Allegations levied on county fair board after Old Engine Association pulls out of fair
CENTREVILLE — The St. Joe Valley Old Engine Association has been a staple of the St. Joseph County Grange Fair for the last 40 years.
Bringing antique tractors to the fairgrounds near the front entrance of the fair and assisting with certain events, the group of tractor enthusiasts have normally been a routine sight at the fairgrounds every year since 1982.
That is, until this year.
In spring, the group made the decision to pull out of this year’s fair almost entirely – the group is still participating in the AgCiting events on the fairgrounds, which occurred Tuesday and continues today and Friday and is run by the Michigan State University Extension – after numerous events the group allege occurred between them and the fair’s board of directors between the end of the 2021 fair and this spring.
John Steiner, an Old Engine Association board member who interacted regularly with the fair board since 2010, alleged that a series of incidents that occurred between the group and the fair board in the aforementioned timeframe led to the withdrawal of a fair staple, which is now set up this week at a farm at 18876 Centreville-Constantine Rd., five miles away from the fairgrounds.
Most of the issues Steiner alleges have to do with disputes with the board regarding fair passes, insurance issues, and the proposed move of the group’s display to the new Heritage Park area of the fairgrounds, which was introduced this year. With the fair passes, Steiner alleged that members of the fair’s Board of Directors told him that the group was “costing them money” because they were given passes to get in and did not buy pit passes to assist with pullbacks for the modified tractor and trailer pulls.
“They said, ‘we were giving you too many passes and costing us too much money.’ I said that was ridiculous, you guys are making a ton of money because my sisters and brothers are coming in; they’re paying to get in to see me with my tractor at the tent,” Steiner said, adding that the same cost reasons were given for the pit passes as well.
“They said that we were costing them money because we weren’t buying pit passes, but we were pulling the modified tractors for them using our gas, our money and our time. They were splitting hairs. They said, well you’re not buying pit passes so you’re costing us money to get in to do this, but it’s like, we’re working and doing you guys a favor. They didn’t like that.”
St. Joseph County Fair Manager Missy Tefft said in an interview Tuesday that passes were reviewed by her after the 2021 fair at the request of the fair board. She said it was determined that passes for groups as a whole needed to be “curtailed.”
“It wasn’t because we didn’t want people in here, but you’re here to have the fairgoers come in, and as with any company, even though we’re a nonprofit, you still have to make revenue in order to keep running. They had just chosen to have it more standardized,” Tefft said. “At that time, there wasn’t really a standard for how many passes each group got; it was, for lack of a better phrase, unfair from one group to the next. So what we did is buttoned that up a bit to make sure everyone got an adequate amount of passes equally.”
Tefft said the Old Engine Association’s request was usually for 150 week-long passes and that the group was made aware of the new policy regarding passes, saying that the fair had “requested them to let us know how many tractors they had in there, and how many passes they absolutely needed.” She did not recall anything being said about “being a burden with their request for passes,” and that she “can’t imagine there were any other fair board members that would make that type of comment.”
The Commercial-News requested to speak with Fair Board President Keith Bowers and Fair Board Vice President Angie Mingus for this article, but they were not made available for comment by fair management, citing their busy schedules for fair week.
As for the proposed move to the new Heritage Park for the 2022 fair, Steiner alleged the group was not informed right away at the end of last year’s fair where they would be moving to.
“They said, ‘Well, we’re going to move you.’ I said, where are you going to move us? They said, ‘Well, we don’t know yet.’ I then asked why they were going to move us, and they said, ‘Because we can.’ So, they didn’t give us a definitive answer,” Steiner said.
However, when it was revealed around February that they would be moving to the west side of the grounds, where Heritage Park would be and where the popular Kiddie Land was in prior years before its removal, Steiner said that caused more issues for the group.
“it’s all asphalt down there. Our members are all older, and they can’t walk from the parking lot all the way down to Kiddie Land, and it’s asphalt down there, where some of these tractors have steel wheels or cleats on them. It would not work because we would tear up their asphalt. Then who ends up paying for the asphalt? Our club,” Steiner said. “And they also put us down there – and this is the other scuttlebutt – is if they put us down there, we would be the scapegoats for Kiddie Land not being there. Eventually, the community wants Kiddie Land back to where it was; the people would like to have the big kids and younger kids separated. That’s where they wanted to put us.”
Tefft said the board “always knew where we were going to put” the Old Engine Association tractors from the beginning of the proposed move, even at the end of last year’s fair, when Steiner claimed that they “didn’t know where” they would be put. In addition, Tefft said the group’s sentiment about being “scapegoats” for the removal of Kiddie Land was incorrect and was never communicated to them.
