The Eastern States Exposition
September 19, 2008

text and images copyright Jay Ducharme, 2008

On a beautiful brisk New England evening, Karen, Liz and I went to West Springfield's Eastern States Exposition, locally known as The Big E. In the past, Karen and I went during the day, but by late afternoon the heat had usually done us in. After one of the wettest summers we've ever had, the approach to this autumn had been clear and dry. The air was just beginning to bring the snap of the cool season ahead. It was perfect Big E weather.

We parked for $5 at the West Springfield High School. The money collected benefitted their music program. It was about a five block walk to the main gate. In the distance, the midway's big Ferris wheel was visible. The delightful smell of roasting peppers and onions filled the air. We were hungry and headed toward the state buildings first. Karen had her heart set on a lobster roll from the Maine building. We passed by row after row of various concessions, everything from popcorn and fried dough to perogis and cinammon buns.

Next to the nearby music stage was the Big E's large Stinson Band Organ. We paused to listen to its merry sounds. Then we passed the small zoo area, where kids could take rides on a donkey, camel or an elephant. There was also the exposition's famous Firehouse restaurant, run by the West Springfield Fire Department. Interspersed with the food concessions were many small craft shops, often with whimsical names. One of them, Early America, featured intricate hand-made miniature log cabins with incredible detail. Looking inside the little windows into the lighted rooms, we could see potbelly stoves, breadboxes -- one even had a tiny Harry Potter book on a shelf.

The crowd wasn't as heavy as we expected, but it was still early. We started off at the New Hampshire building. There was a square dance underway in a tent on the lawn in front of the building. All of the state buildings were uniquely designed, but each reflected the look of a state capitol building. And each walkway leading up to the building contained a state map made of stone. This year the interior of the New Hampshire building seemed less claustrophobic. Maybe it was simply because fewer people were there. But there also seemed to be more room, as if the concessions had been pushed further back on either side. We passed by the building's back door, where the famous New Hampshire Kettle Korn concession was. It was the first kettle corn Karen and I had ever tasted many years ago, and it used to be the only one at the Big E. Now nearly every state building offered it, and there were also several vendors throughout the grounds. But New Hampshire still had the best-tasting kind.

When we left the building, a parade had begun. It was New Hampshire day at the fair, so all of the marchers were from the granite state. The parade featured many bands and some floats that were more like decorated tractors. In fact, some were nothing more than tractors. A horse-drawn calliope passed by. There were also a couple of wagons pulled by eight magnificent Clydesdales. And no fall parade would be complete without an early appearance from Santa, who in this instance was riding in the back of a pickup, accompanied by a pig.

Our next stop was the Connecticut building. The crowds were getting a bit thicker by then, perhaps because the parade had ended. The neighboring building, Vermont, was filled with the scent of maple syrup. Liz stopped to get some maple sugar candies shaped like people. We moved on to the Maine building. This was what Karen had been waiting for: at the back of the building was the lobster roll concession. Karen and Liz each ordered one. Karen had joked about ordering 25 of them, but she changed her mind when she discovered they were nine dollars apiece. After she bit into one, she said it was the most succulent lobster roll she'd ever eaten. The Maine building was also home to the famous Maine Potato booth. The wait for a baked potato could stretch to over an hour, so we passed on that.

Next up was the Massachusetts building, capped by a golden griffon and a silver unicorn. I was hoping to get some vegetarian chile there, but the vendor was nowhere to be found. In its place was the Granville Store featuring steak and cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. But the line was really long and didn't seem to be moving at all. So instead we got some tasty cider doughnuts and walked over to the Rhode Island building. There were lots of arts and crafts displayed. They also featured Quaobog clams and fritters. Karen got an order of clam fritters. But I still hadn't found anything that appealed to me. So we headed back into the Massachusetts building. The line for macaroni and cheese had dwindled somewhat, but it still didn't seem to be moving. I asked one of the workers if everyone in line was getting a steak and cheese sandwich, and she said yes. So I asked if I could just get macaroni and cheese (for $4). I was able to go right up to the front of the line. And I'm glad I asked; it was some of the best macaroni and cheese I'd ever eaten, thick with hot cheddar and tomatoes.

From there we walked across the midway to Storrowton Village, a frozen-in-time historic recreation of a New England square. It was packed with vendors and looked more like a flea market. On a nearby stage, there was a musical act their version of "Rock Around the Clock." We wandered about the various concessions and went into the little Christmas shop. Then we exited next to the Blacksmith's, where dense smoke and the pungent smell of burning coal blanketed the air.

Next door was the New England Center, which featured the much-publicized Big E Cream Puffs. I was spoiled by a trip to the Wisconsin State Fair, which hands-down had the most delicious cream puffs I'd ever eaten. I wished the Big E hadn't tried to copy that. (In fact, in their first year the Big E actually called them Wisconsin State Fair Cream Puffs.) I wouldn't have minded if they tasted like the original. But they didn't. When I tried one a few years ago, the Big E cream puffs were heavy on the egg flavor and somewhat warm and dry. But Karen gave them another chance and still came away unimpressed. The New England Center also featured an exhibit of circus posters, mostly of Barnum and Bailey shows. One was the famous display of the Sisters LaRague doing a seemingly impossible loop-the-loop in midair with an automobile.

