By Shawn Campbell
NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Steeped in tradition, the Erie County Fair offered the usual delights over its 12-day run – the 61-car carnival train, a Ferris wheel and fried dough among them.
But as the 175th edition of Western New York’s biggest summer fair ended Sunday, it was clear fair officials had made room for new offerings, too.
It all added up to a record attendance. Attendance reached 1,220,101 – nearly 60,000 more than last year’s mark, which had been the record.
Those running the third-largest county fair in the country opened a new building and also called in a favorite daredevil to traverse a 1,400-foot tightrope over the midway to make the anniversary special.
“We focused on some traditions as far as bringing back fireworks a few different nights,” said Jessica Underberg, assistant fair manager. “We talked about excitement, so we added Nik Wallenda. And part of our mission statement is agriculture, so we opened up the new Agriculture Discovery Center. I think there was just a lot of really neat, fun things this year. We just wanted to say ‘thank you’ to Western New York.”
Wallenda’s skywalk was the type of marquee event the fair hadn’t offered in the past two decades, Underberg said.
“I think the allure was that it was different,” she said. “It’s not a concert. It’s not a motor event. That was the biggest thing that we had planned for in recent history.
“I think we all here are starting to look at the fair with fresh eyes again, which is nice,” she said. “And I think that’s what made this year’s fair special.”
Performances by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, John Fogerty, Dierks Bentley and Lady Antebellum filled the grandstand, as well.
Still, the staples remained.
After all, why mess with tradition too much?
“You have to come see it at least once,” said Andrew Ziccarelli, 28, of Tonawanda, who made his annual trip to the Erie County Fair on Sunday, the final day.
Bob and Ellie Grabowski, who were teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools and have since retired to Orlando, Fla., understand.
“We come back to Buffalo a couple times a year and always to catch the fair,” Bob Grabowski said. “We always make sure we come back for the fried dough. We had the original fried dough in the ’70s for 50 cents.”
A demolition derby closed out the festivities in its typical car-smashing fashion.
Attending that end-of-fair event has been a tradition for Sandra and Charles Haselden of Chaffee.
“It’s exciting,” Sandra Haselden said. “You never know what’s going to happen, who’s going to win.”
Other fair-goers like Lisa and Chris Domagala and their three children witnessed the birth of a calf.
“It was amazing,” Lisa Domagala said.
Heading into Sunday, fair officials were optimistic attendance would be on par with last year’s mark of 1,160,184 – despite unseasonably cool temperatures for much of the fair’s run.
After the final attendance mark was announced, a fair spokeswoman attributed the record to a big turnout on Heritage Day on Thursday, when visitors who collected wooden nickel tokens got free admission and $1.75 menu items were offered at the food concession stands.
Also helping was the “bounce back” promotion, which allowed visitors Aug. 6 to 10 to return to the fair for an admission price of $1.75.
Still, “it’s tough when you have some of the weather that we’ve had,” Underberg said.
When asked about why they came to the fair, many fair-goers mentioned the three F’s — food, family and fun.
Zach Braun’s favorite part?
“Being with people that you know,” the 14-year-old Orchard Park boy said.
His buddy, Clayton Karam, 15, of Orchard Park, took issue with that response.
“It’s the food! What are you talking about?” Karam responded. “They have deep-fried gummy bears!”
Yes, deep-fried gummy bears. And Oreos. And mashed potatoes, too.
Of course, the traditional cotton candy, corn dogs, ice cream and fresh-squeezed lemonade could be easily found.
But the deep fryer — with some bacon sprinkled in — dominated the summer event.
Brandon Rosenhahn, 20, of West Seneca, took a bite of deep-fried garlic mashed potatoes on a stick.
“They’re really good. I don’t usually eat fried food, but if I do, this is what I get,” Rosenhahn said. “The food here in general is awesome – anything bacon and it’s gotta be on a stick. Food’s always the first thing on our mind here.”
It’s a place for rare delicacies to be savored.
“You can’t go to a restaurant and say, ‘Can I have some kettle corn?’ ” said Courtney Caputo, 24, of Lewiston.
Nicole Grosskopf, of Hamburg, and Sissy Kennedy, of St. Catharines, Ont., recalled their earliest fair memories – riding the Ferris wheel and roller coasters with their dads. Now they both are creating memories with their own children.
“The kids love it here,” said Grosskopf, whose daughter Kaitlyn, 13, likes to play games and win goldfish. You see them all happy.”
Said Kennedy, while her 12-year-old daughter, Elise, snacked on plate-sized fried dough, “I’ve always come since I was a child. It’s a good family time. It’s old-time fun.”
The swine races appealed to Ethan Viapiano, 11, of Williamsville.
“It’s just fun to watch the pigs run around and get the Oreo at the end of the track,” he said.
Ten-year-old Sarah Durkin, of South Wales, said she enjoyed the variety of rides – about 70 total – at the fair.
The selection won’t change much, if at all, next year.
Strates Shows is set to return for its 91st year at the Erie County Fair.