Tonawanda News

August 15, 2013

KEPPELER: In defense of the fair

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — It’s cool to hate on the Erie County Fair.

Admit it. It’s even understandable. It can get pricey, it can be huge and dusty and crowded, the food is ridiculously unhealthy and the sheer gaudy, noisy, over-the-top nature of the midway can be downright unpleasant if you mind that sort of thing. (I sort of like it in small doses.) I hear an increasing amount of grumbling about it from people (who generally don’t plan to attend anyway) about all these things, and they definitely have a point.

Now, me, I like fairs. 

I even like the Erie County Fair. 

And thinking about it, I think it sort of gets a bum rap.

By my best count, I’ve been to seven, maybe eight, of Western New York’s county fairs. Growing up (as the daughter of another fair-lover), they were a summer staple. Cattaraugus County’s fair in Little Valley, 171 years old this year, my “home fair.” Nearby Chautauqua County. What we always called “Pike Fair” (actually the Wyoming County Fair), which I’ve always considered the absolute epitome of little county fairs. 

When I worked in Batavia, I attended the Orleans and Genesee county fairs. Then I moved to Lewiston, and visited Niagara County’s fair. I’ve even visited the State Fair in Syracuse once.

And as diverse as they can be in size and location, the type of their midways and the cost of admission, they all have elements in common. (And I’m not talking about deep-fried anything.)

Now, bear with me ... I’m not changing the subject.

One of my most prized wedding gifts was a beautifully made quilt from a family friend, a woman who pulled in champion-after-champion ribbon for her work at the little Catt. County fair. In my admittedly biased opinion, her work could have been displayed at any number of museum’s I’ve visited — but the fair is where she loved to showcase it.

I’ve marveled at artwork and craftwork and food items, lovingly cared-for flowers and produce. There are skills here that too many people sneer at these days. Myself, I wish I’d paid more attention to the idea of 4H when I was in school.

I’ve covered fairs for whatever paper for which I worked at the time, and I’ve watched the pride and concentration on the faces of children taking their first turn in the show ring with whatever critter they raised and cared for as part of 4H or otherwise, cows and sheep, goats and horses, poultry and rabbits. They’ve put their hearts into it, and countless hours they could have spent doing something like playing video games. I know which I consider more admirable.

(Laugh if you want at all the livestock; I’m still country-girl enough to scoff at your disregard for where your food comes from, or those who care for the working animals among us.)

And when it comes down to it, this is what it’s about. Strip away the vendors, the midway, the lights and the noise. The bones of it are the same.

Look at the Erie County Fair. Maybe it’s harder to find, but it’s there on the map. “Horse show area.” Barns A through H, and 1 through 11. “Ag-sperience.” “Creative Arts Exhibit Building” and “4-H Youth Development Building.” 

Would it be nice if we could take it completely back to its roots? Perhaps. But all that noise and bustle and fried food draws a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t deign to take a look at all that dedicated work, those carefully cared-for critters, those earnest kids their hard-earned ribbons.

Frankly, I think we could all learn something from them.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JillKeppeler.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JillKeppeler.