Fairs: old-time fun, new success

In some ways, it could be the state fair in Iowa or Minnesota or somewhere else in the Midwestern breadbasket.

''The World's Largest Bag of Popcorn'' extends in stale majesty along a flatbed truck. Twenty-one breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, and swine vie for ribbons. And the smooth-talking pitchman still lures a crowd with his handy gadget that slices, chops, shreds, dices, ''even makes julienne French fries.''

But it's pure New England too. The state fisheries department reminds the visitor that ''Today is Cusk Day'' and hands out free shark recipes. A cranberry separator (''the green ones bounce onto another belt,'' the attendant explains) grumbles away in one exhibit hall, while next door maple sugar products, from tiny candies to gallon jugs of syrup, tempt passers-by.

Each fall this town on the edge of the Eastern megalopolis, just 90-some miles from the Atlantic Ocean, hosts more than a million visitors to ''New England's Great State Fair,'' the Eastern States Exposition. It is one of the largest fairs in the nation, usually ranking between 8th and 13th out of some 3, 200 fairs in the United States and Canada.

While the ''Big E,'' which acts as a state fair for all six New England states, has its own special challenges, it shares one with most other fairs: the recession. But with the peak season for fairs (August through October) winding down, these extravaganzas seem to be holding their own, or even gaining a bit.

''Fairs have done extremely well'' considering the economic climate, says Lewis Miller, executive vice-president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions in Springfield, Mo. Last year 160 million visitors passed through the turnstiles, and indications are that total will be equaled or surpassed this year. A study Mr. Miller's association is preparing for release this fall will show that for the first time fairs and expositions are a billion-dollar industry.

One promotion technique aimed at luring budget-minded visitors caught on last year, he says: ''pay one price'' tickets, including entertainment and carnival rides as well as cost of admission.

This year, the Big E offered a variation on that theme. It announced more than $300,000 in free entertainment - budding country music stars, a circus, and an auto thrill show. ''New Englanders are spoiled,'' Big E spokeswoman Betsi Sheehan Taylor explains. ''There's lots for us to do. We can go to the beach or the mountains or to events right in our cities.'' In less populous regions, she says, the fair may be the biggest event of the year.

She reasons that tighter economic times are a help in one way.People tend not to travel so far on vacation and look for attractions close to home. The fair has become ''part of the western Massachusetts playground for New Yorkers,'' she says.

With 85 to 90 percent of its visitors from urban areas, the Big E offers a rare look at rural life. ''Yes, we like to show kids that milk doesn't come from cartons,'' Mrs. Taylor says. But she also notes new interest in agricultural events from young adults who are going ''back to the land.'' People showing livestock, she says, are more often small operators, some of them part time. Those eyeing farm machinery are more likely to huddle around a small tractor than a giant combine.

According to association spokesman Miller, the fair season now extends 11 months out of the year. It gets rolling with many big Midwestern fairs in August , moves south with the frost to big events like the Texas State Fair, and continues well into the spring in Florida and southern California.

In New England, most fairs mark the beginning of fall. ''We (New Englanders) think of pumpkins on the vine and picking apples'' at fair time, says Mrs. Taylor. That's why, she says, if the Big E decides to add a third weekend it will go forward into foliage season, not back toward Labor Day. The fair's current dates are Sept. 15-26.

Although economic times are tough, Mrs. Taylor thinks good management can keep a fair up to date and financially sound. Nearly $1 million has just been spent behind the scenes at the West Springfield grounds on necessary improvements.

New England fairs date back to an exhibition of livestock and agricultural products at New Haven, Conn., in 1644. But fairs have a much longer history than that. Miller points out that the Bible's Book of Ezekiel, written in the sixth century B.C., mentions a fair in the city of Tyrus.

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