By SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
This year at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair, Tim Graber will be at the Lamb Barn helping his children with their animals.
Also on Graber’s to-do list: Being the 2013 fair president.
The Goshen resident’s history with the fair extends back to his childhood, when he was a 4-H Lamb Club member himself. Graber’s father was involved in harness racing, and Tim also spent much time at the fairgrounds with his dad and the horses.
“I grew up in that business,” Graber said of racing. “I’ve done that my whole life. I was one of three kids growing up, and I was the one who sort of gravitated toward that.
“...I was his shadow growing up,” Graber said of his father. “I went everywhere with him with the horses.”
Graber took over the fair’s harness racing program around 14 years ago. He’s served as race secretary, and also serves on a state harness racing board. Through horse racing, Graber has visited a number of county fairs throughout Indiana. He said the others don’t compare to Elkhart County’s fair in terms of size.
“If you’re from another county fair and you come here, ...I think you realize that we’re a fair that sets ourselves apart from everybody else,” he said.
There are more food vendors here, Graber said, and the grounds are immaculate. And the Elkhart County fair’s harness racing program draws pretty full grandstands over the course of three days. Graber said horse owners and drivers love coming here because of the crowds.
“I would venture to say that our crowds are maybe even a little bigger than what the State Fair gets for harness racing,” he said. “We’ve just always been blessed with a fantastic following here.”
Graber also praised the learn-by-doing 4-H program, and said Elkhart County’s program stands out for the number of participants and projects. He indicated the program can yield benefits later in life.
“The list of leadership from big corporations that were previous 4-H members is sort of mind-blowing,” Graber said. “...I just think it speaks volumes for what the program teaches these kids.”
Graber heads up a fair that’s garnered no small renown. He’s also president during a transitional period for the fairgrounds.
To the east
In July 2011, the grounds tripled in size after fair officials finalized a $1.4 million purchase of around 250 acres from Aggregate Industries. The land was to the east of the fair’s then-current 131 acres.
A fundraising drive took place to cover the cost, and the debt was retired at the end of August 2012.
According to Graber, fair officials had a wish list of options for the Aggregate ground if they acquired it, and some of the things on that list “are going to come to fruition fairly quickly.”
One goal has been to improve traffic flow in and out of the fairgrounds. To that end, a second entrance — via a road connecting C.R.s 34 and 36 — is planned. Graber said the idea is to have the road in place by the 2015 fair, though it may happen sooner depending on the success of fundraising efforts.
Fair officials are also hopeful of improved flow on the grounds, as well.
“You’ll see more dedicated tram routes, more and simpler parking as far as being able to move people in and out and not have to have the trams cross through traffic lanes, that type of thing,” Graber said.
Some of the Aggregate ground is already being utilized by the 4-H Fishing and Shooting Sports clubs. As for future development, Graber said, “The sky’s the limit on what happens there...”
Graber visualizes maybe another venue on that acreage. He sees potential for a “dirt sports area” other than the grandstand for the demolition derby. He indicated some people have voiced interest in a sand volleyball area.
For eastward development to occur, fundraising is key.
“If you look at just some of the basic fundamentals with minimal roads and minimal electricity and some of those infrastructure type things,” Graber said. “you really (are) probably looking at another million-plus dollars just to get that kind of stuff off the ground and going back there before you do anything else.”
While Graber is looking to the future, more immediately he’s got the 2013 Elkhart County 4-H Fair.
Graber will help work with his children’s 4-H animals. He’s also juggling his presidential duties with his work at Forest River; Graber said that in 27 years in the RV business, this is one of the busiest he’s experienced.
“There doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day sometimes,” he said. Graber thanked fairgrounds coordinator Stan Knafel — “a godsend,” in his estimation — for shouldering much of the fair burden.
Graber said he’s enjoying his role as fair president, and he sounded optimistic about the coming festival.
“The fair will go off without a hitch,” he said, “and it’s in large part thanks to all the wonderful volunteers and the fair board members who give and give and give of their time.”