Opening Day at the Big E Fair
I’m not sure how any New England kid (at least those of us within a few hours drive from western Mass) managed to get to adulthood without at least one visit to the Big E. As the 6th largest agricultural fair in the country, and the largest in New England, the Big E (short for Eastern States Exposition) is an annual whirlwind of food, rides, entertainment, animals, crafts, shopping, contests, and just about everything in between, beginning on the second Friday after Labor Day and running for seventeen days in West Springfield, Massachusetts.
The fair began in 1917 as a way to promote the region’s agriculture through displays, contests, entertainment, and of course, food. The tradition grew and evolved, and the fair officially began using its “Big E” nickname in 1968.
I attended opening day at the Big E fair this year on Friday, September 14th and made a valiant effort to take in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and spirit of day. The task proved to be impossible, since there are simply too many things to see, do, and eat for one person in one afternoon…but here we go!
I need to start with the food because it just might be the number one reason folks visit the fair. Traditional fair foods like candy apples, ice cream, cotton candy, funnel cakes, hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, and lemonade are plentiful at the Big E, but so are a fantastically large number of increasingly eye-widening deep fried delicacies. I saw signs (or entire booths) advertising deep fried lasagna, deep fried Samoas Girl Scout Cookies, deep fried cheese cake, and even deep fried shepherd’s pie.
And of course, this being a New England fair, there are several places to get your lobstah roll fix, apple cider donuts, or Maine baked potato heaped with all of the fixins’ — plus deep fried whoopie pies.
The food stands are classic carnival style. Who doesn’t feel like a kid again walking up to the counter of a booth like this? Especially when you walk away with a paper plate overflowing with hot, sweet dough topped with strawberry sauce and a shower of powdered sugar…
Or maybe you prefer more savory treats, and only popcorn, onion rings, chicken wings, or crispy, salty french fries with a squirt of ketchup will fit the bill.
No matter what non-diet food you’re craving, the Big E has you covered. They also have a few “signature” dishes — the Big E Cream Puff and the Big Eclair in the dessert department, as well as the Big E Craz-E Burger, where a bacon cheeseburger is tucked between two halves of a grilled glazed donut. Oh, boy…
In agricultural fair tradition, contests will also be held this year seeking the best in bread, cupcakes, and cake decorating.
Even pooches don’t go hungry at the Big E. The cookies are pet-approved.
With two performance stages, featuring acts like comedian Jeff Dunham, the Big E Doo Wop Show, and country singers Rodney Atkins and Alan Jackson, you’ll have plenty to keep you laughing and your toes tapping. Also at the fair is a “greeting card come to life” winter wonderland exhibit, Mardi Gras parades, and a one-ring, European-style circus.
You can watch seals perform…
Or take in a comedic hypnotist while stretched out on the green at Storrowton Village, an authentic reconstructed 19th century New England village with period craft demonstrations, children’s games, and tours of its historic buildings.
While the main fair stage was taking five during my visit, music was still happening in other parts of the fair. This duo performed within one of the state houses on the Avenue of States (which we’ll get to in a minute).
Of course, you can also leave the entertainment up to the kids themselves. This booth uses Hollywood “green screen” special effects technology to impose the kids’ heads onto singing and dancing cartoon bodies. Now that’s a unique take-home souvenir!
Ah, the Midway. As a kid this is probably where I would have raced as soon as I had finished my deep fried Samoas. Put simply, it’s where the games and rides live, so it’s colorful, in constant motion, and overflowing with stuffed animals and prizes packed into the rafters of every game booth.
Aimee SeaveyIt’s tough to resist the games when they seem so simple, but as we all know, winning that elusive prize isn’t as easy as it looks.
Giant slide? Check. Ferris wheel? Check. Giant stuffed banana? Check.
The midway has it all.
I couldn’t resist a ride on the ferris wheel for a bird’s eye view of the fair spread out below. There are actually two ferris wheels, and this shot only captures one section of the fair.
Animals at the Big E are plentiful. The free petting zoo is a great way to get started. The coin-op food dispensers and (hand washing stations upon exiting) are a draw for kids and adults like myself that can’t resist petting the soft, velvet fur on a cow’s head, or the wooly body of a sheep.
As you wander through the fair, more “traditional” animal opportunities await. For $1 you can catch a glimpse of Lil’ Muffin, billed as the “world’s smallest horse” (not a pony, not a colt).
Or you can also pay a larger price to see a larger (giant) horse with, unfortunately, no name.
And if horses aren’t your thing, perhaps Porky the Giant Pig (and still growing) is worth a look?
Getting back to basics, inside the Farm-O-Rama building the emphasis is on agricultural education exhibits and demonstrations. Here, a chick-hatching station gives you a front row seat to baby chicks emerging from their shells, while a few steps away, a snoozing sow is tackled by her litter of hungry piglets (I dare you not think of Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web, then I dare you to go eat a pulled pork sandwich). When they aren’t busy, the Hallamore Clydesdale horses hang out here, too.
And in keeping with the fair’s historic traditions, the Eastern States Exposition Horse Show takes place each year featuring numerous horse shows and competitions.
Finally, don’t forget to check out sculptor Jim Victor (I missed him!) carve more than 600 pounds of butter into this year’s theme of “Cash Cow.”
AVENUE OF THE STATES
For many, “saving the best for last” at the Big E means strolling the Avenue of the States, featuring replicas of each New England state capitol with local foods, products, crafts and vacation information inside specific to that state.
Similar to national embassies, the statehouses and the land on which they sit are owned by the respective state and are administered by representatives from each state’s police force during the fair.
Food for sale on the Avenue includes take home staples like coffee syrup, herb mixes, honey sticks, maple syrup, cheese, kettle corn, and breads. Still other offerings beg to be consumed immediately, like a cup of cold apple cider, ice cream cone, or steaming bag of clam cakes made with Kenyon’s stone ground yellow cornmeal from Rhode Island.
I sampled a cup of pumpkin ice cream from J. Foster Ice Cream in Connecticut. It was smooth and creamy with the cozy, spicy flavor of pumpkin pie – yum.
Each state also has items for sale, like these vintage dairy milk bottles, cutting boards, prints, woolens, toys, and other gifts. Many also have photo ops, like the bear from Clark’s Trading Post in New Hampshire.
So, are you ready to head to the Big E?
This is just a sample of some of the things you can expect to see, but check out the Big E website for more information. The fair schedule changes daily, so no two trips to the Big E are the same. All the more reason to go again and again!
The 2012 fair runs through September 30th, so don’t wait!
See you at the fair!