Events sometimes take on a life of their own. And that is why the most memorable Old Timers Days show at Xenia, Ohio, will probably turn out to be the one that never was. Just two days before this year's event was to open, a tornado hammered the showgrounds at Xenia, where volunteers were making last-minute preparations.
The tornado swept in and out in one minute on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 20. In that howling 60 seconds, one man was killed, countless others were injured, nearly 20 buildings at the fair grounds were destroyed, and debris was hurled in every direction.
Xenia resident Jim Mullins was the storm's only fatality. At the fairgrounds when the storm struck, he and his wife had taken shelter in their truck when it was hit by an uprooted tree. Although he was not a member of the Old Timers club, Mullins was a draft horse enthusiast.
"They took him from the church to the cemetery in a horse-drawn wagon," says Russ Luse, president of the Old Timers.
The storm built in intensity as it reached Xenia.
"It came in over Indiana, but it was just thunderstorms there. Then it just dropped in here in a flash. It was," Russ adds, "a disagreeable day to start with."
Russ, who's long been in charge of the show's demonstration area, worked that Wednesday afternoon belting up equipment. The weather grew ugly.
"It was windy; the sky looked weird," Russ recalls. "We'd get a shower of rain throughout the afternoon. Getting on toward 5 o'clock, it did look bad." The demonstration area was not complete; equipment still had to be moved to make room for belts. But Russ had had enough for one day.
"I'm no spring chicken," he recalls saying. "I'm tired; let's go."
There had been no warning at the fairgrounds when the tornado hit at 7:28 p.m. As many as 150 people were at the fairgrounds that evening: early arrivals in campers, flea market vendors, workers setting up crafts displays and concessions operations. At the last minute, they scrambled for shelter. One man fled to a 140x50 tent where the raffle tractor was parked.
Incredibly, both the man and the tractor escaped serious injury.
"But there wasn't enough of that tent left to wash a window with," Russ says.
Nearly 50 vintage tractors were already at the fairgrounds when the storm hit. Not one was damaged, Russ says, with one exception: the club's raffle tractor, a D 10 Allis-Chalmers.
"There were dents in the fender and the hood," he says, "and the muffler was broken."
The club's threshing machine – a 1944 Huber – was also spared. Otherwise, the club lost everything.
"All our food supplies, cornbread, beans," Russ says, running through a mental inventory. "... two old-fashioned iron kettles were busted up ... the deep freeze and refrigerator ... our tables and chairs were all scattered everywhere ..." Electric service to the fairgrounds was lost indefinitely, so the club gave milk and processed eggs (thawing in a refrigerator for use in making ice cream) to local nursing homes, where there was adequate cold storage.
The next morning, club members gathered to take stock; make plans.
"I told them we should thank God it didn't happen Friday or Saturday night," Russ says. "We were blessed that it didn't happen then, when there would have been a large crowd."
Although Russ is quick to say that the show will be back in business next year, no one knows exactly what that means. Virtually every building at the Greene County Fairgrounds was destroyed: barns, livestock show facilities, kitchens, restrooms – everything was lost.
"They say they'll have it back for next year," Russ says. "We'll see. The new buildings have to be built to new code, and they can't be so close together, so they're going to have to take up cement floors."
On a Saturday in mid-October, the Xenia Old Timers held "Survivors Day" at the Clifton Presbyterian Church.
"We just wanted to try to get everybody together again," Russ says. "We did everything the same ... the opening ceremony, a carry-in dinner at noon, and we raffled off that tractor. We just got it back from having repair work done on it, and it looks like new again."
It is a reminder of solid values for a group that was already long in that department.
"Every meeting of the club, from the very beginning 30 years ago, we've opened with a prayer," Russ says. "I think that's been part of our success.
"We've had more than one adverse situation over the years, but this is the worst trouble we've seen," he admits. "But we'll be back next year, stronger than ever. Do we need anything? Just moral support, I think." FC
For more information: Old Timer's Club, online at www.oldtimersclub.com.