“That decision to move Kiddie Land was supposed to have happened in 2020 when we had COVID and ended up not having the fair,” Tefft said. “They may have felt that way, but that was never portrayed in any form or fashion.”
The reasoning for wanting to move the group to the Heritage Park section, Tefft explained, was because they wanted to “develop an education area down by our garden,” saying the space they would’ve occupied would have been larger than their current area and would’ve provided camping areas for the group.
“We had talked for quite a few years about adding an open-class antique tractor exhibit and developing that into an educational area with the tractors and old-time equipment and machinery,” Tefft said. “We wanted to develop an area down there that helped the kids, because the fair is supposed to be for agriculture and how this has all developed throughout the years. We just wanted an educational area that kind of encompassed and worked with all that.”
Another allegation levied by Steiner involved the group’s tractor parades around part of the fairground, which usually occurred daily and went in a loop around Machinery Row and 4-H Street. He alleged the fair board “decided” that the fair’s insurance would not cover the parades anymore, even though they had been allowed to do the parades in the past because the group’s insurance would’ve covered it. He also claimed the fair board told them that they may have been able to do the parades on the racetrack, but he said that wouldn’t have worked for the group because “you don’t drive tractors around that track because it’s a horse racing track.”
Tefft said the issue with the tractor parades came about because the fair’s insurance company advised them to not allow the parades as they had been done due to liability concerns.
“That was the advice from our insurance company, that having them out there in an area where there are people walking, that was a huge liability issue. I understand their insurance company covered that, but ours advised that it really wasn’t advantageous to us to continue that,” Tefft said. “Not that their insurance wouldn’t have sufficed, it was at the advice of our insurance company that we not have that happen. It’s dangerous; if someone got hit, I realize that it’s their insurance that would cover it, but you know how things go, it happened at the fair.”
Tefft said they would’ve also allowed the group to do the parades on the racetrack, and disputed the claim that because it was a horse racing track, tractors wouldn’t have been able to be on the track.
“We have events all week long that tractors and heavy equipment has to be on a pulling pad and on that track also,” Tefft said.
Another alleged issue brought up by Steiner had to do with the group’s potlucks. He said when they moved to their spot near the main gate around 2012, the area started to become what Steiner called a “hospitality center” of sorts for people thar were working the festival.
“We gave away lemonade, coffee, tea to people that were out there working. And when they had the third shift security for the sheriff’s department, we opened up our tent and it had coffee, donuts and pies,” Steiner said. “We opened that up to them because that’s the best security you could get. Get a cup of coffee and a donut, he’s gonna hang out.”
That soon led to having a potluck tent for the Old Engine Association’s members only, which he said didn’t sit well with one of the members of the fair board.
“They said our whole tractor club was costing us money because we had a potluck tent and we weren’t buying food from the vendors, and we were taking money away from the vendors,” Steiner said. “That was for our members, but everybody went and bought fair food too.”
Tefft said in an interview Tuesday that the fair has “never deterred” groups and those camping out from bringing in their own food.
“As long as they do it amongst themselves, that’s perfectly fine,” Tefft said.
Steiner said all of the issues put together led to them pulling out of the fair, a decision made by the group at a meeting this past spring.
“I explained to our membership what’s going on, and said maybe I need to step down as being part of the fair and let someone else step up. They said, how about us just not going to the fair. So, we decided as a club to not go to the fair,” Steiner said.
All in all, Steiner said if the fair had communicated better with the group and allowed them to have the passes they wanted, they would not have pulled out of the fair.
“That’s one thing we did not have, there was not good communication. Then it just all broke down,” Steiner said. “the only thing we ever expected out of the fair, for every one of these people that took a tractor there to show get a pass. That’s it; all they had to do was give us that pass, and we would’ve been there. If they did the move, if they could’ve said, ‘this is why we’re moving you, we found a better use for the property you were on, we see that you guys need more room, work with us’ instead of coming out and saying, ‘this is what we’re doing, you’re going to be moved because we can do it,’ then we’d be at the fair this year.”
Steiner did not rule out a return to the fair, saying he’d like the group to go back, but said there’d have to be “concessions” to do so.
“They’re going to have to be nice to us if they want us to come. They’ll have to be nice to us. If they would give us status quo and get it back to exactly the way it was three years ago, there would be no problem,” Steiner said.
Tefft agreed that she wants the group to come back as well, as part of the Heritage Park area of the fairgrounds.
“We did not want them to leave or not come back. That was never our intent. Our intent is to build up this new area down here for the education community. Everything we do is for the community, and we want to build things up and make it better,” Tefft said. “We’d still love them to have them be a part of it; it was never our intent to not have them be a part of it. If they were here and in our educational area at Heritage Park, that would just make it that much better than what it is already this year. I would hope they can come back and be over there next year.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or firstname.lastname@example.org.