Big E keeps you coming back with funky flairBy G. Michael Dobbs, Katelyn Gendron and Carley Dangona
WEST SPRINGFIELD The Big E is many things to many people and if you send three reporters to the annual fair, you will get three very different reactions.
The inspiration for my "funky fair" contribution to this year's Big E byline came from one vendor in the New Hampshire building. Jeff Henderson, seven-year owner of Funky Rock Designs (www.funkyrockdesigns.com) in Dover, N.H., made his inaugural appearance at the fair this year selling the functional works he's created using rocks.
"Mother Nature is the artist. We make the holes [in the rocks and fasten them together to create booze dispensers, vases, lamps and key holders]. We sell mostly to galleries and gift shops. We're having trouble keeping up with the orders," Henderson explained, noting that the response "has been great thus far" from those attending The Big E.
The next item I found to be rather funky was elk antler chews chew toys for dogs that according to its seller, Whisker Biscuits (www.whiskerbiscuits.com) of Stroudsburg, Pa., will make your dog "stop, drop and drool." I'm not quite sure if I'd feel comfortable serving my two dogs these but they did offer several other chews and treats made from natural ingredients such as moist liver treats, sweet potato treats and beer flavored treats. They're tent is located near the Avenue of States. Check it out and let me know if you'd let your dog take a bite out of an elk antler.
The Better Living Center is always good for funky or comical objects and I certainly chuckled when I saw the boom box-shaped lunch box complete with a pouch for your iPod and speaker system. Who knew that you didn't need a D-battery boom box in the cafeteria anymore? At the same kiosk I also found luggage on wheels, which conveniently folds out into a chair if you ever felt compelled to rest during the Big E or at the mall during frantic holiday shopping.
Infinity Lights (www.infinitylights.com) was another funky feature I found in the Better Living Center and the only one in this category that I'd consider buying. The package of 30 vinyl puzzle pieces can make 17 different shapes in three minutes (light bulbs sold separately). The packages come in three different sizes small, medium and large for $25, $35 and $45, respectively and various colors.
"This is a new product this year from OMG International. The response has been overwhelming. We're actually running out of colors," John Lautet, salesman for OMG said, noting that those who don't want to assemble the light themselves can have it done by a representative.
Nature as Art
One of the themes I found prevalent at this year's Big E was found objects from nature, being transformed into art, with little or no modification of the original state.
In the Maine building, I stumbled upon a booth where objects from earrings to napkin rings made from antlers were sold, courtesy of Maine Antler Design. The packaging stated that the antlers are collected and transformed into the products after they are shed naturally. Even so, it just seems unnatural. If unicorns existed, I wouldn't go around sporting their horns, even if humanely acquired.
Admittedly, after living in Oregon for the past decade, I've become a bit of a country girl wearing my fuzzy earflap hat and Bearpaw boots in winter, but even I can't fathom rocking antlers as a fashion statement.
The New Hampshire building provided a literal example with the word art of ABC Alphabet Photo. This vendor's pieces are individual, black and white photographs of letter-shaped architecture, joined together to comprise inspirational sayings.
"I've been doing this almost five years," Michelle Rzepa, owner and artist, said. "Every year I photograph a different state. This year it was Maine. When I began, I really had to look [to find letters formed in architectural designs], but now I find it strikes me."
The International Plaza of the Young Building offered a plethora of fantastical trinkets and designs made from elements of Mother Nature. It was pure happenchance that I found earrings made from butterfly wings. I spoke with Maura Bermudez, a Peruvian local, who informed me that they were indeed actual wings from Peruvian species.
My first thought, "Oh the horror!" Then, I realized that the wings aren't plucked from living butterflies left to crawl around the earth. Regardless, while pretty, I had the same unnatural feeling as I did at the antler earring booth.
I next visited the Royale Minerals admittedly I've been a geology nerd since childhood. There was jewelry made from gemstones, raw cuts of minerals to display like sculpture, and trees fashioned from gems and precious metals.
"I love beautiful things," Cynthia Barthy, owner, said.
When asked if she had a favorite gemstone, Barthy replied, "I really cannot answer, because each one is different and special."
