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Erie County Fair draws out competitive side of local historical societies

Today the Erie County Fair marks its 175th year. What better way to acknowledge the journey of one of the oldest in the country than with the annual competition among historical societies, vying for the ribbon for best history display?

The Aurora Historical Society took top prize this year with a Wallenda-esque tightrope walker above a vintage map showing the locations where the fair was held before it came to Hamburg in 1868.

“They put some very deep thought into the fair and the historical aspects and balanced it out very nicely,” said Dee Zeigel, superintendent of the Historical Building, where nine booth displays will be on view throughout the 12-day fair. “They made it interesting … Where the past met the present and I thought it was kind of cool.”

The tradition of historical societies competing for prizes by setting up booths, like old-fashioned window displays, goes back to at least the 1960s. It is just one of a myriad of contests for everything from canning and quilting to beer making, cow raising and garden club plantings held at the agricultural fair that starts at noon today at the 275-acre fairgrounds.

Midway rides, food, barns, concerts and competition drew 1.1 million visitors last year, making it the 11th-largest fair in the country, of both state and county fairs, said Marty Biniasz, special events manager.

“Although we always have one foot in the past, we always keep looking towards the future,” he said. “The children making memories now will be the parents of the future, 25 years from now.”

This year, special commemorations honoring 175 years of fairs held in Erie County since the first on the Buffalo waterfront in 1820, include a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert at 8 p.m. today and a tightrope walk by Nik Wallenda Sunday evening.

Also this year, a new Agricultural Discovery Center, dedicated to year-round farm-related education, opens with a blacksmith shop, milking parlor and giant combine grain harvester.

“The fair is really the history of Western New York,” Biniasz said.

He recommends people aim for the unusual and explore things they might not ordinarily consider. Art buffs, for example, may like the retro designs of vintage tractors on display.

“Take in the lights and scenes of the midway at night, which are absolutely magical,” he said.

Tuesday morning, the day before the fair opened, three judges at the Historical Building were deciding what was best from among nine booths that looked like old-fashioned storefronts, complete with throwback department store mannequins in bonnets, dresses and overalls.

Instead of multimedia displays, there were signs, photographs, copies of newspaper articles, old radios.

The Aurora Historical Society won the “theme” prize for doing the best job of embodying this year’s “Growing Strong” fair theme with placards climbing up spaces in old-style mailbox slots. They enumerated growing fair attendance, 8,000 people came in 1850, 75,507 in 1940, 751,000 in 1989 and 1.16 million last year.

Beside it, a mustachioed tightrope walker doll stepped across the signs for the towns where the fair was held before settling in Hamburg: Buffalo, Lancaster, East Hamburg/Orchard Park, Springville.

“There’s a lot happening in it, but it’s easy to understand,” said Marybeth Whiting, a judge and director of the Knight-Sutton Museum in Newstead.

She found things to both admire and critique at each one. Some labels had tape showing, others were too small to read from afar.

Orchard Park had a detailed, rustic picture of the 1855 fair when Horace Greeley spoke.

Along a rail balanced by two stumps, there were framed copies of letters the New York newspaper editor and eventual presidential candidate wrote trying to refuse the invitation: “I know little concerning agriculture ... ”

Records show he came anyway and though he was famous for saying, “Go West, young man,” he talked about canning at the fair and so a jar of pickles stood next to the Greeley mannequin.

While Orchard Park is known for regularly winning first place, this year it came in second in the general display category.

The Concord Historical Society charmed everyone the most, winning first for general display with a tribute to a fair held in Springville in 1866.

The booth was covered in canvas like a tent, which was exactly how things were displayed in the old fairs. A window opening revealed a blown-up photograph of people at the fair watching a hot air balloon take off, the modern technology of that age.

“This is showing a snapshot in time,” Whiting said with satisfaction.

As judges worked, Zeigel watched from the sidelines, getting the Historical Building ready for today’s opening. After 23 years as superintendent of the building, she has seen the fierce side of the historical competition as she observes, helps people set up and lunches with the judges to tally the score.

“We’re ‘fairholics,’ ” she said, laughing. She was an Orchard Park fan and liked a paper maché pig that was “tied” to a tree painted on the wall. The Orchard Park group’s thoughtful approach has egged on the other historical societies, she said, and made everyone better.