought after prize in the world for pacing horses-but because it annually falls on a Thursday afternoon it is not on national television.

   It should be.

   The color is America as it used to be, and still is in Ohio on Jug Day. It is multi-hued and splashed all over with red, white and blue, and for one day you can totally forget Afghanistan and Iraq and Dick Cheney and Enron and John Ashcroft and Tyco and terrorists and shrinking private rights, and focus instead on what this country really is all about.

   It was worth the trip, mine or anyone else’s. I left the Delaware county fair, as always, refreshed and refueled and ready for the rat race that has become everyone’s daily grind in a world gone mad.