By Hillary Delaney
Each year as the Boone County Utopia and 4-H Fair commences, all manner of contests begin, all of which come with prizes and bragging rights. Everyone from the inexperienced rookie to the most seasoned expert may compete in a wide variety of categories. There’s arm-wrestling, seed-spitting, frog-jumping, pig scrambling, livestock judging, horse shows, produce exhibits, canning, needlework, bubble-blowing, junk sculptures and motorsports; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. County fairs have a long history here, and “big fish”stories about the contests and events are plentiful.
Our quality horse shows draw competitors from around the state and region. In 1877, a young lady named Lizzie Nichols, of Paris, KY, came to the Florence Fair with her father to compete in the horse shows. Both father and daughter won the championship prize in horsemanship: the father for the men’s class, his daughter for the ladies’ class. Unfortunately for Lizzie, she had some friends from home in the crowd who showed their support by throwing bouquets of flowers during her victory pass, causing her mount to spook. As a result, Lizzie was thrown into a wall as her horse bolted toward the gate. Fortunately, she left the fair as a slightly bruised, but not broken, visiting champion. It’s unclear if she returned to defend her title in 1878, but there were no further reports of flying flower bouquets.
The impressive draft horses are always a favorite of the crowd, for size, strength and beauty. The draft ring in 1872 was dominated by working fire horses. Superintendent Hartley from the Cincinnati department, exhibited “Billy Leathers,” from Fire Company No. 2, who took the class in championship style. Hartley then returned to the ring with a beautiful bay horse from Fire Company No. 4, and left with the second place ribbon, taking his “engines” with him, and leaving little room for any other champion handlers that year.
Some competitors may have taken the fair too seriously. The rivalry over an unnamed contest at the 1898 fair was to blame for a shootout involving five men. The day following the violence, two were dead, two were not expected to survive, and one remained healthy enough to return to the fair, which he was given permission to do. Though it’s unclear if the bad blood involved a prize steer or a champion-weight squash, this was a rare case of gunplay in the fair’s history.
Back in 1859, an 11-year-old orphan named Joel Ellis, showed a flair for practical engineering skills at the Northern Kentucky Agricultural Fair. His working models for a (much improved) grist mill and a saw mill with both a circular and an upright saw were the envy of the adults in attendance. Sadly, the ingenious inventions did not fit into any of the competitive categories. However, the men who observed his models were much impressed; they took up a collection and awarded him $25 for his efforts, which translates to about $700 today.
The Boone County Fair - official website