The Eastern States Exposition
September 24, 2005

Karen and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA, on Saturday. This giant New England agricultural fair has been running for over three-quarters of a century. Though agriculture is still present, it has faded from importance. There are still many smaller local fairs (like Northampton's Three County Fair) that still proudly display their old-time agricultural tradition. But the Big E (as locals know it) has evolved and changed into something more of a giant bazaar.

The weather was perfect: sunny and in the 70s. The fair was charging $10 to park near the grounds. We opted for the nearby Agawam Police Station which was charging half that price. We walked across the bridge spanning the Westfield River, which separates Agawam and West Springfield. Traffic over the bridge was already starting to back up, and it was only 9:30 in the morning. This was the second weekend of the fair's two-and-a-half week run. The first weekend was pretty much a washout, but the rest of the time had seen decent weather.

We walked over to Gate 1 and handed our discount tickets that I had purchased from work. We walked past the three big Mardi Gras floats being stored under a tent on the left. To our right was the Avenue of the States. This was something unique to the Big E. All of the six New England states participated, and each had their own building to show off their wares. When I was a kid, each building had a huge centerpiece that highlighted something special about the state. The Massachusetts building once had a giant fishing pond and a waterfall, and you could actually catch fish there. There were also dozens of free samples, from Vermont's maple candy to Rhode Island cod cakes. But gradually, the buildings changed from such displays (which became increasingly expensive) to simply renting out floor space to companies who wanted to peddle their goods there.

Although the grounds opened at eight in the morning, nothing else really got underway until ten. So Karen and I strolled down the Avenue of the States. We passed by what used to be the Hanneford circus tent. It was now a magic act (for an extra charge). We pushed our way past a densely packed and lengthy queue line that stretched over to a Foxwoods Casino tent. Then we took a detour to the left into the Circus Museum. It's been a staple at the Big E for as long as I can remember. It was a non-descript brick building. Inside, occupying a whole room, was a miniature circus inside a huge glass case. All along the walls on glass-encased shelves were recreations of various circus company coaches, horses and performers through history. Against one wall was a miniature sideshow display, with beautifully illustrated banners. In an adjacent room was a video of a trapeze performer on the old Ed Sullivan show. The performer's costumes hung next to it. There were also large cases featuring scenes of circuses loading their equipment onto rail cars and of employees enjoying a meal under a large tent. One of the men who created many of the scenes was there, sitting at a small table and making circus wagons from scratch. Karen and I complimented him on his work and chatted for a while.

Then we continued down the Avenue of the States to the final building along the stretch, Rhode Island. I figured that since everyone seemed to be lining up at the first building (New Hampshire), we'd beat the crowds by starting at the last building and working our way back. But I was wrong. We ended up like salmon trying to swim upstream as the crowds of people headed right into us. On the way we paused to listen to the National Anthem played by a band under a tent in front of the Connecticut building, signaling the official start of the day.

Rhode Island had its usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. We walked through the small building and next walked into the Massachusetts building. There were the usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. From there we headed for the Maine building with its famous baked potato line. I've never understood why baked potatoes were always so popular. To me they always tasted like...well...baked potatoes. But the booth had its own queue line that snaked around outside the side of the building, even that early in the morning. We took a trip through Maine, glancing at the usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. Karen spotted a booth selling fresh lobster rolls for $8 each. She got one and said it was delicious, not overpowered by mayonnaise.

The oncoming crowd thickened, and we were finding it harder to make our backwards progress. The Vermont building was filled with the smell of maple syrup. There were the usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. We stopped at one booth that was selling apple custard for $2.50 a slice. Karen and I split one slice. The whipped cream on it tasted just like Cool Whip. The custard itself was thick, more like a cake. Karen really liked it. I thought it was okay, but not spectacular.

The next building was Connecticut, with its big clock tower. Outside the entrance was the tent with the American Legion band entertaining a small crowd. The Governor, Jodi Rell, stood near the entrance behind a table greeting guests. We merged with the crowds of people, shoulder to shoulder, and began our counter-clockwise trek through the building. There were the usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. I went over to a booth selling hot spiced cider for $3. Karen got a cup of cold cider and a cider donut. We walked out of the building, sat on a bench and listened to the band. The cider certainly was hot. I wished it had been more spicy. But it was good just the same. And that cider donut was quite good too.

The last stop on our journey through the states was the New Hampshire building. There were the usual assortment of vendors selling pastoral and seaside paintings, glass works, candles and food. This was the only building to have something besides vendors, though: at the back of the building was a small stage for musical performances. There was also the famous New Hampshire kettle corn, with its enticing smell. But we decided to save that for later. We edged our way out of the building and back onto the Avenue of the States. We decided to head clockwise from there around the fair. A long stretch of asphalt ran between every kind of vendor imaginable, from hand-rolled pretzels to western clothing to agricultural freak shows (a unicorn cow and the world's largest pig). To our right was an archway with "Craft Commons" above it.

We wandered in that direction, into the Storrowtown Village section, a recreation of an early 1800s New England village with period buildings that had been saved from demolition and faithfully reconstructed. For the fair, the whole area was transformed into a gigantic craft fair / flea market. There were a few stores that were there every years, like the ubiquitous Christmas Shop, and dozens of other smaller vendors lining the walkways. Karen spotted an absolutely stunning mirror in a handcrafted wood frame. The frame was decoupage, inlaid with all sorts of musical instruments delicately hand-carved out of various types of wood. The price on it was $989. We passed, but I took the guy's card in case we hit the lottery.

