It’s the time of year in America – the official beginning of autumn – when state and county fairs are held. These are basically the equivalent of a Kiwi A&P show, only on widely varying scales from the very local to the regional. Around here, the big deal is the Eastern States Exposition, known more commonly as the “Big E”, a regional-level fair – I don’t even know if the individual participatory states also have state fairs – for New England. It’s held on a purpose-build fairground about half an hour south of where I live, and has been for nearly a century. If you live in Western Massachusetts, the Big E is a big deal, a show-stopping traffic nightmare as what seems like half of New England converges on one fairly small area for two intense weeks of livestock shows, fairground rides, state pride, and deep-fried everything.
We hadn’t gone for the last two years due to either transportation or scheduling issues, but this year we were organised enough to be on the road with our friends by half-past eight. Even at that hour, the main carpark was nearly half-full; along the already traffic-jammed road leading to the fairgrounds, every local business and house was selling off their own carparks, driveways, and lawns as extra parking (astoundingly, at actually pretty reasonable prices – sometimes even cheaper than the official parking.)
The main attraction of the Big E is the Avenue of States, where, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, each state involved – New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – built a miniature replica of their official State Houses in their capitals. Inside you can buy food and other items local to each state.
The quality, I have to say, varied quite a bit. Rhode Island had lemonade and…actually, I can’t remember anything except the lemonade stand, and the very serious-looking state trooper who would only let the crowds in one segment at a time, for reasons unknown. Each state house at the fair is actually, I kid you not, legal territory of the state in question – a sort of official embassy, guarded by that state’s state troopers. The question of who would chase you if you mugged someone in the New Hampshire state house and then ran across the surrounding Massachusetts territory to hide out in Maine was left
New Hampshire and Vermont both ran on maple syrup in almost every possible version (maple fudge and candyfloss: very, very good.) Connecticut’s was an ode to marketing, from the plastic dinosaurs to the large LEGO stall. (Guys. It’s from Denmark. You’re not Denmark.) Massachusetts had…I was getting a bit hungry by that point, so mostly I remember there were lobster rolls and many apple products and a rather creepy mechanical cow.
The fair also featured a number of more exotic attractions, like elephant and camel rides, and a number of stalls proclaiming that they held the World’s Biggest/Smallest Horse or The World’s Only Real Unicorn.
In some of the larger buildings were the more traditional handcraft, agricultural, and livestock shows. The Big E is mostly popular in the surrounding areas for the rides-and-food part of the experience, but it became clear in the agricultural areas that it’s also a really important business event for pastoral farmers regionally, a chance to show, sell, and trade livestock, with some all the way from the West Coast. We stuck around for the shearing demonstration, out of some curiosity at how they did it Over Here, and heard the words “New Zealand” spoken more times in half an hour than we usually do here in a year. I did feel a bit sorry for the poor sheep, though; it was obviously confused as to why the guy was doing so much standing around and talking instead of getting it over with and letting her go eat.
The real attraction of the place, though, at least for area locals who can come every year, is the food. You can get just about anything you’d like – I even saw kangaroo burgers being sold at one stall. I assume they were genuine. (I’ve had kangaroo, and quite liked it, but wasn’t in the mood for a burger right then.) If you wanted something healthy you were pretty well out of luck (apart from the apples) but there was nearly every sort of fried food you could ever want, and some you weren’t sure you did.
The lingering question I was left with, however, was what the deal was with spa pools. The Big E also sells huge quantities of *stuff*, from garages to mounted butterflies, and there must have been a place selling spa pools about every hundred metres. Do people come to the Big E to buy spa pools? Are they “in” this year? How did they get Michael Phelps’ name on them? I have no idea.
The organisation of the whole event, from parking to toilets (pretty close to enough of them, miraculously) was very good – except for the credit card and ATM facilities going down mid-afternoon. The burden on the local cell towers was apparently too great, what with the tens of thousands of people all in one very small area constantly losing and finding each other. Texts were taking up to half an hour to get through – to someone usually less than a kilometre away.
We eventually wound up the day about six in the evening, tired, in serious need of food involving vegetables, and un-prepared with insect repellant. (That’s a problem in our area right now, until the first hard frost.) But I think we’ll definitely be back next year – if only to see whether spa pools are still the hot thing.