The aromas of everything from sweet fried brownie sundaes, to tangy German grapefruit beer fill the nostrils of western Mass. Ferris Wheels, circus tents, concert stages and fast food amusement rides tower like mountains over the terrain. The horseshoes of an 83-year-old tradition clatter down the roads, blood-curling screams from the brave souls swinging countless feet off the ground on rides echo through the air, and at some point Lee Brice’s voice comes over the microphone.
The Big E has sat on its West Springfield throne for 100 years. It’s tremendous size, sitting at sixth place in the country for regional fairs, grew even further this year for its centennial birthday celebrations.
As one enters gate five, at first glance not much seems different. To the left is the iconic Butcher Boys steak sandwich stand, followed by two rows of fair food. Baked potatoes, hot dogs, bratwurst, fries, popcorn, and beer; an eclectic mix of gyros, Cuban delicacies, Asian cuisine, hot Italian pizza and an entire German beer garden serving up the best of their hearty sausages are just a quarter of a visitor’s choices.
To the right, lines a stretch of novelty and souvenir shops, with a large seating arena looming at the start. And straight ahead is the Midway- a plethora of shrewd carnival vendors offering Bob Marley bananas in exchange for popping balloons with darts, and amusement rides that look almost as if jumping in line could be a mortal danger.
The fair grounds wide range of space includes the annual 46-foot high McDonald’s slide where participants of all ages can grab a potato sack and soar down the yellow slope from the base of those famous golden arches. On the way down, a stunning view of the fair grounds can be seen as well as the flag-topped red and white tent to the right.
This year the festival’s Big Top extravaganza rounded up an elephant spectacular, a family of famous acrobats, Pork Chop- an expert in comedic relief, and death-defying motorcyclists. The daily routine was bigger and better than ever.
On the opposite side of the grounds lies the history of the Big E and The Eastern States Exposition. Down the Avenue of States lines six large uniquely structured buildings, each one dedicated to one of New England’s own regions. Each edifice features the one-of-a-kind specialties of what makes the states so different.
Rhode Island has a spot for its famous Autocrat coffee syrup, and its in-state-only NY Systems Wieners- a recipe that has remained a secret since 1946. Maine prides itself in its specialty lobster rolls, while Vermont houses the original Vermont Flannels, and of course a national favorite, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
“The Avenue of States is always my favorite part, because I love learning about New England,” said Springfield College student Roseanna Lacas. A long-time Big E attendee herself, she still remains fascinated after attending the fair between 20 and 40 times in her life as her grandmother is a year-round employee.
At the end of the Avenue lies an icon so famous, it has wowed the nation year after year since 1933 with its timeless story that represents everything many consider to be the definition of America: The Budweiser Clydesdales. Their spacious tent is a perfect horseshoe of each large, white-footed horse in their cozy stall, a spot for visitors to learn the history hands-on, and the 1900 Studebaker wagon. Images of small golden lab puppies and the tear-jerking, one-time-aired honor of September 11th Super Bowl commercials come to mind, not beer.
The tradition-filled history of the Clydesdales is not unlike that of the Big E. What started as a gathering for New England farmers to educate others and show off their agricultural pride in 1916, became a fun-filled fair travelers from all over the nation come to enjoy. What makes it so important to New England is the history of sustainability and pride that it showcases. Since its debut, the exposition has been absent only twice.
“This year the Big E has published a lot of literature to educate the public about its 100years of history and I think that is super important,” exclaimed Lacas. “the Eastern States exposition has done a lot for the area over the year in donations, entertainment, and even serving as a military storage depot during World War I and World War II.” Those being the only years that the Big E didn’t open its gates to the public.
As much as the exposition served its people, its visitors reciprocate as many have their own original vendor spots for everything from hot tubs, to clothing, to food and even massages. As the fair has grown, so have the level of larger business vendors. Chevrolet featured a whole tent to its new models of trucks and gave free t-shirts to anyone to stopped by. The Exposition has become a resourceful means of advertising, donating, and educating- the whole reason it started a century ago.
Navigating the fairgrounds is a matter of choice, but one can easily spend five hours wandering about, learning something new at every corner.
Over 850,000 people have attended so far just this year and four of the days broke current attendance records for that day, this year’s highest daily count being over 163,000. This year the exposition added larger names to perform everything from music to magic at their Xfinity concert stage, another popular attraction for attendees.
As the 2016 season comes to a close on Saturday Oct. 1st, dates for the 2017 fair are already predicted on the Big E website and many of the same attractions are expected to join in once again and elate the hearts of New Englanders.
Happy 100th to the emblem of New England’s history, may your gates continue to open and share the pride of one of Americas oldest regions, and four of its original 13 colonies.