The Strates Shows’ first year in 1923 might be one for the record books.
James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant living in Elmira and wrestling professionally, organized Southern Tier Shows with two partners. Built in Bath, its attractions included a carousel by Allen Herschell of North Tonawanda, a Ferris wheel by Eli Bridge, an athletic show, 15 concessions, three ride shows, and, apparently, some animals.
“The story goes the giraffe stuck his head in the lion’s cage, and the lion ate the giraffe’s head off,” said John Strates, grandson of the founder.
The behavior of the lion, whose name was Old King, was too much for one of Strates’ partners, who left the show. The other partner left because of a harsh winter, leaving Strates as the sole owner.
The next year, the show “featuring only the newest and best in rides, shows and clean respectable amusements,” according to its letterhead, headed to Hamburg, and the Erie County Fairgrounds.
James E. Strates Shows and the Erie County Fair have been together ever since.
They survived world wars, depressions, recessions and boom times, each growing and adapting to the changing times, from sideshow barkers to electronic tickets, from girlie shows to the Fireball ride.
And in eight years, the fair and Strates Shows will celebrate a record 100 years on the carnival midway together.
The Erie County Agricultural Society announced Friday that it has extended its contract with the Strates Shows at the annual fair for another 10 years. Contracts usually are three to five years long, according to Dennis R. Lang, fair manager and CEO.
There was a lot of talk of family by members of both organizations. E. James Strates, the son of the founder; his son, John; and grandson Nick were on hand to sign the contract.
“Beyond just a contractual relationship, we truly regard the Strates as part of the Erie County Fair family. The 10-year contract means that the Strates Shows will be part of the Erie County Fair beyond their 100th anniversary with us,” Lang said.
The two will celebrate the centennial of their business in 2024.
“We appreciate the opportunity to be here. We’ve got a lot of memories of this fair,” said E. James Strates, 86.
The E. in his name, his father’s middle name and four of his children’s names, stands for Efstrateos, the family name before it was Americanized, he said.
He recalled when his children were young, their school in Florida started in mid-August, during the fair. His wife got their five children together in their station wagon.
“In those days, you didn’t need seat belts. You’d put the kids in the back, with a pillow and a blanket, and we had this big, big tote with all our luggage on top, and I’d give her a kiss and wish her good luck, and – what a hell of a woman. She took five kids all the way to Florida and put them in school and opened the house up,” he said.
That’s life in the carnival, where there are no walls and the office changes every 10 days.
John Strates remembers playing with friends in Hamburg every summer, and his nephew, Nick, 26, said he graduated with a degree in finance, but only lasted one month in an office because he missed life on the road.
“There’s never one day that is the same as another,” he said.
The business has changed from the labor-intensive sideshows that have gotten too expensive to more rides, E. James Strates said.
“In those days, the show was structured differently. We had girl shows, and they were good girl shows,” he said. “If you wanted a police officer, you had to go to the girl show, that’s where they were.”
Strates runs a tight ship and keeps track of its employees, according to Joseph Solomon, chairman of the Erie County Agriculture Society’s board of directors.
“Mr. Strates, when I was with the Sheriff’s Department, I did not go in that tent,” Solomon said.
The 92 years the Strates Shows has been appearing at the Erie County Fair is the longest continuous run of any carnival midway in the United States, according to Robert Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association.
To commemorate the extended relationship, the Strates Shows and the Erie County Fair will offer 90 minutes of free midway rides at this year’s fair on Aug. 18. This will be the 177th Erie County Fair.
By 1929, the carnival was completely motorized.
Two years later, the carnival bought its first five railroad cars. Today, it is the last carnival to travel by rail.