As parents’ thoughts turn to back to school sales and hipsters wonder why Target is suddenly so busy, the downtown festival scene begins to draw to a close and the traditional small-town fairs take over. 

Evenings start to come a little earlier, and communities gather in places where most folks still know most folks.

With that in mind, the three-day Harlan Days kicks off its 76th iteration Thursday, Aug. 3, at Harlan Community Park. It has everything you want in a town fair, from a youth parade to demolition derby.

Bang for your buck

Harlan Days

5-10:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3
5-10:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 4
7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5
Harlan Community Park
17611 Second St., Harlan
Free · (260) 657-5108

Just northeast on Indiana 37, Harlan is the kind of place where you bring the neighbors’ kids along with your brood to make a family night of it, and you end up spending the whole night counting heads as they scramble around the carnival, constantly worrying about leaving one of the Ethans behind, stuck on the bumper cars.

That carnival instantly draws the kids’ attention, and you see the ticket booth lurking. You grit your teeth and steel yourself for the inevitable rip-off prices … and come away with a smile because the tickets are actually pretty reasonable.

Strolling the grounds with the kids will invoke hazy memories of childhood fairs as well as provide the sometimes-surreal experience of partying in a town that sports a significant Amish population. You’ll see modest Amish teenage girls fiercely prowling the volleyball nets. Packs of teenagers, giggling like teenagers do, dressed in blue and black, but never causing a moment’s trouble.

If you’ve been to Harlan Days, you know this is the event to bring those neighbor kids to. Your neighbors will owe you one and you’ll never have a cheaper night with this much fun. You’ll leave the carnival with plenty in your pocket for food. And when you get to the food, the value theme continues. It’s good home-style fare that won’t leave you wanting more, all for less than you would expect.

Car show, tournaments

So let’s say you’re maybe not the “dragging around your neighbors’ kids” type. Are you the “I’ve got a cool car” type? Because Harlan Days isn’t exclusively for buggy drivers. They have a pretty cool car show at 4 p.m. on Saturday. 

And if you’ve never taken your cool car to a show — but always wanted to — you’ll probably never find a friendlier place to try it. Pro tip: Bring your car to the show, and you’ll have an excuse to leave your kids with the neighbors while they walk around.

Along with the traditional softball and volleyball tournaments, the wildly popular pickleball tournament is back for its second year. Cornhole and hockey round out the athletic pursuits.

Out-of-towners might not be aware of the locals’ favorite part of Harlan Days right away. You see … they give away T-shirts. You sign up, then every so often they draw a name. If it’s your name, you get a shirt. No entry fee, just walk up to the booth and fill out a slip. It’s a different design every year, and if you don’t understand the value of having one of those collectibles, well, maybe you just don’t understand T-shirts.

Let the races begin

Evening entertainment is raucous and memorable. 

Look, smashing cars under carefully controlled conditions is serious business and an important part of recycling. But smashing cars under driver-controlled conditions is hilariously fun and a welcomed diversion from everyday life. 

Harlan Days has a history of bringing quality smash at discount prices, and this year is no exception. 

At 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, there is an all-new event called the Bump and Run 500, in which cars ostensible race around the track, but a little bumping is OK with all that running. 

At 7:30 p.m. on Friday is KOI Drag Racing. Bring earplugs and watch your neighbor’s kids’ eyes light up when they see their first drag race.

On Saturday is the return of Demolition Derby Soccer, which is exactly what it sounds like. The sight of a beat-up pink Dodge Neon desperately trying to propel a giant soccer ball across a field ringed by gentle teenagers in hats and bonnets leaning on the fence under a golden sunset is a scene that will stick with you.

Entry to these events is $10, $5 for those 12 and under. 

Eventually the sun goes down on the fair and it’s time to get the neighbors’ kids back home. You know it will be a smooth ride home, because a few hours of carnival rides, carnival food, and a demolition derby are enough to wear out even the most energetic youngsters. 

Pulling out onto Indiana 37, you’ll probably hear the clip-clop of a nearby horse and buggy taking a different family home. Their kids will sleep soundly in the buggy, just like yours will in the car. Their daily world might seem very different from yours, but tonight you’ve shared their culture and the community that supports them. It would be hard to imagine getting more than that from a town fair.