There were also lots of educational exhibits in Storrowtown, in much the style of Mystic Seaport. Various costumed characters went about their duties as blacksmith, schoolteacher, housewife, etc. To me, that was the most interesting part of Storrowtown and one of the best parts of the fair. We took a stroll through the Potter House, where a costumed woman was talking about the home and its restoration. We walked through some of the other buildings and eventually made our way back onto the pavement where we left off. Karen spotted a tent with oak furniture in it, so we walked over to it. What caught my eye was a print hanging on the wall. There were dozens of tin pressings of various old scenes. One had a shiny red sports car sitting in front of an old roller coaster turnaround. I made a mental note to get it before we left for the day.

A little further down was the Commeford Petting Zoo. We went through it, gazing at the camel, kangaroo, lemurs, donkeys and parrots. Next door a weary looking elephant was giving a ride to some children. We left the zoo without petting anything and headed across the asphalt to the giant Stinson band organ. It was an impressive sight, about ten feet wide and six feet high, housed in a big steel trailer. It was gaily playing The Skater's Waltz. Various images of New England were painted on the scenery panels. There were several cherubs and carved figures clanging bells. A George-Washington-like conductor stood in the center with a baton that waved. A sign on the side proclaimed how the Big E had expressly commissioned the organ from the Stinson company in 2002. Instead of paper rolls, the music was triggered by MIDI commands from a CD. There was a small child staring at the organ and clapping his hands until his parents finally dragged him away.

We then walked across the grounds toward the massive Better Living Center, a building occupying a couple acres. It was often used for conventions during the fair's lengthy off-season. But while the fair was running it housed what amounted to a live Home Shopping Network. There were row after row after row of vendors hawking everything from mops to log cabins. Many of the booths featured fast-talking pitchmen and women trying to convince their small but rapt audience that life was incomplete without purchasing their products. Karen and I were interested in home improvement, and we found a local remodeling contractor to talk with. There were booths with expensive grandfather clocks, electronic organs, bejeweled purses and aggressive orientals trying to rope guests into getting massages. One woman stepped right into my path and put out her hand as if to shake mine and said forcefully, "You want massage?" It sounded more like a command. I politely declined.

We exited that building and walked over to the far back corner of the fair where stood the largest building, the Mallory Complex, housing the livestock exhibits, prize winning Christmas trees and the annual butter sculpture. This year the artist created a huge bull riding a Harley. Yep -- all out of butter, enclosed in a glass-walled refrigerator. As we entered the building we were greeted by the animatronic display featuring various dairy products singing songs about milk and cheese. There were row after row of sheep, cows, bulls, goats -- corralled up in tiny pens. Many of the animals were being groomed by their owners.

After leaving that building, we headed across to the Young Building, which housed various agricultural exhibits, and emerged at the back of the building. We paused in front of a giant band organ, and thought we had deja vu. There near the Giant Slide was the exact same Stinson machine we had just seen, except this one didn't have the same scenery paintings on it, George Washington had dark hair and there were no castanets. But other than that it was identical to the "specially commissioned" Big E organ.

We walked past it and headed into the food court. It was past noon and I was hungry. There was a Pizzeria Uno stand, so I got a veggie pizza. We sat and rested for w while, and then strolled over to the Magic Midway. Conklin Shows was back once again for their big northeast event. This year the fair did a great job of hiding all the power and water cables (which in years past were spread all over the midway). There were the usual assortment of rides: walk-thru and ride-thru fun houses, dozens of standard flat rides, a portable flume (not operating at the time) and a stock Zyklon coaster called Mach I. One of the games, a typical water gun concession, was themed to Sonic the Hedgehog and gave t-shirts as prizes. Even if kids were still into Sonic, I can't see them getting too excited about winning a t-shirt. Karen and I watched a group ride the Larson Ring of Fire, a sort of continuous-loop roller coaster. The midway featured two mirror mazes with revolving barrels, one themed to the Mardi Gras and the other to hillbillies.

The midway ended and we were standing next to the new Comcast Arena. In the past, most acts at the Big E played on the stage next to the Coliseum building (where the horse shows were). But the concerts proved so popular, there weren't enough seats available there. So a big amphitheater was built, and it was fenced off from the rest of the grounds. Karen wanted to find the water fountain displays, so we headed for the New England building. That place featured a mish-mash of exhibits. There were backyard gardens for the blind (actually a fascinating set of exhibits), a chick hatchery, a 4-H Club stage and the fountain displays. There were only two set up this year, neither of them as elaborate as in past years. There was also the much-hyped Big E Cream Puff stand, pirated from the Wisconsin State Fair. We tried them a couple years ago and weren't impressed. Wisconsin knows how to do them right. Maybe the Big E should stick with baked potatoes.

The crowds were getting even denser, and we were tiring of the claustrophobia. So we made our annual pilgrimage to the back of the New Hampshire building for the best kettle corn we've ever tasted. A woman there was handing out samples from a plastic lemonade pitcher. "Watch out. It's hot," she said as she poured a heap into Karen's cupped hands. Karen immediately dropped the entire serving to the ground. It was so hot it nearly burned her skin. We bought an extra large bag for $6 and took it with us. We headed back over to the booth that was selling the roller coaster picture (for $12). After about five hours at the fair, we called it a day.

I was glad that in this era of Six Flags and Disneyland there's still room for good old fashioned state fairs. The Western Massachusetts area alone has not only the Big E and 3 County Fair, but the Blandford Fair, the Barrington Fair, the Westfield Fair and the Greenfield Fair. They all fall at about the same time, and yet they all do reasonably well. I'm glad there's still a demand for simpler entertainments. The Big E has become sort of a county fair on steroids. It's bigger, gaudier and more commercial than the other fairs. But maybe that's what keeps people coming back. It's a pleasant yearly diversion. I hope we're still around to attend its 100th anniversary.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions