Fried food, bright lights, fast ride, shrieks and laughter, music, animals, exhibits and vendors as far as the eye can see. It’s summertime in New York State which means we are in the middle of fair season, leading up to the Great New York State Fair, which officially closes the summer.
Traditionally the county fair was an opportunity for our agriculture community to showcase their animals, plants, baked goods and to see the latest developments in farming, with a healthy dose of competition.
The very first county fair in America debuted in 1807 and was created by sheep farmer, Elkanah Watson, in Massachusetts; this fair primarily featured a sheep shearing demonstration and contest as a way to promote better farming practices and techniques. From that very first agriculture fair, the concept continued to grow through the years to the fair dynamic that we know and love today. While most county fairs still have strong agriculture roots, their focus has broadened to offer a little something for everyone.
Fairs of today feature live music, a midway with rides and games, a variety of food options and various contests and activities to fit a larger clientele and ultimately more ticket sales. While the county fairs have adjusted to attract a larger number of attendees, the roots of agriculture are still strong and attract farmers and those in the agriculture industry from far and wide.
As a child I remember going to the fair with my parents and looking at the cows, pigs, sheep, and other animals. We were not farmers, and I was rarely around these animals, so it was fascinating for me to see them up close. I always liked the pigs the best; they just laid there, not caring what was going on, or who was watching them. They seemed perfectly content to lay in the mud and muck, barely lifting their great heads to see who was nearby. Cows, however, scared me a little; they were so much larger in person and as a small child, they seemed enormous. I was in awe of the young boys and girls who were at ease with their animals and wondered what it was like to live on a farm. While I had visions of being ‘Fern” in ‘Charlotte’s Web’, in reality I understood that it was hard work, long hours, and they had to camp at the fair all week to watch and tend to their animals.
Food at the fair was always a treat, and I couldn’t wait to leave the smelly barn to go get some funnel cake! I would argue with my parents that I absolutely could eat an entire funnel cake by myself and would beg and beg until they finally relented. Gobbling it up, about halfway through I realized my parents were correct, but rather than admit defeat I would offer to “share” with my little sister, masking my inability to eat it by myself, as they predicted.
Fair food has changed a lot since I was little, and I need someone to explain to me why a large turkey leg is a thing? Who wants to walk around with a five-pound leg of meat? Also, who decided that we needed to start frying everything? Oreos and twinkies are perfectly fine they way they are. Is it necessary to coat them in a batter and then deep fry them? And stop covering bacon in chocolate, putting it on a stick and acting like it’s a great invention. I’ll stick to the traditional favorites, thank you very much.
As county fairs began to grow and expand across the country, local merchants would use this opportunity to feature and sell their items to those attending the shows, games of chance or to see the animals and exhibits.
My favorite part of any fair is shopping the local crafters and vendors. I love seeing how people’s imaginations and talents turn into these amazing items. I am not that creative, so seeing this skill in others makes me very happy and it’s great to support these small business owners. My favorite items are handmade candles, signs, homemade foods and anything made from pottery or wood. I also love to get henna done and always take the opportunity to showcase some new design. Of course, I forget that it needs to dry and you have to be careful not to bump or rub where your henna design is drying, which can make eating and walking around difficult. Small price to pay for some gorgeous henna design for a couple of weeks.
As county fairs grew in popularity in the early 1800’s, the plans for a state fair began to unfold and in 1841, the very first state fair in America was held in Syracuse, New York and to this day is the longest running state fair in the country. The first NYS fair was open for two days and nearly 15,000 people attended; today the fair is open for thirteen days and over a million people will attend.
The midway carnival rides are a treat for any kid. The most recognizable ride of any fair is the Ferris Wheel, which was first featured in 1893 at World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was originally called “Pleasure Wheels”. There’s actually a bit of a debate over when and who first introduced this. Other popular fair rides include the Tilt-a-Whirl, Bumper Cars, Carousel, The Scrambler, the Log Flume, and the Wave Swinger.
Over the years, with the development of technology, roller coasters and scarier rides have made their way onto the midways. More than once has my heart jumped into my throat as I have watched my child fly overhead, upside down in a cage, or get sucked to a wall as the bottom drops out under her. It’s no wonder wine and beer tents have been added to the vendor lineup!
Whether it’s the animals, the food, crafts, live music, or just a day of family fun, there’s no question that fairs in New York State are one of the best parts of summer. There’s something for everyone at a fair, and it’s a great way to support our agriculture community, local entrepreneurs, and community groups.
For a complete list of fairs in New York State go to: https://nyfairs.org/fairs_by_date.htm.
The views and opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of any entity that this author represents.