The annual fall tradition was upon us, the Eastern States Exposition (locally known at the Big E), New England's Great State Fair. Last year the pandemic cancelled the fair for the first time since World War II. This year the management was determined to see it through. Mask mandates were in place for all of the fair's buildings, but there was no enforcement to speak of.
We arrived in West Springfield at about 9:45 am on the first day of the fair. We parked in the backyard of one of the fair's neighbors. That was also a tradition. Many area residents made a good living parking Big E cars in their yard. Sometimes they charged as much as the fair itself ($20). But in our case, we found someone a few hundred yards from the entrance who was charging just $5, so that's where we went. This year Karen bought us passes that allowed us to visit any time we liked, sort of like an amusement park season pass. At $40 each, it actually made sense. Now that Karen was retired, we could go there any weekday when the crowds were lighter. Just three visits would pay for the pass. When we approached the main entrance area, we saw that for the first time security checkpoints had been set up. We passed through the metal detectors, showed our temporary tickets at the gate and then entered onto the midway.
It was a completely overcast day. The fair managers had warned that they didn't expect much in the way of attendance this year. And that morning it certainly seemed like they were correct. The main path down through the fairgrounds looked pretty empty. Our first order of business was to get our passes processed. There was already a long line for that purpose, snaking underneath the bleachers of the vast coliseum where a horse-jumping competition was taking place. We waited patiently, looking at a series of Big E posters from years past. The fair had six photo stations operating, and the process was much the same as getting season passes at any amusement park. In a few minutes we had our cards and headed back outside.
Since it was right next door, we first headed into the Farm-A-Rama. There were a few displays of livestock, such as goats. But there was definitely a lot more open space than in years past. Even the coop with roosters seemed a bit forlorn. There were also the usual agricultural displays of vegetable and flower arrangements, but again far fewer than in years past. One of the flower arrangements was a bit peculiar, two pots of chrysanthemums stuffed into the waist of a pair of jeans. There was also the buildings biggest attraction (besides the Clydesdales that were corraled there): the chick hatchery. This was the first time Karen and I could remember being able to get close to look at it. Normally there would be a crowd of people at least three-deep. This time we were the only people on our side of the hatchery.
We walked back outside and past the Craz-E Burger stand. That "delicacy" involves sandwiching a bacon double cheeseburger between a honey-glazed donut. We walked into the Better Living Center, that vast hall of rampant consumerism. Normally this building was packed end-to-end and wall-to-wall with vendors. But this year's increasingly familiar sight was a lot of barren floor space. There were quite a few new vendors, though, and that was refreshing to see. One of them was selling a plastic hummingbird feeder with a whopping 30 feeding stations. His gimmick was repeately whacking them with a claw hammer to show how durable they were. Since hummingbirds are very territorial, I asked the vendor why there were so many feeding stations on it. He conceded that maybe only two or three hummingbirds would use it at once.
It was 11:00, and that meant lunch time. And lunch time for Karen at the Big E meant a lobster roll from the Maine building. So we walked toward the Avenue of the States, passing a long row of food concessionaires along the way who were hawking the usual park food of corn dogs, french fries and pizza, along with pierogis and Philly cheesesteaks. That's probably the thing I love most about the Big E -- the pervasive smell of grilled peppers and onions. It's everywhere at the fair, and it always reminds me of autumn. I wish someone would make a candle with that scent.
We entered the Maine building where, once again, there were far fewer vendors than usual. One that did return, though, was one of our favorites: smoked salmon on a stick. Like many other concessions at the fair this year, their prices had gone up. They now charged $10 each, which was getting a bit pricey. But we each got one anyway and fortunately weren't disappointed. We walked out to the back of the building and found a bench to sit on so we could remove our masks and eat. It was an incredibly tasty indulgence. Then Karen went back inside for her lobster roll. There wasn't the usual line for it, but the price had gone up and now was a whopping $20. Still she got one. Outside, all the benches and picnic tables were taken. (There weren't that many of them.) I wanted to get the Granville Country Store's delicious macaroni and cheese, which was back at the Better Living Center. So Karen wrapped up her roll and we hiked back to the other end of the fairgrounds. When we arrived, it was once again obvious how empty the grounds were. Normally it would have been difficult to get a clear view of the Better Living Center, but it now appeared to be all alone in a big parking lot. The Granville Country Store's booth was off to the left. Karen sat at a picnic table while I got my order. Thankfully, their price was a more reasonable $7. I told them how glad I was that they had come back, and they said they were glad too. We sat peacefully and ate our treats. Karen said her lobster roll was tender and sweet, just the way she liked it. My mac & cheese was really good too.
After we finished, we walked over to the Stroh Building, which during the fair was renamed the International Building. That's where we had purchased some really nice steel wind sculptures, and we were hoping that vendor had returned. The first thing we noticed was that the Dingle Peninsula section, which usually featured several vendors from Ireland, was nothing more than a series of wooden panels advertising vacations in the country. Evidently, during this pandemic the vendors weren't able to fly over. The wind sculpture vendor hadn't returned, and there were again a lot of empty spaces throughout the building.
From there we walked toward the Mallory Building at the far northeast end of the grounds. Karen had wanted to find the vendor who on our last visit had really good miniature donuts. The vendor wasn't in that area. We checked on the progress of this year's butter sculpture, an elephant. I had never seen the sculptures in such an early stage, clearly showing that it was simply a wire sculpture with a thin layer of butter as a skin. I used to think it was sculpted entirely out of solid butter. We continued walking on and circled around through the North American Midway carnival section, which looked deserted. That brought us back to the coliseum area. Karen was still hunting for her donuts, so we walked toward the Avenue of the States and then turned up the row of food concessions we had passed earlier in the day. Her donut vendor was at the end of that row, next to the Court of Honor stage. She got a small bag of fresh donuts. I spotted a sort of donut sundae they had, with apples, caramel and whipped cream, so I got that. We found plenty of free picnic tables and sat near the stage. My treat was exceedingly sweet and filling. I could eat only half of it. Karen could finish only half of her donut bag.
As we were walking out of the area, Karen spotted a large crowd gathered nearby. People were standing around a concession that looked identical to the old Zoltar fortune telling machines that populated arcades for decades. The difference is that this Zoltar contained a real person who happened to be done up to look like the machine. He would sit inside completely still. A prerecorded spiel would encourage onlookers to press the button on the front. (There was also a bill slot and some people fed it money as well.) When anyone did, the performer would come to life and engage in humorous banter with the person, eventually dispensing a fortune card much like the original machine. It was clever, unusual and very entertaining. It reminded me of the "Mechanical Man" who for many years strolled the fairgrounds.
After that, Karen and I headed back for home. We had spent only a few hours, but the difference this year is that we didn't feel as rushed as we had in the past when we would visit just once for the season and so felt we had to see and do as much as we could during that one day. We knew that we would be returning over the next few weeks, so we could relax and take our time. During subsequent visits we could try out different food offerings and explore more of the grounds. But more importantly, we could relax and enjoy our time at a fair that for us signaled the end of the summer season and the beginning of a crisp autumn. Even if it was a bit smaller this year, there was a comfort in knowing that our local tradition was carrying on.
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