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Good weather and an appearance by the Turtleman Ernie Brown Jr. brought one of the biggest Ham Days crowds in recent memory to downtown Lebanon over the weekend.
The Marion County Chamber of Commerce notes that the festival attracts crowds of 50,000 people, and this year, local officials are saying the crowds were bigger than they can remember.
Brad Mattingly, a former chamber president and board member and a current Ham Days Committee member, said everything was busy when he walked around the festival.
"I would say, especially Saturday, it would have to be one of the biggest crowds in my memory," Mattingly said.
He mentioned three factors that he thinks contributed to the size of this year's crowd. First and foremost, the weather was good during the weekend, which is always important for an outdoor festival. Second, September had five weekends this year, which meant Ham Days was not competing with the Apple Festival in Liberty this year.
And last, but not least, the Turtleman was back.
The influx of Turtleman fans was evident in front of, around and behind the David R. Hourigan Government Office Building throughout much of the day Saturday. No one gave an estimate on the number of people who waited in line for autographs and photos with Brown and his Turtle Team, but Mattingly and Lebanon Police Chief Wally Brady agreed that thousands of people waited for a chance to meet the star of Animal Planet's "Call of the Wildman."
Brady said he heard reports of people from Alaska, Arkansas and Indiana making the trip to Lebanon just for the chance to meet Brown.
"That was interesting," Brady said.
Rich Peyton and his son Lucas, 7, and Lucas's grandparents, Thomas and Cindy Gentry, drove three hours from Lebanon, Ohio. Cindy Gentry said they got in line around 11 a.m. Keep in mind that the Turtleman did not arrive to start signing autographs until after the Pigasus Parade, and the parade did not start until after 1 p.m.
"He's so down to earth. He's sincere," she said. "I love what he does."
Breanna Davis, Bridget Reinke and Danny Murre drove 10 hours from Oshkosh, Wis., and then waited in line more than seven and a half hours to meet Brown.
"Turtleman touched me," Davis exclaimed after they finally got to pose for a photo with him.
The Baghdady family from Monroe, Conn., drove 850 miles to come to Ham Days for the weekend. George Baghdady was celebrating his 50th birthday over the weekend, and rather than having a party, the family decided to visit Ham Days after seeing it mentioned on the Turtleman's television show.
George Baghdady said he grew up on a farm and recalls catching animals himself. He became a fan of the show, but he said his daughters, Alexandra, 9, and Ava, 7, turned out to like the Turtleman even more than he does.
"It's something that we'll remember forever," said Stacy Baghdady, George's wife.
While many Turtleman fans came Saturday, the Baghdadys were here for the festival. On Sunday, Alexandra competed in and won her age group in the karaoke contest, and George did his best in the hay bale toss.
The bigger crowds weren't just because of the Turtleman, however. The Farmers National Bank Pokey Pig 5K attracted 547 runners this year. Last year, 343 runners finished the race.
Monty Parman, who helps organize the parade, said 117 numbered entries were in the Spring View Hospital Pigasus Parade this year, and another 30 entries joined the parade. He added that people need to keep in mind that some "entries" are bigger than others. The Shriners took up four blocks, but they are considered one entry.
"I've been doing it [the parade] for 33 years, and I think that's the biggest parade I've ever been part of," Parman said.
The Turtleman fans even showed up at the fire station when they found out he was stationed there to enter the parade.
"I've never seen anything like it," Parman said.
The Stuart Powell Ford Car, Truck and Motorcycle Show on Sunday drew 222 entries, which is more than double the number of entries as last year.
While the bigger crowds were evident to many people as they roamed the arts and crafts booths, watched the parade and waited in line for something to eat, the number of breakfasts served were about average, according to Mattingly.
Mattingly reported that 4,574 breakfasts were served over the weekend, which is up more than 800 breakfasts compared to 2011, but right around the average for the past five years.
"We haven't cracked 5,000 in a few years," he said.
Regardless, people were definitely eating. Mattingly said whenever he walked around there were lines at every food vendor and booth set up for the festival.
Brady said the Lebanon Police opened 17 criminal cases over the weekend, including four DUIs, six arrests for alcohol intoxication, and multiple drug possession charges. He said the police work was pretty typical for Ham Days weekend.
However, Brady added that one arrest was a first for Ham Days.
Charles Smith, 30, of Columbia, Ky., was arrested at 1:54 a.m. Sunday on three charges of first-degree wanton endangerment and alcohol intoxication. Smith is accused of firing a .40-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun into the air three times in the parking lot behind Lebanon Health and Fitness Center.
This was the first Ham Days for Nicky Reynolds, who took over as the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission executive director earlier this year.
"I was not sure what to expect, but I was delightfully surprised," she said.
And Reynolds wasn't alone in that sentiment.
Artist Mark Hendershot of Duluth, Minn., spent the weekend drawing caricatures of people near the breakfast line.
"This is one of the nicest festivals I have ever worked," he said.
And the Connecticans were pleased as well.
"I just can't believe it's the entire town," Stacy Baghdady said on Sunday. "I wish our town had something like this."