Despite the tough economic climate, the Big E was booming on a Tuesday afternoon. (above) Fair goers meander up and down the main thoroughfare, shopping for goods and sampling foods. For more photos see slideshow at the end of the story. Reminder Publications photo by Katelyn Gendron
By G. Michael Dobbs, Courtney Llewellyn and Katelyn Gendron
We're sorry the rest of the staff couldn't make it -- we had a good time
WEST SPRINGFIELD The sign at the Florian Pruning Tools booth in the Connecticut Building at the Eastern States Exposition provided a reminder of the issues facing the region. The sign read in part that if consumers buy American made tools such as theirs, fellow Americans have jobs.
If not, consumers would "give your job away."
In the unreal world of the ballyhoo and cheerfully blatant hucksterism of the great New England state fair, the sign might seem out of place. The Big E, though, has long been a mirror by which fairgoers can certainly see part of their pop culture, history and commerce reflected.
And certainly the economic times in which we live seemed to intrude a bit. This reporter noticed an upswing in the number of food vendors who were offering free samples, whether it was kettle corn in New Hampshire, cheese in Vermont, or Italian ice and yogurt in Connecticut.
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There also seemed to be a greater emphasis on the small business and the entrepreneur in the state buildings. In the Connecticut Building, the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) has a large booth in which 110 books from 63 Nutmeg State writers are for sale. Dan Uitti, of the CAPA, explained the effort was to connect readers directly authors and their books. Many of the authors were taking turns manning the booth and signing copies of their work.
In the Vermont building, certainly the most aromatic of the states buildings with various food aromas mingling in the air, Kurt Staudter, the executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association, said that brewing beer is the fastest-growing industry in that state's manufacturing sector.
There are 18 brewers in the state with another company coming on line in six months. They range from well-known breweries such as Magic Hat and Harpoon to brew pubs. All the firms are dwarfed in size by national companies such as Budweiser and Miller, and Staudter said the mantra for the association is "Real beer is local beer."
The problems facing the small brewers aren't competition as much as it is "the labyrinth of federal and state laws," he added.
One small local business was making its Big E debut this year and according to its owner, Stacy Phetteplace, Whip City Candle was being well received. Located in the Massachusetts Building, the company's soy-based all natural candles were on display and being purchased by fair-goers.
"We're very pleased," she said.
Perhaps it is the triumph of the average person displaying an above-average accomplishment or vocation that is also a base appeal of the fair. In the Farmarama building Sheryl Magdycz of Plainfield walked away with the blue ribbon on this years largest pumpkin a whopping vegetable weighing 908 pounds. One could only wonder just how this pumpkin was transported to the fair just hoisting it out of the pumpkin patch must have been a Herculean effort.
Also in the same building, Kim Buddington of Springfield displayed some of the rabbits she has raised at her KB Lop Rabbittry in the city. One wouldn't think Springfield would have such an enterprise, but Buddington has been raising rabbits for pets for the past five years in an enterprise that first started as a 4-H project.
The expected features ranging from fair food to the hawkers at the Better Living Center selling their mops, kitchen gadgets and ladders to the unexpected, such as a rabbitty in the City of Homes, provides the Big E with a singular appeal.
KATELYN: For my portion of The Big E experience I chose to focus on the fun getaways promoted in the Avenue of States.
Each building had tables or bays packed full of travel brochures and maps, highlighting their state's unique getaways and tourist sights -- from whitewater rafting in Maine to skiing in New Hampshire to ghost tours in Massachusetts.
Those in the Maine building chose to focus their energies on promoting the Maine Highlands. The Highlands is an area that includes Moosehead, Katahdin and Lincoln Lakes, Sebasticook Valley, Southern Piscataquis Valley and Greater Bangor, accessible off of I-95.
The Highlands feature many outdoor activities including rafting Class IV and V whitewater on the Penobscot River, Baxter State Park's 10 campgrounds and 186 miles of trails, mountain climbing on Mt. Katahdin, Kineo or Big Moose or skiing in Monson, Millinocket, Palmyra or Greenville.
The New Hampshire Building had a plethora of travel brochures highlighting many of the winter activities, particularly skiing.
For those who are looking for uncrowded ski trails, go to the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel in Dixiville Notch, which has 15,000 acres for skiing and snowshoeing. Those who want a ski village should venture to Wildcat Mountain, which has 47 trails, 30 percent of which are for experts.
SkiNH magazine featured 13 places for "teen-pleasing" activities this winter, including Mount Sunapee, which has a new $20,000 sound system in the SoBe Freeride Zone -- two 2,000-foot trails with speakers every 100 feet. Also listed was King Pine Ski Area, where skiers and snowboarders ages 10 to 22 can participate in the Twisted Ten Big Air event every Tuesday.
