July has always been synonymous with two things in Fayette County: the heat and the fair.
For many, they are inseparable. This year withstanding, the Fayette County Fair is an event that both young and old look forward to every single year. Whether it is a special 4-H project, the roar of the grandstand shows, the hustle and bustle of the midway, the lights and sounds coming from the rides, or all of the delicious fair food, the fair has a special spot in the hearts of many within our community.
The magic of the fair is something that has spanned history and time in our county. Like all of us fair-goers, there was one local man who also enjoyed the lights and magic that came with the county fair. Let me introduce you to Ora Saunders; however, if you ever met him in person, he would simply want you to call him Buck.
Buck was originally from Washington Court House and took great pride in the town he called home. At an early age, Buck was captivated by not just the Fayette County Fair but many others as well. The magic of the fairs was something so powerful to Buck that at a young age he left the town he loved to follow his passion and literally join the circus.
He initially began his storied career playing in the band of the John Robinson Circus; however, through time, he worked in nearly every area and with nearly every major circus and carnival in the nation including the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.
When it came to this sort of community entertainment, Buck was in the center of it all. From being a “barker” or announcer at side shows to working his way up to managing midways for fairs, carnivals and expositions, Buck loved the magic of these events. His big break came though when he managed one of the major shows during the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, or as we all know it – the Chicago World’s Fair.
Fairs, carnivals and circuses ran through Buck’s blood. After spending many years traveling, he finally returned to his home turf and joined the F.E. Gooding Amusements Company based in Columbus. Here he was a booking and publicity agent.
Despite traveling all over, Buck still held Washington Court House in his heart. With more than 65 different rides listed in their inventory, F.E. Gooding Amusements Company was one of the largest rides and midway distributors in the world. This was a special perk for our town because having a local boy in the office meant that the Fayette County Fair got all the great rides and concessions. In fact, it was rumored that Buck and Mr. Gooding personally made sure that our fair always had the latest, most-streamlined midway rides and attractions available.
The Big Top was a draw to many in Fayette County. Buck was actually one of more than 70 who left their beloved town to follow the circus. In fact, for many years Washington Court House was referred to as “the circus town.” Many of the relatives of these circus folk still live in our communities today and have fond memories and stories from the past.
Despite traveling all over, Buck still held Washington Court House in his heart. When he wasn’t on the road, Buck and his wife, Mary, called Washington Court House home. As a World War I veteran, Buck was very active in the community and was involved with organizations such as the American Legion, the Fayette Masonic Lodge #107, and the Scottish Rite, Valley of Columbus.
He was also known around town for his pure talent at organizing and emceeing minstrel shows, amateur acts and other community events. Buck was also a driving force behind the Fayette County War Memorial, which was dedicated in 1925 and is located on the grounds of the courthouse.
In 1945, Buck wrote an article for the Record-Herald’s Fair Edition where he spoke about the importance of county fairs and how they were a true American institution. With a man who had such a unique life traveling the world through fairs, carnivals and circuses, it is wonderful to still look out into our community and see others who can also appreciate the magic of the midway and the draw of the fair all these years later.
In 1959, just three years after retiring from the entertainment industry, Buck passed away and is buried in the Washington Cemetery. Ora “Buck” Saunders is just one of the many unique people in history that have shaped the character and dedication to our town and county.
To learn more about other historical figures or events that make Fayette County unique, visit the Fayette County Historical Society’s Facebook page. Although the museum is not currently open to the public due to COVID-19, you can still learn about some of the great things that make our town unique through their Facebook page.