WELLINGTON — County fair animal judging can border on the cutthroat.
Happily, that’s not the case with poultry people, Becky Milks said as she talked this week with fellow poultry folk behind the Lorain County Fair’s new poultry barn.
“We tease and torment each other, but everyone is really there for each other,” said Milks, who pored through the detailed pages of a large book displaying a huge variety of poultry with Robin Zurcher, herself a poultry exhibitor and wife of Chris Zurcher, director of the fair’s open-class poultry barn.
As both women readily attest, two people who have been there for so many others over the years are Tom Kelley and Keith Shay, each of whom is widely known in poultry circles for his knowledge, experience and award-winning birds.
Both men were inducted into the American Poultry Association Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I nominated Keith, who has had two strokes, and they turned my name in as well,” said Kelley, 69.
“It’s a real honor, believe me,” Shay said. “They only pick two to three some years.”
The two men have known each other for decades, and lived on the same street for a time.
Shay, 75, lives in Lorain County, while Kelley, who was born and raised in Elyria, moved to Ashland County some years ago.
“I never took poultry (to fairs and shows) years ago,” Kelley said. “I took hogs and lambs.”
He got into raising poultry in the 1970s.
Shay raised hogs, lambs and pigs. “Hogs were my second-favorite,” Shay said, behind poultry.
A true veteran of the fair circuit, Kelley has missed only one Lorain County Fair in 1965, interrupting a string that began in 1955 and has continued to this year.
“That was the year I was in the service,” Kelley said.
A longtime veteran of 4-H as well, Kelley glanced at the original poultry barn next door, which received a facelift this year.
“When that barn was built (in the early 1960s), I slept in there on a cot the first night,” Kelley recalled. “I just wanted to do that.”
These days, Kelley serves as a judge for poultry and pigeons.
It’s clear he and Shay are fair fixtures as people flock to them to chat, catch up and seek advice, as one woman did when she approached Kelley to ask about raising turkeys.
A short distance away, people walked up to Shay to say hello and give him some big hugs.
“Keith is a legend in the poultry barn,” Zurcher said. “He raised and bred so many quality birds.”
Sadly, one of many changes both men are seeing within the industry is the shortage of people willing to invest the considerable amount of time and energy required to breed and show poultry these days.
“You just don’t see much of that anymore,” Kelley said. “They’re disappearing.”
Thankfully, that’s not the case with Kelley and Shay.
“They’re such good people,” said Zurcher, whose uncle is Henrietta Township native Neil Zurcher of TV-8’s “Traveling Man” fame. “They’d do anything to promote poultry and showmanship in the 4-H barn. It really has a good trickle-down effect.”
She recalled Kelley taking Chris and his brothers to poultry shows when they were in 4-H.
“We’ve got to help these kids keep it going,” Kelley said.
“They just don’t make them like that anymore,” Zurcher said.
Long honored for longevity
A short distance away by the Junior Fair 4-H barns, Vic Long was attending a lamb judging.
A retired senior project engineer from Ridge Tool Co., Long worked 32 years for the Elyria toolmaker, but always had time to assist kids who raise and show animals at the 4-H Junior Fair.
Long, 82, was surprised Monday when he was honored for 40 years of volunteering to 4-H, which included years working with the Old Steer Club, which coincided with the 10 years he spent raising steers.
That was followed by 30 years raising sheep and working with those who judge the fair’s 4-H sheep shows.
“I was totally taken aback,” Long said of the recognition, which included an embroidered blue denim shirt and jacket denoting his 40 years of 4-H service.
Long can boast several county fair grand champion winners in his own family, including daughter Pam, who raised a champion steer in 1976; granddaughter Amy McCrann, who won for her prize turkey; and granddaughter Katie Grieve, who was recognized in 1999 for her champion lamb.
“We’re a very successful, fair-oriented family,” Long said.
Over the years, Long said he works “not to push myself on these (4-H) kids. I just wait for them to come ask me questions or to help them with things.”
He’s come to have much respect and admiration for Junior Fair exhibitors over the years.
“You don’t read about these kids getting in trouble,” Long said. “I can’t say enough good things about the quality people I can be associated with here. I hope I have more time to help out where I can.”
Long also may be a familiar face as one of the smiling, helpful crew who wrap Christmas trees purchased at the Wilcox Tree Farm in LaGrange.
“That’s my retirement job,” Long said.
Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.