By Jolene Hawkins

By 1874, the Erie County Fair had the need for a permanent place. The Society appointed a five-member committee and, by 1875, the Society had agreed on a contract with the Hamburg Driving Association to lease its grounds.

Where before they had met without charge, now the annual fee was $50 a year, as long as the association held the lease. That relationship lasted for a very long time!

As the fair advanced in years, the entertainment and dining facilities increased. Fairgoers wanted more than exhibits and livestock — they wanted visual and audible excitement, they wanted entertainment!

By 1884, there were three stands with exclusive rights to sell “smokes.” W.S. Wilson had exclusive rights to operate an Air Gun, and the dining hall space was granted to Myron Colvin, for which he furnished Society members 100 meals and what more they had at 25 cents per head.

Gradually, more substantial buildings began to rise on the fair site, which now covered 25 acres of land, fenced with substantial post and boards. Water was taken from the springs on the grounds and carried by pipes to reservoirs situated in various parts of the enclosure.

In 1885, Hoffman and Getz constructed the Women’s Department Octagonal Building for $2,037. There were dance floors and swings that furnished plenty of amusement for the festive bells and beaux.

In 1887, the fair accepted a proposition by H.D. Squire to make a balloon ascension on the fairgrounds. The size of the balloonist’s fee was $150. In 1888, Prof. Carl Meyers was engaged to make two balloon ascensions on the grounds. The balloon was 65 feet high and 45 feet in diameter. It was very quickly inflated with air heated by a fire kindled in a hole, dug in the ground.

In 1889, “aeronaut” J. F. Elliott parachuted from the balloon. From the side of the basket hung the white fold of the parachute and on a bar that was suspended below the balloon was Mr. Elliott. The atmosphere on that day was very still. The balloon rose to an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet and, when the time was right, Mr. Elliott took hold of the parachute rigging and in a moment he fell, swiftly some distance, before the parachute swelled out wide and full and he gracefully descended to the earth, landing gracefully.

The 1890s were a time of Buffalo’s Golden Age, and the Gay Nineties. The Fairgrounds now cover around 60 acres, and the well-groomed ½-mile racetrack was one of the best in the state. Springville’s Coronet Band played at the fair, as did the Smith’s Silver Creek Coronet Band, Eden Band, East Aurora Band and Java Village Band. There were five bands for each day of the fair.

Jumping ahead to 1910, there were 20,000 people that passed through the main gate on opening day. Special arrangement with four railroad services — the Buffalo & Susquehanna, the Buffalo Southern, the Erie and the International Railway & Lake Erie Transaction Co. — were making several trips daily to the fair. Automobiles were now being seen, with 700 passing through the gates that year.

The year 1930 marked the 74th fair, with more than 15,000 boys and girls admitted free to be entertained and educated. Songs such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulders” were popular and kids (over 2,000) paraded in costumes.  Exhibits ranged from pets to mongrel dogs to tamed crows and parrots. There were Polish dances and tap dancing, all done by children; women departments with embroidered table covers and piano scarfs; and games of horseshoe pitching and softball games, fishing tournaments and 4-H clubs demonstrating their expansion in homemaking, tree planting and livestock growing.

There is so much more about the fair and I have only just begun. I wanted to cover the early years, as most of us have heard stories from the ‘40s, ‘50s and so on. So as I close this series I want to give you some interesting facts:

• the oldest building on the grounds is the Octagon Building;

• the James E. Strates Shows Midway first appeared in 1924 and still arrive each year to set up and entertain us with rides and sideshows;

• the fair owns the only original San Francisco Cable car;

• the metal 40-foot span main gate on McKinley Parkway was built in 1930 and allows four cars to enter the fairground abreast;

• Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, formally dedicated the Historical Building on Aug. 23, 1965;

• the Erie County Fair became the country’s largest county fair in 1970 with the attendance of 600,960 — it is now the thirst largest county fair.

• Stop by and visit with us at the Lucy Bensley Center and tell me what topics and stories you would like to see me write… I’d love to see ya!

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