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Forget the the smash-and-screech spectacle of the World's Largest Demolition Derby, the artery-assaulting ribbon-cut potatoes, the mindbending whirl-you-silly rides, the need to scatter dollars like so many softballs flung at milk bottles.

Come September all that will be gone, like a puff of powdered sugar drifting off fried dough, lost in the wind.

Once inside the gates of its Hamburg grounds, the best the Erie County Fair had to offer -- breathtaking wonders and small satisfactions, dreams come true and nightmares averted, pathways to a child's future and touchstones to our rural past -- was free.

Come along and see.

In the cool comfort of Niagara Mowhawk's Energy World building, away from the sizzle of Italian sausage outside, a hushed crowd watched the wrong way to cook a Sahlen's hot dog.

Dan Manley, a 30-year NiMo veteran, currently a line crew chief based in Buffalo, was telling the children and their parents a story. Once a girl touched a fence electrified by a damaged power line. Her friend tried to pull her off, but "lost both her arms."

Two boys in front stop fussing with their foam iguana toys. The calliope music and the barkers' cries suddenly seemed far, far away.

Beside Manley was a section of chain-link fence, invisibly charged with 7,600 volts. A co-worker approached with a broomstick-sized insulated pole, tipped with a hot dog, and swept it across the links.

With a harsh crackle, the searing white light of electric arc left a glowing trail on unguarded retinas. Water trapped in the hot dog, boiling in a flash, blew it apart. Whiffs of ozone and char-grilled weenie filled the room.

Think you're safe in a car just because it has rubber tires? said Manley, gesturing to an auto in the exhibit. Not if a power line falls on it.

Another Sahlen's is sacrificed in a burst of blinding energy.

"We're just trying to show you the hazards that are out there," said Manley, his eyes on the children. "We're not trying to scare anybody."

Terrify might be a better word, Manley admitted later. "If one of these 9-year-olds walk out of here knowing something about the hazards, it's worth it."

So why the hot dog, of all things?

"Ah," said Manley. "It's got about the same water consistency as a human finger."

The sunshine-dappled county fair does display a dark side amid all that country wholesomeness.

Warnings of electrocution are just the beginning. Other educational exhibits warned of the possibility of being burned alive, hit by a moving train, blown up by a pipe bomb, shot accidentally or snatched by strangers.

Not that all kids were horrified. Who can reckon with the entertainment threshhold of a growing boy?

Coming across a car-crash tableau with a mannequin's head poking up out of a smashed windshield outside the Firemen's Building, one crew-cut boy of about 10 nudged another.

"Wow," they said in unison. "Cool."

On the sawdust-covered floor of the livestock arena, Erica Bieler beamed as she hung onto her bawling lamb.

The 16-year-old Colden girl got her charge, born in January, from a Pennsylvania farm. She named her Jazzmine, and has cared for her ever since. Fed and watered, exercised and combed, Jazzmine flourished under Erica's pampering hands.

The teen-ager taught her lamb to walk on a leash, trimmed her hooves, and ran her up and down a neighborhood hill to get her in shape.

All the work paid off when Jazzmine took first place -- the grand champion trophy -- in the 4-H market lamb competition. The arena echoed with the cheers of nearly 100 onlookers as the judge singled out Jazzmine for the honor. Autumn, the lamb raised by Erica's 11-year-old sister Kelly, took second place.

Erica's excitement was leavened with a grain of familiar sadness. On Monday, Erica had to say goodbye to Jazzmine. Market lambs are destined for the market, after all.

No one has to explain to these kids where a lamb chop comes from. Among the decorations adorning the 4-H lamb stalls were gaily colored flowers, color photographs of kids with their lambs, and diagrams of the cuts of meat in a lamb torso.

The measure of Jazzmine's excellence was what she would look like on a meathook, her final destiny the meat counter. The grand champion ribbon meant Jazzmine would bring top price at the auction, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 a pound for the 110-pound animal.

In seven tries, it was her first victory in the competition, Erica said.

"I always cry," Erica said, holding Jazzmine's neck with two hands. "I try not to get attached, but I always do."

Watch a cow turn hay into milk. See where eggs really come from. Lay hands on a fuzzy bunny, or a 2,000-pound Percheron horse towering overhead. Visit a momma pig with 12 little babies, each one looking almost exactly like Babe the movie star.

Watch a man wield a chainsaw like a chisel to transform a log into a statue of an irate grizzly bear. Watch another man turn another log into lumber with a growling outdoor sawmill. Check out what an astronaut eats for dinner.

All before lunch. If you're not officially a kid when you get to the fair, you'll feel like one before long.

Silently, majestically, rotating at about one revolution per minute, the 800-pound spaceman carved from pure Land O'Lakes butter guarded the front door of the International Agri-Center.

