The 168th Canfield Fair is taking place even as I write. Since 1846, fairs have been held on the Canfield Fairgrounds. Last week I wrote about food at the Fair. This week, I thought I would share some of my own memories of the fair and thoughts about what the fair means to the Youngstown area.
I first remember going with my dad to the fair one evening when I was in elementary school. It was eye-opening in so many ways. The crowds, the lights on the midway, all the rides were almost overwhelming. I think this was also my first exposure to farm animals, a big part of the fair. I discovered that cows also went to the bathroom as I watched one do so right before my eyes–you can tell that I was a city kid! We did a few of the animal barns, then got some food and went on some of the rides. I most remember being on the ferris wheel at night and being able to see all the neon lights from way up high and thinking what an amazing thing this was. My other memory from that night was that we got rear-ended by a drunk as we were turning left into the street where we lived. Needless to say, that was one night to remember!
One of the fun things as we got older was to be able to go off on our own and ride the rides, and eventually to be able to go to the fair with our friends. It was fun to sit atop the ferris wheel with a girl and sneak a few kisses. Finally, we went into the “freak” shows only to be disappointed that they didn’t live up to their billings. In those years, the fair was mostly rides, food, and some of the midway games, particularly trying to win a stuffed animal for your girl. We’d often go over to the WHOT and other radio and TV station tents to be part of their live broadcast and meet the radio and TV personalities.
I really don’t think we discovered the fair in all its richness until we were adults. By then, we were living away from Youngstown but the fair was our annual pilgrimage and a time to visit good friends who lived in Canfield just a short distance away. We’d do the fair and then come back to their home and drink coffee until late in the evenings and catch up with each others’ lives. When our kids were young, we’d break out the strollers and take them around to see the rabbits and ducks and chickens and roosters and other animals and to ride the kiddie rides. Later our son and their daughter would go on rides together. He was always big for his age, and I suspect more than once crushed her on the tilt-a-whirl! Over the years, and particularly as the kids grew older and did their own thing, we developed routines of visiting the various animal barns, the antique steam engines for the guys, the arts and crafts barns for the women, the pumpkin barn so that everyone could marvel at how big you could grow a pumpkin. Every year we’d go to the international building and watch the different ethnic dancers and would usually run into one of my wife’s high school classmates.
Some years we would go to see the performers in the grandstand. I remember catching the Beach Boys the year before our son was born, and Kenny Loggins among others. I think we caught the tractor pulls once or twice–kind of like a drag race in reverse, starting out fast and grinding to a stop, with lots of noise, smoke and spinning wheels. Underneath the grandstand there were always the vendors selling everything from jewelry and kitchen ware to all-purpose cleaners, a can of which we bought nearly every year. The stuff really worked. Sometimes we would wander over to the 4-H pony rings watching young teens lead ponies and horses through their paces to compete for ribbons. Or we would go to the sheep barns and see how fast a sheep could be sheared.
The fair was where city met country. Many of the immigrant families of Youngstown had rural and farm roots and this was a way to re-connect. We learned where food, wool clothing, leather, and milk came from. We saw that farmers also worked around machinery that could be dangerous and worked long hard hours. The work was just different. In some ways, the fair was where steel and food came together and we celebrated in a movable, walking feast for eyes, ears, and mouths.
I mentioned the friends we went to the fair with every year. The wife passed in 2009, dying too young of cancer, and we haven’t done the fair since. So many of our memories were filled with the times we all shared. I do want to go to the fair again some year. I know there will be many wonderful things to see but we won’t recapture those years. But we can remember.
What are your best memories of the Canfield Fair or other county fairs?