Ben Haagen started low at the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair but today sits at the top.
Haagen, 58, this year took over as president of the Grange Fair Committee from Joe Hartle, the longtime fair leader who died this spring. Its a long way from the Howard residents fair debut as a boy, when he placed last in youth cattle shows.
From there, he went on to win blue ribbons, teach high school math and become an agricultural educator, as both a local 4-H club leader and a fair committee member like his wife, Maryann. Since he first visited his grandparents tent, he said, the fair has been in his blood.
And as the days count down to the 2012 fair this month, hes leading one of the countys oldest traditions into the future.
How do you feel about taking over?
When Joe was on the committee for 60 years, and 25 years as president, its very big shoes to fill. I cant say Im not a little bit nervous, but I have a good committee behind me, and youre only as good as your committee and those people because you cant do everything yourself. Youve got people you can delegate to, and people who are willing to step up and take their part. I think if we all work together it will be a success.
How did you get started with the fair?
I grew up on a dairy farm, and so did my wife. I was involved in 4-H probably from the time I was 10 years old. Joe Hartle was one of my 4-H leaders. He was the Centre County 4-H dairy club leader, and I joined the dairy club. So Ive known Joe ever since I was 10 years old.
In 1980, somewhere in that ballpark, my wife and I joined Grange. When you join Grange, there are the 12 subordinate granges in the county, and then Pomona Grange, which is the parent organization of the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair. I became master of our local grange, which is like president of Walker Grange, and within a few years, I was involved in Pomona Grange and took an office there. Currently, Im the Pomona master, which is president of that organization.
But Ive always been involved in some aspect of agriculture, growing up on a farm. I showed dairy cattle and I also showed market hogs when I was in 4-H, and did various other projects there. But the fair has always been in my blood. My grandparents had a tent at the fair. I can remember going there as a kid. Wed get to spend the weekend at the fair. I remember the old wooden floors to the tents, things like that.
What has being part of the fairs leadership meant to you?
The Centre County Grange Fair started in 1874 as a picnic under Leonard Rhone, obviously to get farmers together to talk about agriculture and products and to prepare people to make agriculture better.
And I always want the fair, the main focus of the fair, to remain as a show place for agriculture. Because if we lose that show place for agriculture, and educating 4-H and FFA youth leaders of tomorrow, were going to lose what the fair was all about. Because if we take the agricultural component away, we become just a carnival or a festival, and we have many of those around. But we always want to have people realize that their food products come from the sustainability of agriculture. If our country ever depends on others for our food supply, were going to be in dire straits.
Are you concerned about finding future Grange Fair leaders to keep the fair going?
Yes. We do have a youth advisory group right now, which is a step in the right direction, because were constantly seeking their ideas about what we can do to make the fair better. I think what we need to do, as people who have been through the organization already, we need to encourage people, encourage those younger 4-H and FFA, younger grange members. We need to give them a pat on the back once in a while. We need to thank them. We cant assume theyre always going to be there.
What has kept you working with 4-H?
Giving back to the program that helped me. I made me a better public speaker, a better citizen, I would say, for life. It taught me many lifetime skills. I just want to be able to give back.
The fair is so much about tradition and heritage, but what changes do you see?
I think we need to continue to upgrade with technology and things. Weve talked about having Internet cafes, and [fair general manager] Darlene [Confer] is working on that. ... Lets face it, were a computer generation, so we need to keep that out there. One thing that they did last year was that new program ... where kids where taking pictures on their cell phones and submitting those. That gets the younger generation involved. The blogs: Anything we can do to that would encourage the younger people to be a part of the fair. Theyre not always going to listen to the radio, but they will get on the Internet. They will get on the website. So we need to be constantly upgrading there. ... We constantly look for their ideas. Even the Grange Fair Idol [competition] that was started a couple of years ago has been a big plus and has been a large draw.
Whats a favorite Grange Fair memory?
I know the first year I showed dairy cattle at the fair, I was last in my class. I was at the tail end. For some, that might cause you to get discouraged. For me, it only encouraged me to do better. I know by the end of my showing time at the fair, I was getting the blue ribbons. I was up towards the head of the class, just working, striving, to make things better. I would save those blue ribbons that I would get. I would hang them on my bedroom wall. From one year to the next, I would be thinking about what I could do better to improve myself.
To a first-time visitor, how would you describe the fair?
The tents and trailers help to make our fair unique, but its the 2,500 families who live there for the entire week that really make it different. Its like a city within a town, that comes together for that one time of the year. And it is a hometown atmosphere. ... It truly is a hometown for a lot of people that come from various states and come to that fair once a year. But I would say, if you want an overall view of the full 271 acres, get on the tram and ride it around the fair, and you will see that theres more to the fair than just carnivals, rides and food.