By Alicia Dziak
Dubbed “The Best 12 Days of Summer,” the Erie County Fair returns Aug. 8-19 for its 179th year, celebrating 150 of those years in Hamburg.
The Erie County Fair has many ties to Springville, both past and present. Not only was the fair held in Springville the year before it moved to Hamburg, but this year at the helm of it all sits Jessica Underberg, CEO and fair manager, who is a 1994 SGI grad.
Underberg grew up on a dairy farm in Collins, attended college at Canisius and married her high school sweetheart, Mark. The couple still resides in Springville with their two daughters in the house Mark grew up in.
Underberg has been working for the fair for over two decades.
“This will be my 23rd fair,” she said. “I started working at the front desk and have worked in every department since then.” Underberg worked as the assistant manager at the fair for eight years before being promoted to fair manager last October.
With the fair only days away, Underberg explained that this time of year is all about the little things. “The last month is more details and final touches,” she said.
While she acknowledges the scope and size of the fair, Underberg also says August brings in so much outside help.
“Our staff of 50 grows to 500 (for the fair),” she said. In comparison, other events held on the fairgrounds throughout the year are also sizeable but must be done only by the staff of 50.
Everyone remembers last year’s fair, with a tornado touching down on the fairgrounds just 20 days before the fair was supposed to start. Underberg recalls being in a camper with her lunch when it hit, and she felt the camper lift off the ground. The storm, which she said “left as quickly as it came” left much of the grounds and buildings destroyed, a monumental challenge to overcome in less than three weeks.
“The biggest reason (we were able to get up and running again so quickly) was because of the relationship we have with our contractors,” Underberg explained. “They showed up immediately to help and we also had a lot of volunteers.” She continued to note that some things just could not be fixed on time, and that in hindsight, she thinks some kind of scavenger hunt would have been fun, to see if people would notice all the “quick fixes” that had been made.
For instance, 50 trees were lost on the property. With limited time, stumps were not able to be removed, so instead, large piles of mulch covered in flowers and rocks concealed the stumps.
The tornado was also a wake up call for more of a focus on emergency plans set in place on the premises during non-fair times.
If that wasn’t enough, last year, a large fire burned the Weidner’s barbecue stand to the ground during the fair.
This year, hopefully without the drama, the fair is ready to welcome thousands of guests for 12 days, and Underberg said that if you think you know the fair, think again. Patrons will see many changes this year, starting with new exhibit spaces for many popular exhibits.
Underberg and other staff members attended trade shows throughout the year and carefully selected new and unique entertainment for the fair. There will be a new circus exhibit at Gate 5, Cyrk Live, featuring a dazzling collection of international jugglers, high flying trapeze artists and the return of the Extreme Chinese Acrobats.
Also new is the I-HUB, which are interactive displays that put a spotlight on innovation, ingenuity and imagination found throughout western New York.
As always, the Fair offers a variety of grandstand events. Free concerts include the BPO on Aug. 8, The Fab Four Beatles tribute band on Aug. 11, the Oak Ridge Boys on Aug. 13 and Midland on Aug. 14. An option of $20 reserved track seating is available for those shows.
Other concerts include Chris Young on Aug. 9, ZZ Top on Aug. 10 and Dick Fox’s Golden Boys (Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell) on Aug. 12.
Fairgoers can also check out Freestyle Motocross on Aug. 15, Truck and Tractor Pull Champions Tour on Aug. 16 and 17, the Ultimate Night of Destruction on Aug. 18, and the World’s Largest Demolition Derby on Aug. 19.
This year, every night will conclude with fireworks, as a way to say “thank you” to Hamburg for hosting the fair for 150 years. Underberg explained that although it would have been cool to have the fair stay in Springville — referring to when it was held at Dygert Farm all those years ago (before it was voted on and won by only one vote to move it) — the move allowed the fair to grow to one of the top 10 fairs in the country today. Hamburg provided a location that was closer to the city but still close enough to the rural communities, therefore drawing crowds from both areas and more people.
Why is the Erie County Fair is an annual tradition for so many?
“You can go to the fair and forget about everything else; it gives you a hands-on experience in a digital world,” said Underberg, adding that it reconnects the family. “My parents took me, their parents took them. You can see and do so much without spending a lot of money.”
With something for everyone, the Erie County Fair won’t disappoint. Take the short drive to Hamburg to experience this Western New York tradition and make summertime memories!
Visit www.ecfair.org for more information.