HAMBURG – The 12-day run of the Erie County Fair attracted 986,542 visitors with its high-speed midway rides, thrilling performances, deep-fried food stand glories, and innovative and kitschy wares.
In this election year, some of the T-shirts being sold and worn around the grounds were political. And the current mania for tiny houses was reflected in the 84 Lumber display for two micro-houses barely bigger than garden sheds.
But as Erie County Agricultural Society marketing manager Marty Biniasz pointed out, an enormous poster from 1883 on display in the Heritage and History Center reflects much of the same focus as today’s fair: Well-groomed farm animals, agricultural produce, contests and entertainment.
The attendance at the 2016 fair represented a 16 percent drop from 2015, which Biniasz attributed to weather conditions.
Among the almost overwhelming variety of sights, sounds, tastes and experiences offered at the 177th iteration of the historic fair, which was to end with a bang Sunday night with a fireworks show, a handful stood out:
• Sunday night’s Demolition Derby Championship: The New York State Fair has reconfigured its grounds and eliminated the state championships in this cacophonous, thrilling competition. Their loss is our gain. Just the sight of these battered, glass-less, spray-painted, door-chained, revving battering rams would raise anyone’s pulse. And then they start smashing into each other until only one is moving. It’s harmless mayhem at its best.
• Foods old and new: The footlong corn dogs and the deep-fried gummy bears get all the attention, but the granddaddy of them all was the 1885 Hamburger at Weidner’s BBQ. Using the original recipe from the Menches Brothers of Canton, Ohio, this famous chicken spot grilled up burgers that stake a solid claim to being the original hamburger. Plenty of people read the evidence for the claim in the Heritage and History Center, then sampled the classic, which is flavored with coffee and brown sugar, among other additions. “After the first weekend people got used to the idea and started ordering it,” said Weidner’s BBQ owner Mary Gerber. Meanwhile, Mark’s Pizza and Subs took top new food prize with its Deep-fried Bolo Bits, diced fried bologna and onions in dough with a side of Webber’s mustard. Pizzeria owner Mark Marth said he and his son came up with the idea at the fair last year, and he perfected it over the winter. “People love it,” he said.
• Midway rides big and small: The most popular James E. Strates rides are the big flashy ones, said Biniasz, such as the Fireball, the Space Roller or the big Ferris wheel from which you can see the Buffalo skyline. But inside the fascinating Hudson’s Magic Midway, illuminated replicas of the classic midway rides, including the Ring of Fire, the Loop-o-Plane and more, spin and whirl. The collection was built by Harold Hudson of Albion and later taken over by Charlie Zicari, who brings the moving midway masterpieces to various festivals. “I started work here when I was 14, so I remembered all these rides,” said Ray Wehrfritz of Hamburg. “I remember going on the Ring of Fire with my girlfriends and losing all the change out of our pockets,” said his wife, Linda Wehrfritz.
• People from far and near: The Stars of the Peking Acrobats have appeared at the Erie County Fair on and off for decades, said Biniasz, wowing crowds with feats of balance, agility and strength. But the Nya:Weh Indian Village reflects the centuries-long association of the Haudenosaunee with this area. Today, people from Cattaraugus, Six Nations, Tuscarora, Oneida and other nations sell crafts and food and hold dance competitions. The dancers, from tots to adults show off their fancy, fast-paced steps while wearing traditional beaded regalia. The village draws an international crowd. “We’ve talked to people from Germany and Switzerland,” said village superintendent Derlan Spruce of Cattaraugus, a former competitive dancer.
• Horses, shows and more: Equine lovers flocked to the Horse Headquarters barn, which, in addition to housing friendly, well-groomed horses and ponies, now offers programs and activities. As experts explain what to look for in a healthy horse, visitors climb on a horse simulator for a ride, examine the life-size anatomical model of a horse, or even use a pitchfork to muck out pellets from hay. Gesturing toward her daughter, Marissa, 13, Josette McMurtree of Lancaster said, “She just wants to visit the horses.” But for many other fairgoers, the shows were the draw. Canadian teen pop star Shawn Mendez drew the largest crowd of the ticketed events, and the always popular Ramblin’ Lou Family Band, a mainstay of the fair for 50 years, performed this year in their patriarch’s memory.