Volunteers share why they return to the Big E each year

Sept. 12, 2023 | Mike Lydick

Agawam resident Lisa Johnson is volunteering her time at the Big E this year to demonstrate basketweaving, which is one of her passions. She will be in the craft area in the New England Center building on Friday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Reminder Publishing photo by Mike Lydick

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Lisa Johnson looks forward to the Big E every year because it brings back a lot of fond memories — not only as a visitor, but also as a volunteer.

Johnson is among hundreds of volunteers the Big E at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield relies on at the fair each year. Volunteers help staff buildings, guide visitors, provide demonstrations and do various jobs during the 17-day fair.

The Big E. which opens Sept. 15 and runs through Oct. 1, began in 1917 as an agricultural fair and now attracts more than one million visitors.

Johnson, an Agawam native and resident, has been volunteering at the Big E off and on since the late 1960s. “Back then, there were a row of restaurants behind the Coliseum run by local area clubs and churches,” she said.

Johnson said she often worked in one of the local church restaurants, as well as once or twice at the Agawam Lions Club’s restaurant. “I was between 9 and 11 years old and was a waitress. I loved getting tips — I’d spend all the money I earned from tips at the fair.”

Now 62, Johnson is volunteering her time at the fair to demonstrate basketweaving in the craft area in the New England Center building, which is near Storrowton Village. One of the main buildings on the exposition grounds, it showcases artwork and crafts during the fair.

“I’ve always toured the building where they displayed the craft winners, so it was a natural to volunteer for that area. I’m passionate about basket weaving — I might bring baskets to show, and bring a basket that people could weave some rows, if they allow me to do that,” she said.

Johnson, who works as a senior laboratory technician for Eastman Chemical, will volunteer for four-hour shifts on Friday afternoons, and Saturday and Sunday mornings. This is her first time as a volunteer demonstrator. She learned about the opportunity several years ago from a neighborhood woman who was a demonstrator in the building and also was an ambassador there.

Anabel “Ann” Robinson, 86, a longtime Chicopee resident, is one of this year’s ambassadors in the New England Center. This will be her 11th year as an ambassador for the Big E’s Creative Arts Department. Robinson said she began volunteering as an ambassador after she and her granddaughter Sheri entered some crafts for the building’s exhibits.

“I show visitors around the area and explain the judging system for the blue, red, white, yellow and green award ribbons presented in various classes in each creative arts division,” said Robinson.

“I love to visit and talk with guests about what’s in the building, and try to get people to sign up to be exhibitors for next year’s fair,” said Robinson, who will be in the building for six of the fair’s 17 days, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. She also volunteers to help with receiving and displaying crafts delivered by artists prior to the Big E’s opening.

Her volunteer efforts have not gone unnoticed. At the 2014 fair, she was named volunteer of the year. In 2017, Robinson was surprised by Eugene Cassidy, president of the Eastern States Exposition, with a “host of the day” award that recognizes outstanding contributions of volunteers, vendors and employees. During the fair, the award is presented daily to an individual.

Robinson is also proud of receiving the Florence Sattler Memorial Award in 2013. The award reflects the unusual effort, unselfish interest and willingness of a person to share their time with the Big E’s Creative Arts department.

“It was such an honor — I wear it proudly,” said. Robinson.

The special volunteer award, created in 1984 in memory of a Springfield resident, is presented annually to an individual who has made outstanding contributions as a creative arts volunteer.

According to Paige Stawasz, the fair’s competitive events coordinator, Sattler was a crafter and a volunteer in the Creative Arts Department who helped establish its volunteer program and contributed many years to the program.

Stawasz said the New England Center has about 50 volunteers who help in the creative arts section both before the fair and as ambassadors during the fair. She said there are more than 20 individuals and groups who demonstrate their crafts during the Big E.

Robinson’s favorite fair food is the hot-buttered lobster rolls in the Connecticut Building. When she’s not volunteering at the Big E, her family keeps her busy — she has two daughters, three grandchildren, five great grandchildren and two great-great grandkids, with one due next month.
Johnson, who has also volunteered at the 4-H building, said that as far back as she can remember the Big E has been a part of her life. She remembers that when children got free admission to the fair, one neighborhood parent would bring a station wagon full of kids to the Big E to drop them off, while another would pick them up.

One of Johnson’s favorite areas at the Big E is the Avenue of the States, with buildings representing each New England state.

“Back in the days before GPS, you used to get a map from each state. I also like the crafts in the Storrowton Village area,” she said.

As for gadgets sold at the Big E, Johnson particularly likes some of the vegetable peelers sold in the Better Living Center.

“For years, that was the only place you could get ones with the sideways blade — now you can get them everywhere. The Better Living Center is great for all those types of gadgets.”

When it comes to food at the Big E, Johnson highly recommends the cream puffs, especially now that chocolate ones are an option, that are sold in the New England Center. She also likes Maine baked potatoes. For great chicken — not what Johnson considers “fair food” — she eats at the Agawam Lions Club’s restaurant.

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