“Do you want to start him or do you want me to?,” asks a bearded man looking over his shoulder as he kneels among 60-some odd children. He’s speaking to a very young girl who shyly peaks out from behind her mom’s leg while holding tightly, with all her might, onto Mom’s hand.
The young girl quickly turns her head away, hiding from the man, Jim Hoover of Conneautville, who is holding onto a frog — a frog that looks calm and almost gentlemanly, even appearing to smile as the giant man waves him around showing him off to the crowd before placing him on the starting line.
The little girl is the bashful, somewhat afraid owner of the frog, one caught in a nearby pond by her brother or father earlier that day. She turns back to watch with at least one of her eyes, but still clinging tight to Mom.
The frog, an athlete in a test of his abilities as a leaper, is about to show off his talents to more than 100 children and their families in an arena constructed out of a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood with 2-foot high sides open on each end. It’s painted in a variety of blues and greens to look like idyllic pond water. Surrounded by Hoover’s giant hands, poised and ready (or at least we think he is) the frog readies himself to leap for all he is worth once Hoover lifts his hands from around him. The crowd, of mostly young boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 12 are excited and nudging themselves as close to the track as they can to see the frog perhaps break records.
Hoover, a Conneutvillian through and through, is the master of ceremonies, the jump starter for each and every frog at the annual Conneautville Homecoming Fair Frog Jumping contest since 1984. That’s 25 years.
Back in his younger days, Hoover was asked by one of the fair directors, Pat Austin, to start a frog-jumping contest to give something fun for kids to do, and an event that wouldn’t cost them anything.
“I said, ‘Why me? I don’t know nothing about jumping frogs,’ ” Hoover recalls. “She goes, ‘Well, you’re a farm boy.’ ” Hoover, unable to deny that, but still unsure what that had to do with frog jumping, really wanted to help, so he finally agreed, “I said I’d give it a shot for a couple of years.”
A couple years?
Hoover said his oldest child was just 7 when he started, and as his family grew he just kept it up. “Now I have grandchildren here, and there are people who were children when I started who have children here now.”
Hoover said the event started out pretty slowly until the word got out. Now he says people in the Conneautville area who have ponds have parties on Tuesday night, the night before the contest, just to have kids come by and catch frogs.
The frog-partiers fire up a grill, and the adults sit around and talk while the kids take flashlights out to the pond’s edge and catch frogs for the next day’s event.
One might say the event has grown in leaps and ...
Hoover built a measured track years ago out of old advertising-sponsor-boards from early homecoming fairs. That track lasted the better part of 20 years until the recent upgrades were made by people who thought he should have a better track. The original track was lined with advertising for the many local businesses who supported the Homecoming Fair.
“It goes back to family and community,” Hoover says, adding that he sees this as something people look forward to do. To get together for a little party, catch some frogs, have good conversation and friendship and then get together again the next day at the fair.
Over the years, he’s had some special memories including one frog that leaped well off the board to record a 10-foot, 8-inch jump. (Hoover carries a tape measure for frogs leaping off the board.)
The one story that really stands out in Hoover’s mind, though, and the one he has repeated most often, was when a little girl showed up with her bucket and told him “Mr. Hoover, I got a really good leaper here!” He says the girl was excited and proud just knowing she had a special frog to enter in the contest.
“But when I lifted the lid on the bucket and looked in, the frog was on his back with his legs up in the air,” Hoover recalls. Thinking fast, Hoover just closed the lid. “I asked if anyone had a frog the girl could use, and she looks at me and asks ‘what’s wrong with my frog?’ I say, ‘I think he’s sleeping.’ So we just got her another frog to jump — that’s all! That’s my most special memory of all.”
Hoover has seen old men and women compete, and he’s helped every one of them who couldn’t get down on their knees to start their own frog. He thinks the oldest competitor was Clarence Baker at 81, but remembers Pete Stagl in recent years showing up every year well into his 70s.
Hoover himself is getting a bit old for all the bending required.
“Every year I say, ‘just one more year’ but I think if I get to 25 years ...” And this year marks that 25th year. “I’m trying to get my son, Andy, to take it over. My knees are getting bad, but I’ll be around to still help out,” Hoover says of the future.
So, next year will be Andy’s turn to take it over. But for this year, Hoover will still be there on his knees ready to start all the frogs. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment this week and he’ll drain my knees and give me a cortisone shot, so I’ll be good!”
Richard Sayer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Did you know?
Mark Twain is often credited with starting frog-jumping contests, with a short story he authored that is set in a mining town in California. Read Mark Twain’s story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by clicking on the title in blue above.
What’s your best bet?
A good jumping frog is about 3 inches long (from nose to tail) according to Hoover. “People will show up with a big bullfrog and everybody is ‘Ahhh,’ but they aren’t the best jumpers.” Hoover recalls a little girl who brought a frog that recorded jumps of more than 10 feet in its three jumps. It was small frog that wanted to get as much distance as possible between himself and the throngs of delighted screaming kids.
There is a conflict in the frog-jumping world. The current known record for a three-jump distance is 6.6 meters set in 1986 by an American bullfrog called “Rosie the Ribiter.” The conflict comes from a frog who jumped 10.3 meters, a South African Sharp-nosed grass frog. By rule, a frog must be at least 4 inches in length. The south African grass frog only measured 2.5 inches. South African frog jumpers don’t believe the rule is fair.
Learn how to make an origami frog that really jumps
You can go
The frog jump at Conneautville’s homecoming begins at 4 p.m. on Wednesday at Lord Mason Park in Conneautville. What you need to enter the frog jumping contest is simple: a frog. Well, actually you don’t even need that, just show up and ask if you can borrow one for the jump. The event is also open to people who live beyond the greater Conneautville area — just show up and register before the start.
The Conneautville Homecoming Frog Jumping contest does not follow the Calaveras County Frog Jumping rules, so any size frog (or toad) is allowed to compete. There are three age groups for both girls and boys and prizes of $10 for first, $7.50 for second and $5 for third are awarded.
The three age categories are: 11 and under, 12 to 16, and 17 and over. The 17-and-over category is the widest range of people, with grandmothers and grandfathers in their 70s and 80s bringing frogs to jump.
NOTE: Calaveras County Frog Jumping rules state that a frog must be at least 4 inches from nose to tail (or where a tail would be if they didn’t lose that when they matured from a tadpole.)
Did you know?
In the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee in California, if your frog sets the world record you could receive $5,000, and even if it’s off the world record but bests the other frogs jumping that year, you earn $750. And the frog handlers are known as jockeys.