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Racing to remember

Harness racing at the Wayne County Fair means more to some, including me

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This week marks the 157th annual Wayne County Fair in Honesdale. Of course, the fair is about Ferris wheels, funnel cakes and family fun, but for many, it’s also a time to honor dedication, tradition and a slate of people who worked for years to make the fair possible.

The annual harness races are one of the oldest attractions at the fair, and one of only a few of their kind still operating in the state. The races feature top-speed racing horses pulling two-wheeled carts and their drivers around the track. The races celebrate horsemanship, but also those who have volunteered their time and effort to the fair community in years past.

According to the Wayne Independent’s sports editor Kevin Edwards, harness racing at the fair at the close of the 19th century garnered excitement for pitting Honesdale horses vs. Hawley, earning bragging rights for the town’s winner. In 1870s Wayne County, harness racing was even popular outside of fair time. Wayne County Fair presidents and their cohorts honored the tradition, even as its popularity outside of fair time might have declined.

Before each race, as hooves kick at the dirt behind the gate in anticipation, those gathered often whisper the names of those bygone men in memory.

The horses are bred for racing every day of the year. Raceday is the payoff for people like Race Secretary Jeff Firmstone. He’s following tradition. Firmstone’s father, John Firmstone, was a former director and vice president of the fair.

“I remember coming to the fair with my dad as a kid,” Firmstone said. “It’s always been familiar to me. It’s an honor to come back year after year and keep it alive.”

Each year, a harness-racing event takes place in John Firmstone’s honor. The Firmstone family presents the winning racer with a trophy as an announcer bellows, “In memory of John Firmstone” through the speakers.
“It fills you with a sense of pride, it really does,” said Firmstone.

Others remembered during the races are Doc Perkins, George Martin and Ronald Dirlam, a former harness-race secretary, whose son, Roger, carries on the family tradition by participating in the fair today.
“It’s honor to represent him,” Roger Dirlam said. “He kept people in line on the fairgrounds, that’s for sure.”
On thinking of his late father, Dirlam remembers why he is proud to be at the fair this year, congratulating the winner of his father’s race. “He was a great businessman, a great father, and an all around great person.”

I also attend the harness races every year, and I do so with purpose: Among the many volunteers and contributors to the fair was my great-grandfather, Lynn Highhouse.

Wayne County Harnass Racing Officials circa 1955. (left to right) Walter Beck, Ros McMullen, Al Perkins, Lew Howell, Robert 'Cy' Perkins, David Katz, Lynn Highhouse, Garold 'Gaddy' Warfield, John Beck. Photo contributed by Alan Highhouse.

For as long as I can remember, I was carted along to the harness races in the sweltering heat of early August. As the final horse crossed the finish line and the dust settled on the track, I’d walk out with my family to see the winner, sweaty, a little dirty and smiling broadly.

My Uncle Alan would hand the winner the trophy excitedly, and the pair would exchange a dusty handshake.
As a kid, I never fully understood why I was there, or why it was important. I had never met my great-grandfather, and I didn’t really understand what he did that was so important for the fair.

It wasn’t until recently, in my young adulthood, that I understood that men like my grandfather, and others remembered on race day, poured so much of their time and effort into the fair. They were upholding tradition.

My ancestors, and others, are part of the reason why the Wayne County Fair is celebrating its 157th year.
I’ve learned to appreciate what my Uncle Alan says about my great-grandfather, whom I presume was a pretty cool guy. “He was always happy to be here,” he told me. “It was a job, but it was recreation for him as well. He had fun.”

This week at the track, I was happy too.

The harness race event at the fair highlights the importance of tradition, and reflects that the Wayne County Fair is more than just a place for tilt-a-whirls and cotton candy. It shows that this community has roots, and helps us to remember some of the people who helped to form them.

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