NEW KNOXVILLE — Becoming a bricklayer in high school paid off in more ways than having a marketable skill for a local man. It provided his perseverance to serve as manager of the Auglaize County Fair for 25 years.
When Fred Piehl announced his retirement after the 2017 fair, the fair board nominated him to be named to the Ohio Fairs Hall of Fame, citing his construction knowledge and leadership that enabled the fair to grow by several buildings and use them all year to raise revenue. He was inducted last month at the Ohio Fair Managers Association awards breakfast in Columbus.
“It was quite an honor,” Piehl said, “but it’s a team effort” to produce such an event.
“First, there are 21 board members to help manage the fair. But there are many more (volunteers and short-term employees) to get along with to run a million-dollar business.”
Piehl’s agricultural roots began when he belonged to 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA). He showed steers and Angus cattle at the Auglaize fair he would one day manage. PIehl learned bricklaying from his father, as did his brothers Bill and Steve. The three siblings established Piehl Brothers Stone Co., and in recent years added gravestones and other monuments to their masonry work.
But as he got more involved in the county fair, “I started drifting away from the family business,” Piehl said. “I started out advising 4-H kids and they came to the fair when they grew up because it’s the biggest event in the county. Then they brought their kids to the fair and everything has grown.”
Piehl admits to first thinking the fair was “whatever happened between the grandstands and the animal barns, but people’s expectations have changed. Now there are the midway, amusement rides, fine arts, and food and commercial vendors. The fair is still the biggest event, but the fairgrounds has become a year-round business.”
He added that fair week, starting the first weekend in August, “is a very costly part of the puzzle. It takes a lot (of money) to put it on but lots of those funds go right back to the youth, and they’re the ones who’ll take care of us some day.”
To raise funds outside of fair week, Piehl said, “we do a lot of rentals — for boat storage and boat show, festivals, weddings and receptions, house sales, cattle shows, flea markets, dog shows — using almost all of our buildings more than one week a year. From the time we built a new 4-H horse barn in 1995, we’ve added more than $1 million in facilities.”
He also has overseen converting 25 of the fairgrounds’ 75 acres for camping facilities that are used outside of fair week, going from 60 campers to over 400 campers. And with growing fair audiences comes growing expenses.
“We spend a lot of money just on wash stations and cleanliness,” Piehl said. “I can remember when we’d discuss spending $350 on a first aid station, and if someone got hurt you’d put ‘em in a truck and take ‘em to the hospital. Now we spend $5,000 on a station and have to have a squad on the grounds or even right next to an event.”
A groundskeeper is the fair’s only year-round full-time staff member. The manager and secretary are year-round part-timers. On a snowy February morning, Piehl looked out his home office window and recall how this time of year is was already busy planning the Auglaize fair’s August opening in Wapakoneta.
“I still drop by the fairgrounds to see the people I worked with, and a couple of committee members have stopped by my (Piehl Brothers) office for help on a particular project, he said. “So I guess I’m not really retired.”
Piehl’s successor is Jack Hayzlett, a banker and former Wapakoneta parks manager.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.