We walked back out onto the midway. I stopped into the Circus Museum, created by Clyde Reynolds and Brooke Evans. I was always impressed with the amount of work that went into creating the various scenes of carnival life. The bulk of the museum was taken up with a huge scene complete with rail cars and a see-thru big top. Karen saw a little wooden sign shop nearby. A sign caught her eye. It read, "I can only be nice to one person today. Today is not your day. Tomorrow doesn't look good either." She bought it to hang it in her office.

As the sun set, thousands of colorful lights began filling the skyline. That was why Karen wanted to go at night. So we headed for where the lights were most coloful -- the North American Midway. There seemed to be many newer rides this year than in the past. A Reverchon Crazy Mouse dominated the center section. There was the usual assortment of colorful flat rides. But what caught Karen's and my attention were the fun houses -- they all looked brand new. In the past, there were many more of them on the midway, but they looked a bit the worse for wear. This year there were fewer of them, but they seemed to sparkle. We walked past many game booths, and all of the kids working there were much more talkative than in the past. They all tried calling us over to play. (It didn't work, but I'm glad they at least tried!) At the far end of the midway, the portable flume ride, Niagara Falls, was running without riders -- understandable, on such a chilly night.

Just past the North American Midway was the Mallory Complex. The annual curiosity there was the butter sculpture, kept in its large refrigerated display case. The work-in-progress this year was of a boy standing next to a cow and a girl pulling a reluctant calf. Across from that was a display of antique tractors and the annual Christmas tree competition. The trees weren't decorated, but were judged for overall shape. A friendly guy from Henry's Tree Farm came over to talk with us. I had thought that most of the trees were entered by individuals, and were grown naturally and selected for their appearance. But it turned out that most of the entrants were from big nurseries and had been pruned into their shapes. That discovery lessened my fascination with the exhibit. I had thought ordinary people looked high and low for the perfect tree. It didn't seem nearly as difficult to grow a tree in a nursery and then chop it up until it formed the perfect shape.

Inside the Mallory Complex was the refrigerator with singing dairy products, always a big hit with children. There were also, predictably, lots of cows. We notice a large crowd at one end of the building. Judging was underway, a competition for the largest pumpkin. These behemoths weren't the plump orange spheres we'd put on our doorstep at Halloween; they averaged about five feet in diameter! The building also housed pens for numerous sheep, goats and alpacas. Karen noted that some of the sheep appeared to have haircuts similar to Elvis.

We walked back outside and past a booth for "The World's Smallest Horse." On the opposite side of the fairgrounds was an exhibit featuring the worlds largest horse, so the fair had all bases covered. We could see bright flashing lights some distance away. Then Big E security people began clearing fairgoers out of the way. The Mardi Gras parade was passing through. The big colorful floats were filled with people in costumes who threw beaded necklaces by the bucketload. In the past Karen and I never seemed to be on the receiving end. But we made up for it this time; she and Liz collected over a dozen necklaces!

The nearby Young Building featured international exhibits, including a Celtic band. Liz bought a british keychain there. Farm-A-Rama was next door in the Stroh Building. There were about a dozen landscaping exhibits set up by local high school students. This building also included one of the most popular attractions at the fair, the Chick Hatchery, where a patient crowd watched and waited for baby chicks to peck their way out of their shells. There was also a well-done and scary Halloween diorama featuring a bony jack-o-lantern against a moonlit backdrop.

The last building we were going to stop at was the gargantuan Better Living Center. On the way, Karen spotted a food stand selling dough nuggets (miniature fried dough). So she ordered a batch while I went nearby for a bowl of delicious cream of broccoli soup. Karen threw out the dough after taking a few bites; she said it was much too greasy and was also peppered with spices more befitting a cajun stew. She got a bowl of cream of broccoli soup instead. As we were eating, we ran into a colleague of mine from HCC. He and his wife had spent the day at the fair and were heading home. We chatted for a while and then walked over to the Better Living Center. The huge building, as usual, was packed wall-to-wall with vendors hawking everything from chamois cloths to grandfather clocks, from baseball cards to log homes. It was the U.S. free market system at its most free-wheeling. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how the booths were arranged. One booth would feature gemstones and the next would have message chairs. Across from that would be Hammond organs. It was a cacophony of capitalism and became overwhelming pretty quickly. As we were about to leave, we spotted a booth with all sorts of fountains. There were tiny battery-operated models with high-intensity LED lights embedded in them. There were table-top fountains, and there were also large models standing four feet in height. One in particular caught my eye. It was $450, and I wasn't about to spend that much on a fountain. But I loved the sound, which was like a babbling brook. So many of the cheap fountains on the market either sounded like a faucet or a toilet. Few captured the unique sound of a brook or small stream. But I saw one table-top model that did, a small waterfall that created a soothing trickling sound. It was more reasonably priced at $43, so I bought it.

By then it was about nine o'clock and we had probably walked about four miles. We all had our treasures, so we called it a night. On our way out we passed by a new exhibit featuring sea lions and a big splash pool. Once again, the Big E proved it offered something for everyone. We probably ate too much, but it was a once-a-year indulgence and for the most part it was great food. The most enjoyable thing for us, though, was the atmosphere: the bright colorful lights, the mouth-watering smells, the unique exhibits, the hometown parades. We may have been tired when we left, but we were already looking forward to next year's fair!

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