BURTON - Feathers were flying around the grandstand ring as the traditional chicken flying contest opened the state's oldest county fair Thursday.
Frog jumping is on tap for 3 p.m. Labor Day, but it was the hens and roosters that got top billing to kick off what's always been known as the Great Geauga County Fair.
More than a dozen hens and more than a half dozen roosters were launched from a mailbox on a perch by official starter Bob Rogish, who uses a plunger to push the bird out of the box and into an arena ring.
Gabrielle Adams, 8, of East Claridon, holds onto her hen named Mascara before the bird took its turn in the contest. Mascara finished second in the hen division. Photo by Christopher Bobby
Kids volunteer to catch the livestock after they land, and the precise distance is measured.
The participants register their chickens by name, including the likes of Fat Albert, Macaroni, Little Albert, Axe, Boomer and Chocolate Chip.
A rooster named Fool and owned by Rachel Banks claimed that division with a flight of 21 feet, 2 inches before flying another 17 feet, 9 inches to defeat the champion of the hen division, Toffee, owned by Lana Strimbu.
Strimbu's hen won that division by sailing 29 feet, 3 inches, outdistancing a bird known as Mascara, owned by eight-year-old Gabrielle Adams, of East Claridon.
Mascara made it a distance of 25 feet, 2 inches.
The girl's parents, Mark and Laura Adams, brought all three of their kids, including Samuel, 10, and Ellen, 12. They brought their birds, thinking the lighter hens had a better shot at beating out the heavier roosters.
The family of five moved here two years ago from Australia, where Mark owns a bio tech business.
''We feed them chicken feed and scraps,'' said a dejected Gabrielle, who then allowed her hen to be used in a yearly contest between junior high schools in West Geauga and Kenston. Mascara got edged out against a bird from Kenston, the defending champion.
But the young girl fared better than her older brother and sister, whose chickens barley made it into the ring.
The competition has been sponsored for the last 18 years by Geauga Probate Judge Tim Grendell and his wife Diane, a judge with the 11th District Court of Appeals.
In Geauga County, some students get a day off school when the fair opens and the day before to prepare the birds for the competition. Strategy up until lift-off even includes kids holding the chickens in the shade to calm and cool them.
Each entrant is asked if the bird has been blood tested for pullorum.
''No, it's a disease. We're not checking for performance-enhancing drugs or anything,'' said George Timmins, 80, of Newbury, who was recruited to check-in all the competing birds.
Timmins claims he's only missed two fairs in Geauga County in his lifetime.
''One year when I was in the service and another time when my wife made me go to Alaska with her. I got lost once when I was 3. But some neighbor found me and took me back to my parents. Things were different back then. Everybody knew everybody,'' he said.
''You either like the fair or you don't. I wouldn't miss it,'' Timmins said.