It was no surprise to me that the Erie County Fair logged significantly fewer visitors this year, nor was it a shock to hear fair officials blame the weather while others argued that ticket prices were to blame for the lukewarm turnout. All theories are valid, though one very important point is being overlooked (or ignored) by all parties: The fair just isn't fun anymore.
Yes, the "Mile Long Midway" still churns out the screams while crowds fill up on ribbon-cut fries and sugar waffles, and there are plenty of animals, games and other attractions to occupy young and old. It's not what's there that is the problem, but what's gone missing. In almost four decades, I've watched the fair erode into a gaunt shadow of its former self.
Growing up an "I Got It" ball's throw from the fairgrounds, fair time was as magical as Christmas, from the first whistles from the Strates Shows fair train rumbling across Pleasant Avenue to the final fireworks at the fair's end.
I have an 8-mm home movie from 1965 of my older brother napping in his stroller as elaborate floats passed by. This was the grand Fair Parade that ran from the Village of Hamburg to the fairgrounds two miles away. The floats were sponsored by various communities throughout Western New York, and reflected each town's achievements in culture, history or industry. A large, silver jet rode atop the Cheektowaga float.
After the parades, all of my cousins would gather at my grandfather's house for a family reunion and picnic. At some point, he'd call the kids together around him in the kitchen, and he'd pass out envelopes filled with change he had saved for us throughout the year, to ensure a good time at the fair.
And what times we had. Boat rides, roller coasters, animal rides. I remember my dad watching the Joey Chitwood auto thrill show with the joy of a child, and my mother dancing with the Native Americans in the Indian Village. At night, we'd drag ourselves to the gates under the exploding neon flowers of nightly fireworks.
The parade's long gone -- rumors persist that the Hamburg merchants complained about the crowds, but I've never met one who could corroborate -- and the fireworks followed soon after. Until fairly recently, my wife, Amy, and I enjoyed watching the sand sculpture in the Agri-Center evolve over the course of the week. Now that's gone too, as is the butter sculpture in the Agriculture Building.
The tightly packed bazaars full of exotic candies and incense have been replaced by satellite TV hucksters and the windshield repair guys I dodge in the mall. While the fair has always been a vendor's paradise, it feels out of hand. The ranks swell and the quality ebbs.
As it is today, the fair is like paying admission to Wal-Mart. The fair did make a strong attempt this year to gear itself to families with small children, selecting a fairy tale theme. And, truth be told, the memories a small child has from this year will be just as magical to her in 30 years as mine are to me.
Perhaps one of the worst economies in New York can no longer support the nation's second-largest county fair. This, I surmise, is behind the name change to America's Fair, as the struggle to secure sponsorship from outside our stagnant region continues. I hope it works.
Jeffrey Dean, of Hamburg, has fond memories of the Erie County Fair and is disappointed by how much it has changed.