Last but not least, were The Butterfly Guys, who mount specimens in artistic patterns, like whimsical, color-laden paintings. It is important to note that while the average lifespan of a butterfly can be varies among species and those that live in the wild usually last mere days, but some species live for months.
"About 99 percent of the butterflies are from the Amazon," Kenneth Juergens, employee and friend of owner Elvin Floyd, said. "The butterflies aren't harmed or killed [but collected after they die naturally]. It's like Christmas when the boxes arrive [with the shipments] they're all unique."
The same goes for the vendors at the Big E they're all unique.
Back to the roots
Once a year, I'm allowed to torture my assistant managing editor, Katelyn Gendron, by holding a gun to her head and making her go into the Mallory Building and Farmarama to experience the original reason for the Big E.
Katelyn is a big-city girl and doesn't share my love for things agricultural. For me, the aroma of animals, hay and feed is actually comforting and I believe I've not done the fair properly if I don't have a little manure on my shoes.
I think people need to be reconnected to agriculture and the Big E is a great way to do it.
The East States Exposition came about in 1916 as the result of lobbying by New England dairy farmers to conduct the National Dairy Show in West Springfield. A year later the Big E was opened to the public with agriculture as the central theme.
A fair was a place that farmers and in the Big E's case, also city dwellers saw literally the best-domesticated animals and fruits and vegetables raised in New England.
It was also a place where farmers from the six New England states had an opportunity to see new and innovative products.
It's interesting that almost a century later, these two elements still form the Big E's core.
The Mallory Building gives non-farmers a crash course on cattle, sheep and other farm animals. It is in this building that judging goes on for a variety of animals and where the public can see activities such as sheep shearing and the working of wool as well as milking cows.
It might seem odd to some to see a cow being carefully washed and groomed for judging, but people may not realize that a blue ribbon at the Big E can enhance the value of the animal as well as the reputation of its owner.
The same goes for the prize-winning vegetable displays in Farmarama. William Phelon of Westfield went home for a second place ribbon for a display of the many and varied vegetables he raises, while Albert Deloreto of Southwick had a first place ribbon on his collection of peppers.
Over in the Connecticut State building, another key part of the region's agricultural heritage is on display: tobacco. Connecticut Valley Tobacconist of Enfield, Conn., has been at the fair for 12 years, but this marks the first time, the business has been invited into its state building, Victoria Tarnowicz explained.
Tarnowicz is the daughter of the owner of the business and was efficiently rolling cigars at the company's booth. With dried tobacco hanging from the top of the booth, she explained the importance and value of the shade tobacco grown in the Connecticut Valley.
With its earthy, nutty and smooth taste, she said the tobacco is highly sought after as the wrapper for many cigars. The result is an agricultural product from this area that is literally known around the world. She said that most fine cigars are wrapped in Connecticut shade tobacco.
Tarnowicz demonstrated how to wrap a cigar, a skill she learned after working with a Cuban cigar roller for a year. She took a single tobacco leaf that was moist and pliable, stretched it into shape, cut it into a long oval and carefully but quickly wrapped it around a filler of tobacco from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
The finished cigars range in price from $6 to $10, depending upon size and they are on sale at the Big E.
To learn more about the business, log onto www.cvtobacco.com.
The other original part of the fair learning about new products is certainly alive and well in the Better Living Center. As I'm a confirmed gadget hound, I easily spot the displays featuring products such as the Miracle Whisk, the Smart Three in One Mop, the Turbo Snake, the Ultimate Hose Nozzle and the Kleva Sharp knife sharpener.
I spoke to Shawn McMahon who was selling a product he called "The Last Glue," named as he believes it would be the last glue a consumer would ever need.
The product is different than other glues, he said, as it will last a minimum of two years if stored between uses in the refrigerator. It glues a variety of objects including, wood, leather, metals, and various plastics.
A quick demonstration showed how a thin layer of glue set almost immediately, but when touched, did not adhere to a finger.
Unlike other glues, consumers can also buy a solvent than releases the glue as well as a filler compound that can be used to fix stripped bolts, for instance.
The reason the product is not sold in retails stores is that it needs refrigeration and because a small bottle goes a very long way, McMahon added.
McMahon is offering show special with packages ranging in price from $20 to $45.
For more information, go to www.thelastglue.com.
G. Michael Dobbs