The 2018 Delaware County Fair is in the books, but rest assured, when the 2019 version kicks off next September, a fair favorite will once again provide the youngest fairgoers a place to explore their imagination while visiting the fairgrounds, just as Eli Lehner did two decades ago.
“Eli’s Farm opened at the 1998 Delaware County Fair as a memorial to our son we lost in November of 1997 in a car accident,” Beth Lehner said. “He was just shy of his fourth birthday.”
As owners and operators of DEE Lehner Farms in Troy Township, the Lehner family and the Delaware County Fair have gone hand-in-hand over the decades. During this time, the family has enjoyed a longstanding tradition of showing dairy cattle during the fair, so it was only a matter of time before Eli was introduced to the sights and sounds of the annual gathering at the Delaware County Fairgrounds.
Months before the tragic accident, Eli spent the 1997 Delaware County Fair doing what most 3-year-old boys do to pass the time — play with toys, especially those with wheels. In Eli’s case, he found the dirt aisles of the dairy barn to be the perfect location to stage his own little farm, complete with all his favorite farm toys.
“Children would stop and want to play with Eli and his farm toys,” Lehner said.
With this image of her son forever etched in her memory, Lehner said the family decided to give other families who visit the fair the chance to create lasting memories of their own by giving children a place to imagine they are operating their own little farm, just as Eli once did in the dirt of the dairy barn.
“When we lost Eli, we decided the best way to preserve his memory was to create a place where families could stop and allow their children to play with farm toys,” Lehner said. “This was going to be the only farm Eli would have, so that is why we named it Eli’s Farm.”
With approval from the Delaware County Fair Board, Eli’s Farm, which features a large sandbox complete with various farm toys as well as several benches for parents to rest on and watch their child’s imagination at work, was established 20 years ago.
Flash-forward two decades and the yearly attraction, which is set up just outside the Dairy Barn, continues to be a favorite among families who attend the Delaware County Fair.
“The attraction has been well-accepted over the years, and at most times, it has a crowd of families enjoying the area,” Lehner said. Every year we have families tell us, ‘This is one of the main reasons we come to the fair.’’
Knowing Eli’s Farm has become a staple for families attending the fair has helped the family cope with its loss, while also keeping Eli’s memory alive. A photograph of him playing with his farm toys hangs from one of the corners of the tent that helps keep the rain and sun away from the sandbox and benches.
“We wanted (Eli’s Farm) close to the Dairy Barn so we could keep an eye on it and actually get to see the people enjoying it while we take care of the cows,” Lehner said. “It has been a source of healing to our family to watch the families enjoying it, and we look forward to putting it up every year.”
Lehner said while Eli’s Farm hasn’t changed much over the years, there’s always a chance the family could tinker with it in the coming years.
“Now that our daughters are finished with 4-H and we may not be as busy, we have talked about things we could add to the area,” she said. “Maybe something that the kids would enjoy and that would continue to teach them about farming.”
Whether there are any changes made or not to Eli’s Farm when it opens next September for its 21st year, one thing is for sure — the Lehners have no intention to stop putting out the sandbox, farm toys and benches for fairgoers, especially now that another generation is ready to make memories in Eli’s Farm.
“It has been our pleasure to provide this area for the fair for 20 years, and we hope to continue that tradition as long as we are able and the interest is there,” Lehner said. “This year, we were blessed with a grandson, Mac, and we are recognizing a second generation of children enjoying the sandbox their parents played in. We look forward to watching Mac grow and enjoy his time at his uncle’s farm.”
Contact Joshua Keeran at 740-413-0900. Follow The Delaware Gazette on Twitter @delgazette. Like The Gazette on Facebook.