VIDEO: The man behind the fairPublished 4:33pm Tuesday, August 16, 2011
BERRIEN SPRINGS — No one gets in Larry Nelson’s way at the Berrien County Fairgrounds — not even the police.
When Nelson, a 39-year veteran of the grounds crew at the fairgrounds, saw Tuesday a Berrien County Sheriff’s Department vehicle parked in a no-parking zone near where he was operating his fork lift, he was quick to report it.
“It’s in my way. I’m going to write him a big old ticket,” Nelson said with a laugh.
Anyone who is anyone at the Berrien County Youth Fair knows Nelson.
According to one fairgoer: “He makes the fair go.”
If someone is going to follow Nelson around for a day, “you better bring your running shoes,” warned a Berrien County Sheriff’s Department officer at the fair Tuesday.
During fair week, Nelson’s day begins at 6 a.m. with hauling crates of animal manure in his forklift off the fairgrounds, where it will then be sold to area nurseries and garden centers. Nelson estimates he moves more than 230 crates of manure each day.
“I’m the first one here,” he said. “People around here know that when they hear the forklift beeping, it’s time to get up and go.”
He often spends five to six hours moving the manure and spends the rest of his day doing odd jobs around the fairgrounds and performing maintenance on machines. Nelson also is responsible for lawn care and is the only one trusted to operate the forklift when fitting vendor trailers into very tight spaces.
His workday sometimes won’t come to an end until midnight.
“He sometimes works 60 to 65 hours a week,” said Harold “Dito” Weiss, the maintenance manager at the fairgrounds. “That’s dedication. He’s a rare breed.”
Despite the long hours, often in mid-August heat, Nelson is smiling the whole way.
“He’s one of my favorite people to work with. He makes me laugh,” said first-year maintenance worker Andria Wolske of Eau Claire. “He just likes seeing the joy in people.”
Nelson’s roots in the Berrien Springs area run deep. His grandfather owned a significant portion of the property that is now the fairgrounds and he is buried there.
Nelson, 73, was also a fair exhibitor throughout his childhood, beginning at age 5.
“I used to show my horse here. I loved the fair so much I kept coming back,” he said.
So what keeps Nelson coming back 39 years later?
It’s his passion for making the fair better.
“I try to make it look like a state fairgrounds instead of a county fairgrounds,” he said.
Nelson admits in his older age, his body can’t handle what it used to. But that doesn’t mean retirement is coming any time soon.
“I’ll probably be here until I pass away,” he said.