Contestants want to start a flap in Geauga

BURTON – The first day of Ohio’s oldest continuously running fair was one for the birds, as wings flapped and feathers flew during Thursday afternoon’s annual chicken-flying contest.

Dozens of roosters and hens competed for the top prize in an event now synonymous with the start of the Great Geauga County Fair.

Geauga County Common Pleas Judge Tim Grendell, event organizer and sponsor, said the contest is an important generational rite of passage.

“This competition is the epitome of Geauga County’s rural heritage,” Grendell said. “It’s great to see all the young folks who raised chickens come out and take part.”

The 2013 edition of the event saw a record 63 young participants.

A total 32 hens perched on a platform before being gently urged with a bathroom plunger through the other end of a mailbox facing out onto a dirt showring in the small grandstands. The flight of the bird is then carefully measured by the waiting officials below.

Bob Rogish, fair president, who has plunger duty, said he believes the sunny weather helped ensure a nice turnout for the event.

“I’d say 63 is a good number,” Rogish said. “Sunshine is what brings people out. We don’t want the rain. We can handle the heat without a problem.”

At the end of the competition, a hen named Toffee stood on the podium with a winning flight of 26 feet, 3 inches. The grand champion is owned by Lana Strimbu of Chardon, who said experience may have led Toffee to the top of the pecking order in 2013.

“(Toffee) was in the competition last year with me,” Strimbu said.

Earning a runner-up finish was Zeus, owned by Olivia Stern.

Tim Grendell, who sponsors the competition with his wife, Appeals Court Judge Diane V. Grendell, said the event organizers take every measure to be sure the birds are treated with care.

“None of the chickens ever get hurt,” Tim Grendell said. “We work really hard to make sure they’re taken care of.”

The couple organized the chicken flying contest to remind area kids of their agricultural roots in a competitive, fun way.

“It seemed like the safest kind of competition and we could get the most children involved,” Diane Grendell said. “The kids don’t realize how much of the land in this county is devoted to agriculture. It’s a great way to kick off the fair.”

Many of the participants took the day off school to attend the first day of the fair and participate in the competition. Still, Grendell believes the fair offers children a different kind of learning environment no less important than mathematics or spelling.

“Most of the kids don’t realize how much of the land in this county is devoted to agriculture,” Grendell said.

In addition to the chicken flying contest, Grendell also sponsors the Geauga Learn program, which offers a cooperative day of learning at the fair for sixth graders at Kenston and West Geauga schools. A total of 505 students took advantage of the program this year.

“They get school credit for the day and they get to be at the fair,” Grendell said. “They get six hours of learning about everything from agriculture and crops to soil and water conservation. There is even a history portion.”