“You may boast about the circus
And the animals so rare,
But for sport and real enjoyment
Give me the County Fair.”
– From a vintage fair postcard, 1908
Sights and sounds … tastes and treats … activities and aromas! Finger Lakes residents by the thousands soak up this captivating concoction, and more, during a summer day at a county fair. A traditional gathering of folks and fun with a rich historical legacy, color and contrasts are everywhere. Almost within the shadow and lights of a spinning Ferris wheel might be a pioneer log cabin or an antique one-room schoolhouse filled with artifacts recalling days gone by. Just beyond a brightly-lit cotton candy stand can be heard the mooing of cows or the growl of a chainsaw as a carver goes about his craft. People flock back year after year to experience their favorite foods, exhibits, grandstand shows or rides – pieces of Americana, each a thread of the vibrant mosaic that makes a fair a fair.
Fairs can be traced back to Biblical times. Merchants convened from far and near, often in great cities, intent upon selling and trading their wares. It is surmised that “fair” comes from the Latin word “feria,” loosely translated as “holy day” or “free day.” Religious activities and feasting commonly accompanied such gatherings.
By the early 19th century, farming was the dominant livelihood driving the economy in rural areas across the country, including the fertile Finger Lakes and Genesee Country regions. The countryside was dotted with small towns that served in processing, marketing and distributing local bounty far and wide. Agricultural societies sprang up to promote, improve and generally enhance this critical regional commerce.
The birth of agricultural expositions or “fairs” followed – a natural effort by the societies to expose their products, trumpet their progress, and demonstrate their techniques to the general public. Moreover, if all this could be done in a festive, social atmosphere … well then, the public should certainly show up … and they did, in droves. A nominal admission fee would further encourage attendance. To this day, a “free gate” is offered at the Seneca County Fair as it celebrates its 172nd anniversary. Cayuga, Wayne, Ontario, Yates, Tioga, and other counties also trace their events to this same lively era more than a century and a half ago. The Steuben County Fair in Bath dates back to 1819, claiming to be “the oldest continually running fair in the United States.”
Friendly fair competition was a natural consequence; judges meticulously rated everything from a skillfully groomed steed to a plump pastry to a perfect pumpkin. Wooden grandstands creaked under the feet of cheering throngs as they eagerly viewed harness racing, plowing contests, fireworks, and even the occasional balloon ascension. Ribbons, medals, posters and etched souvenir plates were awarded and distributed – those treasured tokens of yesteryear now sought after by today’s collectors.
Traditions Meet Evolution
Established so long ago, the core elements of those agricultural society events remain at the heart of today’s county fair. A fair visit in 2015 blends that grand heritage with the vitality of the present, yet always with a sharp eye to the future. Scattered fairground architecture has survived the fires and deterioration of a century or more to remind us how institutions endure. A fairgoer to the Steuben County Fair passes through the same wooden gatehouse his ancestors may have passed through over a century before. Floral Hall (c. 1856) in Palmyra still proudly serves as the cornerstone of the Wayne County Fair. With an American flag waving atop in the breeze, the “oldest operating flagpole in New York State” continues to rise through its roof during fair week.
Traditions live on. Prizes are presented to proud purveyors of fine crops and livestock. Colorful ribbons are awarded to the best produce, recipes, crafts, floral displays, needlework, table arrangements, photography, artwork, and so much more. An evenly baked pie, with perfect crust and mouth-watering ingredients, can still take home a blue ribbon. 4-H and youth programs have been, and always will be, a critical part of any county fair.
Along with the wonderfully wide variety of exhibits, entertainment has forever been a significant part of the fair’s fabric, although arguably its noise level has risen over the passing years. As one director put it, “Carnival and entertainment components are critical. They must be carefully planned – they’re truly necessary to draw the numbers of people that we need to survive.”
People flock to hear rock and country bands, watch tractor pulls, ride rows of gaudy and whirling rides, play games of chance, and watch demolition derbies (those grinding events that continue until just one vehicle is operational). As if rumbling around an oval track was not enough, many fairs host Figure 8 derbies, a diabolical arrangement that only increases collisions and destruction at the “Crossover X.” There are gentler shows as well – talent competitions, wildlife displays, dancing troupes, and sometimes acrobats or aerialists. In short, there’s something for everyone, often punctuated with a dazzling fireworks display at the end of the day.
And what’s a fair without food? The air is permeated with the heady odors of grilled sausage, BBQ chicken, and crusty pizza mixed with the sweet smell of funnel cakes, candied apples and salt water taffy. In today’s fair world, you may have to search and scramble to find a tossed salad, but almost anything else can be found “on a stick” or “deep fried.” A deep fried corn dog is one thing. But, deep fried butter or bacon?
Chance Discoveries Everywhere
Wandering through the grounds and stumbling across unusual or quirky things is one of the true joys of fair attendance. During a heavy downpour at the Trumansburg Fair, Children’s Day contests still took place on the fairgrounds racetrack. Despite the ankle-deep mire, youthful competitors stumbled and tumbled their way through piggy back races and egg toss contests, caked in mud but smiling in the end. Since 1958, “Circus Artist” Brooke Evans has traveled the circuit with his handmade circus dioramas, each tiny midway or menagerie item brightly colored and perfectly detailed. Along with scores of fine farm animals, the beginning of new life is on display for kids and parents at Wayne County’s incubation project, where the hatching of baby chicks and ducks has drawn crowds for years. Have a cold Richardson Root Beer (patented in 1918) from “The Root Beer Truck,” a 1937 Ford retrofitted into a concession stand. Each year, proprietors Grant and Gail Simons, dapper in their red and white striped shirts and caps, serve up frosty mugs and root beer floats as they greet old and new friends. And don’t forget to check the fair schedule for the “Racing Pigs and Paddling Porkers.” What more can be said? You just have to see this one in person.
How have these county fairs maintained such longevity and established such a heritage? In part, it may be wistfulness for a simpler (even mythic) rural past, an annual celebration of the planting and harvesting cycle. More likely, they survive as an annual community gathering of family and friends in comfortable surroundings reliving the enjoyable and the familiar. Perhaps they persevere because the importance of agriculture remains, and will continue to remain, a thoroughly indispensable aspect of our lives. And, of course, fairs are just plain summertime fun.
Fair Dates – 2015
Cayuga County Fair
July 10 – 13
Chemung County Fair
August 4 – 9
Cortland County Junior Fair
July 7 – 11
Livingston County Fair
August 19 – 22
Monroe County Fair
August 6 – 9
Ontario County Fair
July 21 – 25
Seneca County Fair
July 15 – 18
Steuben County Fair
August 18 – 23
Tioga County Fair
July 7 – 11
August 25 – 30
Wayne County Fair
August 10 – 15
Yates County Fair
July 7 – 11
The Great New York State Fair
Aug. 27 – Sept. 7