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A Look Back: Strates Shows at the Erie County Fair

Looking back to when kids and adults would wait anxiously for the train to show up with all the equipment for the rides and sideshows for the fair or carnival. Were you one of them? The train still comes to the Erie County Fair in Hamburg. James E. Strate still comes back every year.
Strates Shows is America’s only railroad carnival. It travels the United States for the seven-month season, going from fair to fair. It transports personnel and equipment with around 60 cars and 34 trucks. Traveling with the show are some 400 employees and families who operate the many rides, games and concessions.
Strates Shows has a history dating back to 1923, when James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant, began his first show. Mr. Strates came to America in 1909, and like so many others, he worked odd jobs here and there.
In 1919, he joined the Lee Schaefer’s carnival athletic show as a wrestler, under the name of “Young Strangler Lewis” taking on all challengers. The circus we had that came to Springville in 1937 had such a wrestling match.
By 1923 he and two partners, Nick Bozinis and W.L. Platt, and had acquired the Southern Tier Shows. The first show consisted of a merry-go-round, Ferris Wheel, an athletic show, 15 concessions, three sideshows and five hard rubber tire trucks. Times were hard that season so Strates bought out his partners the following year.
During the Great Depression, he like other businesses struggled to stay afloat. In 1927, Strates purchased an old plant near Elmira in order to help facilitate equipment maintenance. He grew his show into 11 major acts, traveling the area with 18 trucks.
In 1932, he changed its name to the James E. Strates Shows. Beginning in 1934, he purchased his first flatbed railroad car to haul equipment, eventually operating 40 cars. He bought smaller companies over the next few years to enlarge his business.
On Dec. 22, 1945, a fire engulfed a barn holding all of Strates’ midway equipment, which was being stored for the winter in Mullins, S.C. His train was the only useable piece that remained. Luck was on his side as he was insured and was able to rebuild his company bigger and better.
By 1953, the James E. Strates Show was one of the largest midway companies in the United States. In 1955, they moved the winter quarters down to Orlando, Fla., where it remains today. He continued to build and manage the carnival until his death in 1959.
His son, E. James Strates inherited the company, and the name is now licensed under Strates Shows Inc. E. James brought new innovations to the amusements at the fairs and carnivals, including promotions, advance ticket sales and a centralized ticket system.  Many of the rides include the use of LED lights and biodiesel fueled generators.
The Erie Country Fair located in Hamburg is currently the oldest stop on the circuit. Strates Shows has been coming and setting up there since 1924. This year marks the 95th year it will be coming to the fair, with a mile-long midway featuring the rides, games, sideshows, concessions and shopping.
During the fair, the Midway is opened from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. You can get advance tickets at Top Friendly Markets. This year, there are some new rides, including The Sky Wheel, Crazy Mouse Coaster and Frisbee ride.
In 1867, the Erie County Fair was held in Springville at the Union grounds. Horse racing was held at the Dygert’s Farm where there was a hot air balloon ascension as well. Vendors were set up at both locations, food and crafts. In 1868, there was a vote, with all the agriculture societies, where Springville lost the hosting rights of the fair to Hamburg by one vote, 18 to 17, and since then it has been held at its current location.
The 180th Erie County Fair runs from Aug. 7 through 18. Stop by the Historical Building while you are at the fair and see the booth that the Concord Historical Society created, along with other historical societies’ booths to show the history of the towns.
From noon to 6 p.m. every day, except Sunday, Aug. 11, you can see me as Grandma Butter doing butter churning demonstrations. What seasons will I add to the butter this year? Peach? Garlic? Fresh herbs? Guess you just have to stop by and see!
Want to learn more about carnivals or the Erie County Fair when it was in Springville? Stop by the Lucy Bensley Center on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., or send us an email at lucybensleycenter@gmail.com. Regarding this or family genealogy, call us at 592-0094.08-09-look-back

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