When you go to the Erie County Fair, you check your normal self at the gate. Office, school and responsibilities are miles away. The fair lasts until Sunday, which means you still have time to enter the world of the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs; John Cassidy, the Bizarre Balloonologist; and temperamental llamas racing while dressed in hats and dresses. A magic parallel universe featuring flashy marching bands, trampoline acrobats and Cirque Zuma Zuma, performers from 16 different African nations. ¶ There’s so much that you could just sit back and bask in it as you munch placidly on Deep Fried Oversized Gummy Bears or Deep Fried Bacon Cinnamon Rolls, to name two treats debuting this year. ¶ But why not celebrate the fair’s last few days by making it into an adventure? ¶ Do something you never did before. Take a closer look at something you always walked past. Live a little. ¶ “The fair is all things for all cultures,” beams Martin Biniasz, a co-founder of Forgotten Buffalo and the director of entertainment for the Erie County Agricultural Society. “We encourage people to get out of their comfort zone.” For more info, visit ecfair.org. Meanwhile, here are five suggestions.
1. Be an urban cowboy (or cowgirl). When it comes to leaving your comfort zone, riding the mechanical bull definitely qualifies. Many have seen the big, man-made beast. Few try to ride it. Guess what? It’s time. The booth beckons with its sign declaiming, “Wild Bull Ride, Yee Haw! All Ages,” and a second, homemade, sign reading: “$5, Yee-Haw, 2 Try’s.”
The bull’s owner is Dwayne Tempest. Yee-Haw is the bull. Both welcome beginners. “I get 2-year-olds,” Tempest said. “We had two women who were 84 years old. I help them.” He helps everyone, luckily for a reporter foolishly wearing a skirt. Up you go, onto the bull. You hold the rope with one hand, and hold your other arm up, as if you’re in a rodeo. The bull is gentle at first for that opportunity to manage a “Yee-hah!” or two and grin at your audience. (You will have an audience, which adds to the excitement.)
When Yee-Haw gets more violent, its horns swinging crazily this way and that, you’ve got maybe 10 seconds before it finally tosses you onto the floor, which is cushioned like a bounce house. Get up, brush yourself off and swagger away. For the rest of your life you will be able to brag: “I rode the mechanical bull.”
2. Discover your inner Indian. The Nya:Weh Indian Village is a tranquil oasis in the heart of the fair, and the soul of the village is the new Turtle Mound, dedicated this year. Derlan Spruce, a member of the Seneca tribe, takes quiet delight in how some fair visitors seek out this spot simply for peace. “They come and sit in the shade,” he says.
Take a moment, stop in and absorb the ambience. Think of the tribes who gathered here long before fairgoers did. You may see Spruce keeping his vigil nearby, in which case the soft-spoken Seneca will be happy to help you with your Native American history. The turtle, he will tell you, is a sacred animal in his culture. “To me, when I come here, it gives me a good feeling,” he said. “To know that we’re still here.”
When the dancing starts at the Turtle Mound, as it does several times a day, visitors may participate. “We call them to join in the dance,” Spruce said, explaining that dancing together represents friendship. At 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, the Turtle Mound plays host to a smoke dance contest. “It’s like a war dance,” Spruce said. “Fast.”
3. Butter up a butterfly. At Sky River Butterflies, you walk into a net enclosure and suddenly feel at peace and away from it all. It is just humans and butterflies. The butterflies, in an array of different species, flutter gently around you. You can feel the flutter of their wings.
Admission is free, but for $2 you get a tiny butterfly feeding implement. You dip it into what appears to be a sticky mixture of honey and grapes. Now it is time to choose a butterfly you like. Find one that has alighted on something, and approach quietly with your treat. John Dailey, who runs this exhibit, will school you in this, but really what you do is lift one of the butterfly’s tiny legs and place it on the honey, then follow with the other leg. The butterfly will help you at this point, alighting on the little stick. Then you and your butterfly stroll together around the enclosure, enjoying each other’s company. It is amazing how enchanting and hushed it feels to walk around with a big monarch butterfly right before your eyes. No wonder everyone is instinctively quiet. Also no wonder that when you leave – reluctantly – they check to make sure you’re not taking a butterfly with you.
4. Embrace an exhibit. If the day is hot enough, it doesn’t really matter which one. (A hilarious sign reads simply: “More Exhibits. Air-Conditioning.”) But exhibits can have real allure. In the 4-H building, you will see a display of sophisticated, hand-sewn gowns. And you thought 4-H’ers made just pillows and ruffled aprons! The Conservation Building is home to fascinating, age-old taxidermy.
The Historical Museum lets you sample various local mini-museums, including the West Seneca Historical Society, the Museum of DisABILITY History, and others. What appeared to be the most popular exhibit was kind of an accident. One of the exhibitors didn’t show up, so Steve Cichon, former news chief at WBEN radio, hastily threw together a historic radio exhibit on the morning the fair opened. Posters of Irv Weinstein, tapes of John Otto, a black dial phone reading “Control Room” – they’re all piled in the booth, which was surrounded by people. “This was just the stuff off the top,” Cichon said, implying there was a lot more where it came from. He marveled: “I love how many people are looking at all my junk.”
5. Blast from the past. Make a point to visit the antique tractors, too often overlooked. “They are works of art,” said Biniasz. “Farmers put lots of pride into their equipment. Sometimes they could tell the model just by the shade of the color.”
When you have worked up your nerve, approach the monstrous 1916 steam engine.
Looming over the tractors, the engine is a miracle of vintage technology. It’s the one place at the fair that is sweatier than the kettle corn booth, but that’s part of the fun. All day long this ancient, blackened machine pumps and wheezes, churning out power and steam. Get up close to it. Feel the heat.
The engine keeper, Michael Shears, is only 24, but he has tenderly tended the machine for years. He also can often be found in the locomotive of the Attica and Arcade Railroad. “I grew up around steam,” he said.
Ask him if you can blow the 1916 machine’s whistle. He might let you, or he might not. It depends on who else has been asking, how the machine is feeling, etc. If he says yes, you’re in luck! You get to clamber up into the engine, among the steaming belts and pistons. You pull the rope and unleash a rush of power and hot air – and, along with it, that deafening, haunting, mournful blast. What a sound! It was common in the days of the Kaisers and the Romanovs. Now it’s rare. Even if you’re just standing there spellbound as someone else pulls the rope, it’s an experience you’ll remember.