When fair returns, no more grease pole

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 April 2021 at 7:17 am

Insurance company nixes popular event at Orleans County 4-H Fair

Photos by Tom Rivers: Jacob Golding of the Doughboys nears the top of the grease on July 26, 2019 at the Orleans County 4-H Fair. For about 40 years, the grease pole climbing challenge was a very popular event to conclude busy days at the fair. The Doughboys started to slip on this day and weren’t able to get another team member to the top. They battled for several minutes before toppling in front of a big crowd of several hundred people.

KNOWLESVILLE – One of most popular events at the Orleans County 4-H Fair has been banned by the fair’s insurance company.

The grease pole draws big crowds each night to watch teams try to reach the top of a 20-foot-pole slathered in grease. The teams often slip and struggle, and many don’t complete the challenge. It is a fun spectacle for the crowd, which tends to offer encouragement to the teams.

The Grease Monkeys competed in the grease pole climbing competition three days at the fair in July 2019, getting better each time. The first night on Wednesday they didn’t get to the top. Friday they qualified for the finals. Brian Smith is the base for the team, followed by Colton Chappius, Jacob Golding and Jakob Hering.

There have been sore necks and backs, but no one has ever needed First Aid in the 40 or so years of the competition, said Robert Batt, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orleans County, which runs the fair.

He was notified about a month ago the insurance company would no longer allow the grease pole. Niagara County was trying to start the grease pole at its fair and told the insurance provider Orleans has long had the popular competition.

The insurance company rejected Niagara’s request, and also told Orleans it would have to end the event.

“It’s a total bummer,” Batt said.

An insurance company stopped the grease pole in the early ’80s, back when the event was held closer to Route 31 near the Trolley Building. After a few years, the insurance provider gave it another chance. The pole was relocated to the volleyball court with a softer surface on the west side of the fairgrounds.

The event has been a rite of passage for many 4-H’ers who join a team when they turn 18. Batt was among the 4-H’ers who gave it a try.

Batt didn’t know of another fair that had the grease pole. It was a daring event in a fair that doesn’t have a demolition derby and doesn’t allow alcohol.

“I had never seen it at any other places,” Batt said. “It’s something maybe we could try to get back into in a few years.”

The fair is coming up with a new challenge that Batt thinks will be a crowd-pleaser. Teams of two will need to push a giant round hay bale in a circle.

Jeremy Neal, the grease pole chairman, is heading the effort of the new challenge. He is experimenting on the course and size of the hay bales.

“We are testing it to make sure a person can do it,” Batt said. “We want it to be challenging. It won’t be easy.”

The hay bale rolling event will be open to competitors 16 and older. That is 2 years younger than the cutoff for the grease pole.

It will be easier for people to form teams because they won’t need as many members, and they won’t destroy shirts and jeans from the event like with the grease pole. They also won’t have to worry about gobs of grease getting in their hair.

Andrew Jones of Kent enjoys conquering the grease pole with the Troll Diggers on July 27, 2019. The Troll Diggers won the last four grease pole titles. Last year’s event wasn’t held due to the fair being cancelled due to Covid-19. The Troll Diggers in 2019 included team captain Jeff Ebel, Lyssa Jones, Nathaniel Jenks, Alyssa Ebel, Isaiah Jenks, Zach Kimmel and Andrew Jones.

This year’s fair – ‘a lot of unknowns and questions’

Regarding this year’s fair, scheduled for July 26-31, Batt said the fair officials are waiting for guidelines from the state Department of Health.

The fair committee is planning for a range of versions of the fair – from a small scaled down version with livestock shows, 4-H exhibits and drive-through dinners to a nearly full fair with rides and lots of entertainment.

“I’m as hopeful as hopeful can be,” Batt said. “But right now there are a lot of unknowns and questions.”

Joe Clark holds on tight as the second guy up for “The Barn Animals,” one of the teams that competed in the grease pole on July 29, 2017. Most of the team members are parents of kids who show animals at the fair, or are long-time 4-H members. The Barn Animals couldn’t quite get to the top of the pole.

Alex Graff, a Medina native, was covered in grease, but had a great time during the grease pole championships on July 27, 2013 to cap off the Orleans County 4-H Fair. Steven Papponetti is trying to climb of Graff’s shoulders. Graff and Papponetti are members of the Rough N Ready team. They weren’t able to reach the top of the pole on Saturday.