Every year around this time thousands of people head to their local county fairs to eat fried food, visit the animals, ride the rides and watch great entertainment. That is, of course, unless you visit the Centre County (Pennsylvania) Grange Fair. Our fair is like none other. This year will be the 137th year for the fair which originally started as a pic-nik for Grangers in the county to visit with one another.
(ASIDE: The Grange, for those of you who might not know, is a family fraternal organization (anyone older than 5 years old can participate!) which seeks to better rural America through community service, education, legislation and fellowship. The Grange was founded just after the Civil War to provide local farmers a way to both socialize and ensure that their views were heard throughout the legislative branches of our state and national governments.)
The Centre County Grange Fair has now turned into a huge venture with more than 950 tent spaces (tents are 14′ x 14′ army surplus tents) and 1300 RVs that pull in for the year. Starting last weekend, campers began to gather their “fair supplies” – where else in the world do people have beds, tables, cooktops, refrigerators and microwaves that are only used for 10 days out of the year? – and move into their temporary home away from home. Some people who camp live close enough to walk home, if they really wanted to, but a trip through the parking lots reveals license plates from states as far away as Florida and probably even California. Folks who grew up attending the Fair often use their precious vacation time from work to come back “home” for this special week.
According to a recent article, the waiting list for tents is a thousand years long. So long, in fact, that you can no longer add your name to the waiting list. These tent spaces are passed down from generation to generation through their wills and are often a hot topic in divorces – “You can have everything else, I want the tent!” “No, the tent’s MINE, you can have the Ferrari.” Haha, okay, maybe not that extreme, but still, it’s an important tradition for many people!
Growing up, we always camped. Though it’s not my dad’s favorite week (has to do with working long hours there when he was younger) the rest of my family really enjoys it. Going back to the Fair each year now is kind of a bittersweet experience. I still love it and the people, but there are all sorts of memories there connected to people who are no longer with us. Visiting Pap and Grandma’s tent first thing in the morning before anything else opened. Helping move furniture out of the old Y. P. of H. building with Pap or sitting in Grandma’s tent in 80* weather with the heater running. When we were really little, we’d go to the milking barns to visit Pap as well. We’d often visit Great Aunt Dot’s tent to eat her delectable Boston Creme Pie. Joking with Lisa about her funny accent. Or even helping to place entries in the art show with Brenda. Sitting in front of Miriam’s tent with Heather counting how many times we could catch a come-back ball or going to get her favorite Fair meal – soup in a homemade bread bowl. Just thinking about all of these things has me teary-eyed now, but the Fair is truly a place to create great memories!
The week before the fair, there was always a lot of pressure to finish our 4-H projects and entries for the art and hobby show, but we were always SO excited for that moment when the judging was done and we could walk through and see our blue, red and white (and sometimes yellow, green or pink) ribbons!
Every morning used to start off at 8am with Dot announcing “Rise and shine, everyone, and put your coffee pots on, it’s another great day at Grange Fair” and the paper boys yelling “CDT, Centre Daily Times, paaaaaaaaaaper, CDT, Center Daily Times…”. Those traditions have stopped since people like to sleep in now *rolls eyes* and the CDT now offers everyone free delivery (I think).
The Fairgrounds seemed SO HUGE when we were younger. Even though they’re even bigger now, they seem so small! We would spend days walking around discovering every nook and cranny possible, always bouncing a comeback ball (these cheap balls on rubber strings that were always the first purchase made each year, though they’ve now changed to some ridiculous oversized balls with thick strings covered in thread…). There was always the list of foods we had to eat and everyone knows that the best sno-cones are made at Klucker’s. Heather and I would even come up with ridiculous baton routines that we thought were so awesome. Back in the day, there was no fence on the playground and we spent hours building sandcastles and hanging upside-down from the jungle gym. We gathered with friends to play Magic the Gathering and once even broke the card table playing Slap Jack….NORMAN! 😛 (That’s why we now have a wooden table in the tent and not one of those crappy cardboard ones…)
We liked to go to the kid’s circus where you were invited to be a part of the show and could even be shot out of a cannon! 🙂 We also went to Storybook Hour at the little trailer quite often – the draw was that you could get your face painted for free afterwards, but first you sat through a video teaching you about God and Jesus. We did crafts at the Rec Building and sometimes did some line dancing there, too. Another definite item on the to-do list was to ride the tram around the Fair. It’s not like we saw anything new as we rode around the grounds, but it was just something we HAD to do. 🙂 OH! And how could I EVER forget visiting ALL the political tents and everywhere else they were giving out freebies to have enough pencils, pens, scrap paper, rulers, flyswatters and everything else you could imagine for the whole year!
Saturday night my parents were in charge of the animal dressing contest. 4-Hers
brought their animals and could choose to dress them using clothes that they brought with them or clothes from a grab bag of clothing that was collected just for the contest (maybe things that didn’t fit us any more or was picked up at yard sales, etc.) This always was good for a barrel of laughs as the stubborn goats just didn’t want to get dressed or a cow decided to take a dump in the middle! There was also a milking contest where local “celebrities” would try to milk a cow and see who could get more milk from the cow.
Monday has been “kiddies day” at the fair – the only day that we were allowed to ride rides because it was either reduced or free rides (don’t remember which) and we could also play BINGO for less as well (I think). Grandma and Pap, and Gram always gave us some extra money for this day as well. I think that was the same day as the relay races and the GIANT ice cream sundae (which is more like a cup of slop by the time you get yours, but it’s still delicious!
Thursday was always the sad day – the day of the parade, but also the last day of the fair for the year. (And also just 5 days before the start of school.)
Though many kids spent their time in the arcades or at the dances at nights, we never really went. In part because Mom didn’t let us and in part because we didn’t want to! Even without these, there was never a dull moment and no reason to be bored!
When I was little, there were no showers at the fair. And all of the toilets were these pit toilets that STANK! Even from Day 1, the smell was horrid and it got even worse as the week went on – especially if you went at 4pm on a hot August day! Luckily, that situation has changed!
Highlights on the culinary tour of Grange Fair always include the Cinnamon Bun stand (this used to be RIGHT next to our tent and we were tortured by its smells every morning!), Wolfie’s french fries, cactus taters, kettle corn, gyros, the “today only” footlong cheesesteak special which has run every day of every year for as long as I can remember, the bread bowls, fried mushrooms and so much more!
Though I don’t look to the Fair with quite as much anticipation as I used to (in part because we can only go for weekends now), it is still an event that I look forward to every year. I have only missed one fair (I think) completely which was when I was studying in Ecuador, but haven’t been able to stay the whole week since high school.
Luckily Elvis enjoys the Fair as much as I do, though he enjoys watching the animal shows MUCH more than I do! 🙂 I think it’ll remain a family tradition with our family for years to come!
…I’m going to have to search around and see if any Fair photos exist of us from “the good old days” and try to post them.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this one which was featured on the front page of the CDT when I was 4. (And they spelled my middle name wrong.)