For more information about skiing in New Hampshire go to www.skinh.com.
The Vermont Building featured more seasonal events including the 36th Annual Woodstock Apples and Crafts Fair, taking place Oct. 11 and 12 in Bailey Meadows off Route 4. The festival will feature over 100 juried craftspeople, food and entertainment for $3 per person and children under 12 are free.
Other highlighted festivals included the Wassail Weekend, also in Woodstock, from Dec. 12 to 14. The calendar of events includes Christmas Visions' "A Child's Magical Wonderland" at the Woodstock Little Theater, the Holiday House Tour of historic homes, the Woodstock Wassail Holiday Craft Fair and family ice skating. For more information go to www.woodstockvt.com.
The Connecticut Building featured a variety of the state's cultural events.
The Connecticut Repertory Theatre at the University of Connecticut in Storrs has a full lineup this season including "A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt from Oct. 2 through 12, "Pericles" by William Shakespeare from Feb. 26 to March 8 and "Icarus," a Puppet Arts Production, from March 26 to April 5. For more information go to www.crt.uconn.edu.
The Massachusetts Building featured a myriad of activities for all ages. I chose to focus on the upcoming Halloween and ghost haunting festivals.
The Festival of the Dead (for adults) in Salem is a month-long series of events, which "explores death's macabre customs, heretical histories and strange rituals," according to the pamphlet. The calendar of events includes the Retro Zombie Ball on Oct. 11, Ms. Firefly's School of Spirit Conjuration's Annual Psychic Fair on Oct. 27, the Dumb Supper Dinner with the Dead on Oct. 30 and the Psychic and Witchcraft Expo from Oct. 1 to Nov. 2. For more information go to www.festivalofthedead.com.
For families looking to participate in the Halloween fun visit www.hauntedhappenings.org for all of the events during Destination Salem's 27th Annual Haunted Happenings.
The Rhode Island Building highlighted the state's most prominent city, Providence.
For those who've never been to the city, private and public trolley tours are offered, guiding those through a historic tour of the Renaissance City with stops at the original settlement of 1636, the First Baptist Church in America and tours of the waterfront. Cost is $18 per person. For more information go to www.providencetrolleytours.com.
COURTNEY: I had a game plan this year. After being formally introduced to the Big E last year, I decided this year I was going to focus on something specific, something interesting, something...shiny.
I was going to focus on jewelry.
I've never really claimed to be a tomboy, but I'm definitely not the "accessorizing" type either. I do, however, enjoy a cool necklace or a really unique ring once in a while. That's why I was super excited to see the harmonica necklaces being offered by Village Square of Durham, N.H., in the New Hampshire Building.
Each tiny musical annoyance (instrument?) had four holes, capable of playing four notes, with instructions for a simple song noted on the back of each package. It was my cool necklace dream and every parent's nightmare.
There were some other neat necklaces that caught my eye as we wandered down the Avenue of States. An artisan in the Connecticut Crafter Booth was showcasing a giant brass locket surrounded by beads forged by flame. I've never understood the giant jewelry trend because, honestly, the pieces just look heavy, so I decided to try it on. The locket, oddly enough, was the lightest part of the necklace. It was still a heavy piece, though.
The country girl (a.k.a. hick) inside of me fell in love with the pressed flower art of Roberta Brown-Roberts, which encased tiny blossoms inside pendants, pins, rings and bracelets. All her pressed flower art was smaller than that giant brass locket.
The National Chain Company from Warwick, R.I., displayed what I can only estimate to be thousands of gold and silver chains at their booth. Michael Ragosta, who was tending the booth, said that the plant in Rhode Island was one of the biggest manufacturers of chains in the world, and that his booth was the only one at the Big E selling real gold, silver and precious gems.
He had a lot of shiny things.
Returning this year to the Better Living Center were the "Moon Glow" necklaces, which feature pendants illustrating what the moon looked like the day of your birth. Apparently, I was born under a new moon. This makes me very special, according to the lady who showed me my pendant. The pendants glow in the dark after being charged either by sunlight or a black light.
The "hair jewelry" of Wrap It Up in the Young Building was interesting too. Looking like tiny, stretched out Slinkys, the new-fangled barrettes hold a few tresses in place and, according to Christine Farina of Wrap it Up, are a great way to personalize Springfield students' uniforms. What a savvy saleswoman.
The big jewelry hit of the main thoroughfare appeared to be the Toe Ring tent, which also offered "Baby Rings." I'm not quite sure why a baby would need to wear a ring, but every time we walked past the tent, it was mobbed. Maybe these fashion-forward divas have started to accessorize in the womb.
The Big E runs through Sept. 28. Our tip to save money on admission is to go after 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and pay only $5 per person. A Midway Magic Pass is only $25 for unlimited rides any one day from Monday through Thursday.