LOCKPORT – What is the only place in Niagara County where you can milk a fiberglass cow or watch dogs race while wearing hot dog costumes?
Of course, it’s the Niagara County Fair, which opens Wednesday for its annual five-day stand at the Fairgrounds on Lake Avenue in the Town of Lockport.
The organizers at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County are hoping to beat last year’s all-time record attendance of 34,000,
This year marks the 175th anniversary of the first Niagara County Fair, but it’s not the 175th annual fair. Its history has been spotty, with several years in the past when there was no fair and other years in which there were two fairs. The fair has been held without interruption since 1948, making this the 69th annual fair in its current incarnation.
Cooperative Extension has added some new events to a familiar schedule while expanding on some popular items from last year, but the attendance goal is in one sense out of the organizer’s control.
“Clearly, the weather has a lot to do with it,” said Marc Ducharme, Cooperative Extension marketing director.
Too hot or too wet, and some people stay home, despite the lure of farm animals, rides, music, food, cow chip bingo and races between dachshunds in hot dog costumes. Wiener dogs, get it?
There will be five 30-minute racing cards per day, at which the 50-foot dog races will be augmented by pig races. The schedule calls this “Hot Dog Pig Racing,” but Ducharme said interspecies racing is not part of the plan.
Cooperative Extension Executive Director Cathy Lovejoy Maloney said the fair is always educational, especially education about agriculture.
Thus, the lifesize, fiberglass “recirculating cow,” which will be available for kids to milk, with a mixture of water and milk-like fluid coming out into the pail if they do it right.
The model cow, for which a naming contest will be held, will be set up in the Coliseum, where the dairy animals are judged.
“A lot of times, kids go up to a real cow and ask to milk it,” Maloney said. This is the next best thing.
Also, an exotic petting zoo has been added this year, with camels, llamas, goats and a miniature cow from Africa, Ducharme said.
County-wide membership in the 4-H program in the past couple of years has risen from 380 to the current 481 kids, ages 5 to 18.
“Sometimes we get people joining because of the fair, so we might get into the 500 range,” Maloney said. Recruiting efforts have expanded into urban areas in recent years, emphasizing the non-farm aspects of the program and plans to add new 4-H programs, such as robotics.
The fair theme this year is “Once Upon a Time in Niagara: The Fairy Tale,” and a fairy tale-themed scavenger hunt is scheduled at 1 and 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday, led by “Paige the Book Fairy.”
That’s new, and so is the home brew contest, which supplements the wine contest the fair has offered for the past few years.
Amateur beer and wine makers have until Thursday to enter their concoctions. The beer contest is sanctioned by the Beer Judging Certification Program, and Ducharme said the winner of Friday’s closed judging in the India Pale Ale category will have his or her ale brewed and served at 12 Gates Brewing Co. in Williamsville. The awards will be announced Saturday morning.
But, Ducharme said, when it comes to setting up the fair, “It’s not so much what’s new; it’s what people like.”
For example, last year there were a few stunt-riding performances by Mike Steidley, 12-time world mountain bike stunt champion. He was such a hit that Steidley was brought back with an expanded schedule, totaling 16 shows.
Another thing people like is the annual chicken barbecue with Cornell University’s sauce recipe. Serving starts Thursday at noon and lasts until they run out – and they will run out.
The Farm-City Breakfast, as always, opens the fair with scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage and other traditional breakfast fare. That meal starts at 8 a.m. Wednesday and costs $7. Otherwise, the fair will be open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., except next Sunday, when it closes at 6 p.m.
The beer tent, operated for the benefit of the Wrights Corners Fire Company, will be open on Friday and Saturday nights. Two bands, Nerds Gone Wild and Dark Horse Run, will be performing simultaneously on two of the fair’s stages Friday night, while the competing Saturday night bands will be Doubleshot and Highway Lines.
Ducharme said there will be music every night, with the emphasis on country and cover bands.
The firemen’s parade will start at 5 p.m. Saturday on Lake Avenue. The street will be closed for that parade, which lasts half an hour, and anyone who is at the Fairgrounds at the time won’t be allowed to leave until the parade is over and the street is reopened.
One thing that visitors will notice, organizers hope, is better parking conditions. You’ll still be parking on the grass in the back of the Fairgrounds, which becomes a muddy mess when it rains, but Ducharme said Cooperative Extension has been working on improvements.
“Our grounds crew has been working since March building new roads just to make parking a little bit easier and to make more space for parking, as well as handicapped parking,” Ducharme said. “That is something we identified as something we could improve, and we’re taking steps to make that better.”
The grounds crew will have something to do next Sunday afternoon at the show ring, where cow chip bingo will make its fair debut. The ring will be marked with a grid, and prizes will be presented to those whose square is, um, decorated by the cow.
The crew will have to clean things up in time for the closing ceremonies and presentation of the fair awards in the same ring at 5 p.m.
Fair admission is $5 Wednesday through Saturday, $3 per person or $10 per carload next Sunday. Children under 6 get in free, and there is no charge to park.
A five-day pass is on sale for $16 at the Cooperative Extension office until Tuesday. Once the fair starts, the pass will cost $18 at the gate.
Fair sponsors are WKBW-TV, Mix 96 FM, Cornerstone Community Federal Credit Union, Niagara’s Choice Federal Credit Union, Douglas E. Thompson Agency and Becky Thompson Insurance Agency and Apex Clean Energy.