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Connections: County Fair Pivotal Summer Event

By Jeff Martin

I’ve been to many county fairs.

My first was the Stark County Fair in Ohio, where contestants entered their buckeyes in several categories: biggest, smallest, most colorful. Then onto the Summit County Fair, which, truth be told, I don’t remember much (college years, if you get my drift).

I visited the Ohio State Fair and the Columbiana County Fair in Ohio, the latter of which I covered for a daily newspaper for three consecutive years. From the crowning of the king and queen during opening ceremonies to the smash-and-crash of the demo, the Columbiana County Fair introduced me after several introductions to the real essence of what a fair is.

During the last few years I went to no fairs, mostly because the closest fair to where I was living in Missouri was about 150 miles away. Fast-forward to my move to Western New York, I was delighted to learn that two fairs – the Cattaraugus County and Erie County – were within bicycling distance.

So I was excited beyond measure when Monday night rolled around. The opening night of the Cattaraugus County Fair is considered by some as the pivotal summer event, the award for having survived the dreaded winter and the tonic to prepare for another winter in Western New York.

My first impression was positive: unlike many fairs, the Cattaraugus County Fair is laid out in a kind of counterclockwise pattern. Walk in and hang a right and your legs carry you into the meat of the fair, which includes outlandish demonstrations of chainsaw carving and log rolling. Then you meander into the midway and the food stands, one of which (I’ve since forgotten the name) serves the biggest slices of fried dough I’ve ever seen, its dimensions as large as some quilts.

Civic organizations like the Eastern Star serve some wonderful slices of pie and the New York-style pizza is straight from heaven. To cap it off, the first days of the fair allow everyone to pay one price and ride the rides and watch the grandstand shows, an offering that, truthfully, Iíve never encountered.

I met Scott Ruff at the I Got It game, a simple sit-down affair where you throw small balls into a box and try to line them in a row before anyone else. You yell ìI got it!î when you win. I didn’t win, but that wasn’t the point; it was a chance to sit down, and it only cost 50 cents a game.

‘Been coming to the fair a lot of years,’ Ruff said. ‘Everybody has the things they do every year and this is one of mine. I don’t go to other fairs because they’re bigger and I just like the small feel of this one.’

He looked at the balls in his hand and pitched one out.

I’ve never won this game.

Winning games wasn’t the reason behind why fairs were created in the first place. Roman fairs were held as an intermission of labor and pleadings, where sellers of goods traveled great distances and set up shop on the thoroughfare. As the years went by, fairs developed more into temporary market places. Interestingly, religion began to play a big part in fairs, but I don’t see that quite as much anymore.

We would watch pig racing on Monday night and Mutts Gone Nuts, a delightful little show exhibiting some fast-moving dogs and humorous hosts – a husband and a wife from Baltimore, I gathered. Then it was on to the demo derby, a fitting end to the night. Jammed packed with people, the grandstand became the Roman Coliseum for two wonderful hours.

The Cattaraugus County Fair may not be Ujjain, one of the largest fairs in India that attracted as many as 60 million people in January 2001, but it does capture the true essence of what fairs were meant to be.

So enjoy yourself, and maybe I’ll see you there.

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