Clayton Fattey and His Orchestra would grace the bandstand in Slade Park on the Hamburg Fairgrounds, filling the evening air in sweet song.
Singing along from song sheets, the crowd crooned along to the old-time tunes.
“Five foot two, eyes of blue, turned up nose, turned down hose …”
“You’re a grand old flag you’re a high flying flag … ”
“In the good old summer time … Strolling through the shady lanes with your baby mine.”
Helene Edie looked on with her young family as her father, a trumpet player and the band’s namesake, was dressed in a white and red jacket and straw hat and worked the crowd. The performance was repeated over 25 years during the Erie County Fair through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
In its modern incarnation, the Erie County Fair accommodates modern predilections, boasting a lexicon of artery-clogging fair food, including deep-fried Rice Krispies and the treacherously titled Bacon Bomb. Gone are the once-familiar mainstays of sing-alongs and the comedic ploys of the Keystone Kops, replaced with modern headliners and a diverse catalog of entertainment that, this year, includes a laser light show.
But for Edie and a devoted contingent of veteran fairgoers, the 174-year-old institution remains synonymous with memories of afternoons spent snacking on taffy and popcorn, of a time when admission was $2 with a ticket from the now-extinct Super Duper grocery store.
For them, the fair is the ultimate experience. That’s why they are the Ultimate Fairgoers, an annual title bestowed by the fair on the event’s most dedicated attendees, based on nominations it solicits.
For Edie, the fair is a cross-generational, time-honored family tradition with roots dating back to 1901 when her grandfather first began working on the fairgrounds as a stake driver and later spent more than 50 years managing the concession stands.
“It’s just us. The fair is everything,” Edie, 75, said from her home in Hamburg – a six-minute drive from the fairgrounds – where she keeps ribbons from winning arts and crafts entries and other fair artifacts, including a ring she got when she was 13. Housed in the back of her family photo album are song sheets and programs dating to the 1950s and ’60s.
It’s a history that started when Edie was a child and continued through her adolescence, when she and husband Bob, now in their 70s, first roamed the fairgrounds together as dating teenagers. It’s a history that became a high point of her children’s summers growing up and now extends into her grandchildren’s childhoods.
“It’s just part of your life,” said Edie’s daughter, Susan Moscato, 52. Moscato recalls as a child watching the Keystone Kops circle the crowd on a seven-person tandem bicycle, pulling pranks on unsuspecting fairgoers. During the day, an accompanying, two hour-long parade featuring animals and dancing performers snaked through the fairgrounds.
“Kids nowadays don’t know what it’s like to see a real parade,” said Moscato.
Now, in the same Slade Park where her father played, Edie and a group of about 75 to 100 fair diehards converge at a picnic table where they trade stories and catch up on the last year.
Another veteran fairgoer, Barb Brader, coordinates the effort. During the year, Brader mails small mementos reminding fairgoers of the approaching date. At the fair, she hands out small goody bags and calendar print-outs counting down to next year’s festivities.
At the fair, the group is usually identifiable by the blue tarp they set up overhead.
“Over the years, we’ve grown. People know where we sit, so we come and we visit,” Brader explained. “Even though they’re not your really close friends, they’re kind of like your fair family.” Leading up to the event, Brader spends time trying to convert non-fair believers, insisting that it’s impossible to cover all the fair has to offer with a one-time visit.
In 2005, Brader was named the fair’s inaugural Ultimate Fairgoer. Edie claimed the title in 2011.
For Terry Nawotka, Ultimate Fairgoer in 2006, the camaraderie and small community of dedicated fairgoers is one of the most satisfying payoffs. “We’ve developed a lasting, beautiful friendship,” she said.
Nawotka has attended the fair for close to 50 years, bringing her children and grandchildren since infancy. It’s a tradition the family intends on keeping this year as well. Nawotka enjoys watching her grandchildren brighten with excitement as they walk through the gates and take in the fair’s sights and sounds.
As Nawotka and the Edies speak fondly about helping usher in a new generation of fairgoers, the conversation and their memories, inevitably, return to another time.
In his youth, Bob Edie said he and his buddies would skip the admission fee and jump a fence into the fair. He also sneaked into the burlesque show.
“That little flap of the tent. You could go in. It wasn’t real strict,” Bob Edie explained, to the mild protest of Helene, who doesn’t recall ever seeing Bob sneak in.
The Edies first went to the fair together in the early 1950s, when Helene was 13 and Bob was 15. Bob said they went to the fair as dates, but Helene said she never saw it that way because, “I just loved the fair. I had been coming for so long.”
Now, 75 and 77 and married more than 50 years, they’ve gone to the fair together since, indisputably as a couple. Nowadays, though, they’re flanked by children and grandchildren.
“It feels like an eternity,” Helene Edie said.
“What do you mean it feels like an eternity?” Bob countered. “Feels like yesterday.”