Louise Porter, 38, watched silently for a full rotation, noting the fine detail work on the spaceman's backpack. "Come on," she said, taking the hand of her daughter Cindy, 7.

"I have to get some popcorn or a bagel or something."

Tiaras sparkling and sashes swaying in the breeze, Jennifer Daniel, 18, and Avery Picone, 16, queen and princess of the Erie County Fair, greeted another loyal subject.

They were quite nice. It's their duty, after all, the obligation of royalty.

"Hi," replied the subject, sporting a grin, mild acne and a baseball cap. Not a big fan of small talk, he blurted: "Can I have your phone numbers? I got sent over here to get them." He indicated friends standing a stone's throw away.

"How old are you?" fired Princess Picone, who holds a purple belt in karate and could probably have kicked this subject in the head, if her sash did not get in the way.


"I don't think we're allowed to do that," said Queen Daniel, cool but still smiling. "Sorry."

For Queen Daniel, of Brant, the coronation has "always been a dream of mine," since she was a young girl. She's pageant-savvy, having won the Eden Corn Festival title at 15 and been runner-up at the county fair before.

This year, about to start her second year at Erie Community College in business administration, she was crowned, much to her joy. "You want to represent something you believe in."

For Princess Picone, of Williamsville, it was the first pageant she ever entered. Her boyfriend talked her into it, actually. The judges overlooked her lack of pageant polish to pick an assertive three-sport athlete with a healthy attitude.

Princess and queen for a week, they greeted kids, cooed at babies, and ignored the clots of young men trailing them making animal noises. The daily parades could not be complete without the fair royalty perched on a wagon or fire truck, waving to the crowd.

For the honor of representing the fair 12 hours a day, every day, for the duration, the royal pair get to keep the rhinestone tiara, sash and a trophy. They get a ride pass. Oh, and all the Diet Pepsi they can hold.

"We have to buy our own lunch," said Princess Picone. "Really."

This might be all the royal treatment she can handle, the princess said. There might not be another pageant in her future.

There was still time to decide. Perhaps it would get better. "Today," said the princess, "I gave my first autograph."

Llamas are serious business.

There's breeding, there's wool, and there's the stage and screen potential.

Just ask William Amadon of Corfu, the proud owner of an 8-month-old she-llama named Peach Parfait who conquered the annual llama costume contest for her portrayal of a certain former White House intern.

At the Aug. 15 competition, Amadon led the way, dressed as Bill Clinton. "Monica Llewinsky" was wearing panty hose, a black wig and a floppy pink hat.

So, what size panty hose does a llama wear?

"Medium, three pairs," Amadon reported. "One for her hind legs, one for her front, and one for her neck."

Halfway around the ring, a box under "Clinton's" arm fell open. Out tumbled a blue dress. The crowd went wild.

There are many common misconceptions about llamas, said Amadon, who owns about 100.

The worst?

"They don't usually spit," said Amadon.

The sight of hundreds of firefighters in one place usually means something awful has happened.

On this evening, the cause was pleasant and proud: the grand procession of smoke-eaters still defiantly called the firemen's parade.

Never mind. The women scattered among the massed ranks marched as well as any of the men, decked out in the same dress uniforms. A few members of a rare all-women's unit, from Woodlawn, tried to hush their male counterparts, who were hollering and laughing and cutting up while waiting for the order to march.

But it was shoveling sea water against the tide. On this perfect evening, the air of celebration flowed with the soothing breeze. A half-dozen marching bands working their way around the racetrack oval toward the reviewing stand blended bass drums and tubas, bagpipes and glockenspiels, into a sort of muted martial Muzak.

Laughing as they waited their turn, members of the Akron Fire Department stuffed the better part of a case of Labatt's into an antique fire pumper they would be pushing in the parade. Children played atop the behemoth ladder trucks parked along the oval, shouting and cheering.

In the stands, more than 1,000 watched the parade. They cheered each unit, one of the loudest roars going to the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation Volunteer Fire Department, led by three men in war bonnets and trailed by a puttering go-kart topped with a flashing blue light. The tight-stepping Caledonia Pipe Band of Buffalo passed by in a swirl of bagpipe and snare, capturing honors for best musical unit.

Only the occasional chromed fire ax, held at port arms, hinted at the deadly risks the firefighters faced back on the job after the parade would sadly, inevitably, end.

A mother carried a bleary-eyed little girl, clinging to her waist, pulling along a small boy with her free hand.

His T-shirt stained with ketchup or cherry topping, the boy dragged his heels in the gravel. "I don't waaaaaant to go," he whined. "We didn't get to see the alligator wrestling."

"Come on," said Mom, more in weariness than anger.

"If you're good, it'll all be here waiting for you next year."

The Creative Arts Building proudly displays award-winning vegetables from the canning competition.