Four days of action are planned for the 156th Annual Wayne County Fair
Jeff Firmstone is nattily attired as he sits at his desk and patiently answers questions.
A longtime employee of the Wayne Highlands School District, Firmstone dons another hat every summer when it comes time for the Wayne County Fair.
He serves on the board while also acting as harness racing secretary and track announcer. These are traditions in the Firmstone Family, traditions Jeff has continued for nearly a quarter century now.
“I still love doing it,” he said during our annual pre-fair interview on Tuesday.
“It's an awful lot of work, but it's definitely worth it. Harness racing has been a huge part of our county fair almost since the beginning and I'm happy to say that it's still going strong.”
This year's schedule for 156th Annual Wayne County Fair will be...
•Sunday, August 5, post time 12 noon.
•Monday, August 6, post time 2 p.m.
•Wednesday, August 8, post time 4 p.m.
•Thursday, August 9, post time 11 a.m.
Firmstone's office is a place of contrasts.
As the school district's business manager, he's surrounded by all the latest computer technology necessary for dissecting a $56 million budget.
However, his passion for the fair in general and harness racing in particular is also on full display with dozens of beautifully framed archival photos.
“I'm proud to be a part of the fair every year,” Jeff said. “We're an agricultural fair and there aren't that many of us left.”
In addition, there are only 16 county fairs across the state that still host harness racing. Owners and drivers come from all over the Commonwealth to compete here in Wayne County.
However, Jeff expects several entries with local ties to take part in the 'Free for All” paces and trots.
“I'm thinking that Billy and Richie Dunn will bring their 3-year-old College Hanover,” he said. “Arty Jones is still active, too, and I think he'll probably have a horse or two entered.”
In addition, longtime Wayne County Fair supporters like Roger Hammer and Todd Schadel will have a big presence.
Hammer is perhaps the most famous PA County Fair Circuit driver of all time. Roger holds several records at the Dyberry Oval and won the Hambletonian back in 2000 behind Vivid Photo.
Schadel will arrive here as one of the region's hottest drivers. Todd is currently competing at the Clearfield County Fair. On Sunday and Monday, he won seven of the 15 races contested.
Schadel's top horses this year so far are Keystone Bentley, a trotter, and Motive Hanover, a pacer.
There will be several new attractions at this year's fair, the most notable of which is a pair of special giveaways.
On Sunday, Aug. 4 and Wednesday, Aug. 8 harness racing fans can enter their names into the hat for a chance to ride in a sulky or in the mobile starting gate.
“It's a neat little contest,” Firmstone said. “All you have to do is drop of your ticket stub and we'll have drawings after the race.
“Drew Chellis will bring out a specially-designed two-seater sulky and the winner can ride around the track with him. And, Clarence Martin Jr. will set another winner up for a ride in the starting gate.”
There is no cost to enter either drawing, but you must be present to win.
Harness racing is one of the very oldest traditions at the Wayne County Fair.
According to Keith Sutton's seminal book “Wayne County Sports History: 1872-1972,” official records of races during that first decade are understandably scarce.
However, our longtime Sports Editor uncovered ample documentation of events held at the start of that second decade.
For example, a much-ballyhooed two-horse showdown between “The Bay” from Hawley and “The Stranger” from Honesdale drew a big, enthusiastic crowd.
The race took place on the Dyberry Oval with bragging rights between the two towns hanging in the balance. “The Stranger” won this exciting race and the $75 purse that went along with it.
In 1872, there were two full days of trotting with purses ranging from $30 to $200. Interestingly, fairs back then were held in October instead of August.
Additionally, there were harness racing events staged during July outside the purview of the fair.
For example, a gala event took place over the July 4th weekend in 1892. Some of the big Independence Day winners hailed from Calkins, Waymart, Honesdale and Cabondale.
This summer holiday tradition continued for several years, including an event in 1894 that drew more than 1,000 paying spectators.
Drivers came from all over the area for this one. Winners were crowned from Seelyville, Bethany, Port Jervis, Aldenville and Equinunk.
Dr. William J. Perkins was President of the Wayne County Agricultural Society for more than 30 years. In holding that position, Dr. Perkins was also named President of the Wayne County Fair for each of those years.
His brothers (Cy, Alfred and Don) were also heavily involved with the fair and with harness racing for more than three decades.