An iron giant of a locomotive huffs and puffs its way into town, at long last satisfying the hordes of eager eyes straining for a first glimpse of the mile-long train. As the engine and its accompanying 61 cars pull into the Hamburg station with a groan of straining gears and brakes and one last lingering, melancholy whistle, the hundreds assembled break into cheers and applause.
James E. Strates Shows has arrived, and that means one thing: It's time for the Erie County Fair.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is a moment straight out of the past, circa 1934. But it could be from 1950, 1985 or 2010 just as easily -- Western New York crowds have been gathering to welcome Strates Shows, the last railroad carnival in the nation and the midway provider of the Erie County Fair since 1924, from the beginning. Only now, instead of featuring side show acts, burlesque dancers and performing animals, the Strates Shows team unloads, assembles and operates up to 80 amusement rides. Combined with the approximate 120 independently owned game booths and food vendors Strates manages, the fair has quite a main thoroughfare on its hands.
"When you talk to anyone who's come to the fair throughout their life the midway, it's magical," said Lou Ann Delaney, the fair's director of marketing and public relations. "It creates a lot of memories."
The fair is an annual tradition for Lisa Aeschbacher of West Seneca. Now 23, Aeschbacher has been attending the fair at least one day a year all her life. In her younger years, it heralded the end of summer, and it remains an August staple for her and her family. She's even persuaded more skeptical friends to give it a chance, confident they'll find something that appeals to them.
"There's something that caters to every single person," Aeschbacher said. "It doesn't matter if you're a ride person, it doesn't matter if you're there for the food, if you're there for the exhibits or the animals there's something there for everyone."
For more than 85 years, Strates Shows has provided the fair's kaleidoscope of entertainment with an unfailing foundation -- the rides may change, but the innovation, customer satisfaction and consistent management don't.
"The things that make us who we are -- we haven't forgotten," said George Weston Jr., who has been the general manager of Strates Shows for 30 years. "This is what we do, this is who we are. What you have is your reputation, so you need to guard that, protect that."
Another aspect that makes Strates Shows exceptional among other carnivals is, of course, its train. Though the company is making the transition to transporting more over the road so it's not so dependent on the railroad system, Weston said the train will always be a part of Strates Shows, for the practicality as much as the nostalgia.
"We kept the train because we're still moving very large and sophisticated European rides that most other carnivals have gotten away from -- they've gone to one-trailer rides because of the expense of moving the equipment up and down the road," Weston said.
One of the stand-out rides -- spectaculars, Weston called them -- Strates Shows features is its 125-foot-tall Dutch giant wheel, which was recently outfitted with a state-of-the-art, custom-designed LED light system. One-trailer giant wheels come in at just half that height. The Sky Flyer, a swing ride that flies riders more than 100 feet in the air, is another spectacular Strates Shows wouldn't be able to transport if not for the train.
Although total game, ride and vendor operators under Strates Shows management at various fairs can reach 1,200 people, the group actually employed by Strates numbers around 200. About half travel on the train, including E. James Strates, current owner and president and son of James E. Strates, the Strates Show founder. The others come by bunkhouse trailers. All set up in a makeshift town wherever they're booked -- for the Erie County Fair, that town takes the form of a trailer park provided by the Erie County Agricultural Society, the private, nonprofit organization that produces the fair.
"If you take a small town and move it every two weeks, that's basically what we're moving," Weston said. "We're moving a community."
Strates Shows, which has been family-owned and operated since its inception in 1923, plays fairs and carnivals up and down the East Coast, including the New York State Fair and the Dixie Classic Fair in North Carolina. Amidst them all, the Erie County Fair stands out as exceptional. In fact, it's one of the only fairs Weston's wife and son, both based in Orlando, Fla., journey to attend.
"I can say this without any reservations: There's a lot of people out there who do a good job, but I don't think anyone does it any better," Weston said, who specifically praised the fair's management team. "If you want to be amazed, walk out to the Erie County Fairgrounds and stand there. Then walk out to the Erie County Fair opening day and stand there, and you'll say 'Oh my God. How did this happen?' Well it happened with a whole lot of work and a whole lot of insight and a whole lot of planning -- it didn't just happen. That's teamwork."
Delaney said the fair is essentially a giant balancing act. Organizers must provide old favorites along with an ever-transforming smorgasbord of events, shows and attractions each year, taking care to ensure each fair experience offers guests something new and different while retaining the elements that have become tradition. They try to stay on top of technology -- offering a Facebook page, mobile alerts and a new fair app for smart phones in addition to its official website -- while sticking to its old-fashioned roots with themes like this year's "Red, White and You."
And it seems to be working. The fair has always drawn tremendous crowds, and in 2010, it set a record of more than a million visitors.
"That alone tells us we're finding the right balance," Delaney said. "It's a multigenerational event, and there's something for everyone."
Barbara Brader agrees with Delaney, to say the least -- she was awarded the fair's first-ever Ultimate Fairgoer award in 2005 and was inducted in 2007 into the Agricultural Society's Hall of Fame, which recognizes people who have made significant contributions to the fair. Buffalo native Brader first attended the fair 40 years ago at age 15, and she's gone every year since then. For the last 10 years, she's attended every single day of the fair each year, for at least a few hours.
"Just the whole atmosphere of the fair makes it wonderful," Brader said. "All the activity going on, the lights at night, the smells of the fair -- just anything you can do there."
As important to Brader as the fair itself are the people she's met there, a motley, ever-expanding crew now numbering more than 50 people. Brader and her friends set up camp at a table in Slade Park, and people come over to say hi, grab a drink and stop for a few minutes ofconversation. She mails out monthly newsletters with fair updates, creates calendars with a different fair image for each month and makes DVDs of pictures from the previous year's fair to hand out at Christmas.
"Over the years, I've met a lot of friends there," Brader said. "Your list just keeps getting longer and longer, and you meet people that come back, and you share your stories from the whole year. It's a whole fair friendship we've developed, I guess."
Although Brader thinks the fair has become more commercialized over the years, she thinks it's still a great event for families. And with half-price admission before 11 a.m., $20 ride-all-day ride wristbands on weekdays and an option to bring picnic food from home, it can still be affordable.
"People think you have to have a lot of money to go to the fair, but if you do it right, you can do it economically," Brader said.
In the end, it's not one specific piece of the fair that makes it such an extravaganza -- it's the experience as a whole. Everyone involved is driving toward one common goal: to create some fair magic.
"When you walk through those gates out there, there's a lot of people working very hard to put that program on," Weston said. "From the cattle people to the entertainment to the food vendors to the midway providers ... everybody's out there to please that customer."