Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Beginnings

Attorney Elisha Whittlesey, Public Domain.

He was one of Canfield’s early residents, moving from Connecticut to Canfield in 1806 to practice law and teach school. In 1812, he answered his young country’s call and fought under William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. He represented Canfield in the Ohio House from 1821 to 1822, and in the U. S. Congress from 1823 to 1838. He also served as the first Comptroller of the U. S. Treasury.

In local history, what he is best known for is his role in forming the Mahoning County Agricultural Society, the parent organization of the Canfield Fair. It was 1846. The Ohio Legislature had just created Mahoning County as a new county from townships in Trumbull and Columbiana Counties. Canfield, because of its central location, was chosen to be the county seat. It was only in 1874 that the county seat was moved to Youngstown.

During that year, Attorney Whittlesey spoke to a gathering at the Canfield Congregational Church. It had the impressive title of “Competitive Exhibitions as a Means of Awakening More Active Interest in All Industrial Pursuits” (the beginning of all those 4-H competitions!). The address had the intended effect and out of this meeting the Mahoning County Agricultural Society was born.

Since Canfield was the county seat, it was the logical choice for the county fair. The first fair was organized as a one-day affair held on October 5, 1847. Initially, livestock was tied up and produce displayed along Broad Street and meetings held at the Congregational Church. George Houk of the Mahoning County Agricultural Society described the early fairs like this, “People brought their ox teams in, their horse teams in. It was just an opportunity for the early farmers to get together and share their agricultural ideas with one another” (Source: WKBN27). The first fair turned a profit of $308.

In 1851, the Fair moved to its present location and expanded further in 1867. In 1896, the Main Hall (now the Floral and Fine Arts Building) was opened. In 1924 lighting allowed for night attendance for the first time. In 1936, the Grandstand was completed as a WPA project. In 1958 the Big Rock was installed and the rooster on the Grandstand in 1968.

There were war years when the Fair was not held. 1917–18, 1942–45. In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, only the Junior Fair took place–honoring all the work those youth invested and returning in some way to the earliest beginnings of the Fair.

This year, the full Fair is on and celebrating the 175th anniversary of its beginnings at Canfield Congregational Church and an address by Elisha Whittlesey. All those Junior Fair competitions, all those exhibitions, the rides, the fair food, the grandstand shows, started with an idea set forth by one of Canfield’s early residents in the year Mahoning became a county. Thank you, Attorney Whittlesey!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield, the First County Seat

Old Mahoning County Courthouse in Canfield, Ohio. Photo: Robert C. Trube, all rights reserved

Unless you grew up in Canfield, it is likely that your first visit to Canfield was to go to the Canfield Fair. That was true for me. It was a memorable night with my dad–the rides, the animal barns, footlong hotdogs, and to top it all off, while we waiting to turn left into our street coming home, a drunk rear-ended us! Nobody was hurt, but the rear end of my dad’s ’61 Ford Galaxie was crumpled.

The fair came nearly 50 years after the first settlers from Connecticut settled in what was then Township 1, Range 3, shortly after it was surveyed in 1798. Six people purchased shares in the 16,324 acres making up the township. The largest share, 6,171 acres, was purchased by Judson Canfield. After briefly calling the township Campfield, they early settlers saw sense and on April 15, 1800, they voted to call it Canfield in honor of the largest landowner.

The earliest settlers were all from Connecticut. They included Judson Canfield who was there in June of 1798, two of the surveyors, Samuel Gilson and Joseph Pangburn, and Champion Minor with his wife and two children, the youngest dying shortly after they arrived. The center of town was laid out, a log cabin and two homes were built and a barn. They also cut an east-west road, what is now Route 224. Groups from Connecticut added to the settlement each of the next several years.

In 1801, the first business, a sawmill, was built on the northeast part of the townshipThe first birth occurred June 22, 1802, Royal Canfield Chidester. Herman Canfield (Judson’s brother) and Zalmon Fitch operated a store. Fitch also opened a tavern. A small school was started in a combined school, community center and church building with Caleb Palmer as teacher. Samuel Gilson handled mail delivery, traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh to get the mail. By 1805, the little settlement had 17 homes, a store, a school and a sawmill. Immigrants from Germany came in 1805. A significant later immigration of Irish Catholics in 1852 augmented the population.

Canfield was originally on the southern edge of Trumbull County (along with Youngstown, Poland, Boardman, Austintown, and the all the Township 1s and 2s in the southern part of Trumbull County, the county seat of which was Warren. In the 1840’s communities like Youngstown and Canfield were growing because of routing of canals and railroads through the area, even while the county was represented by people from the Warren area in the state legislature. Finally, in 1842, Eben Newton, one of Canfield’s leading citizens was elected to the legislature. Working together with others, a proposal creating Mahoning County as Ohio’s 83rd county passed in the state legislature on February 16, 1846. The southern two tiers of townships from Trumbull County were combined with the northern tier of Columbiana County (surveyed as 6 x 6 mile squares as opposed to the 5 x 5 system used throughout the Western Reserve).

And Canfield? Because of its central location in the new county, it was designated county seat, with the courthouse in the photograph above being erected. The town underwent a boom as it became the center to transact legal business, with its hotel thriving. County seats are typically the sites of the annual county fair, and the first Canfield Fair was held October 5, 1847 as a one day event. In 1851 the Fair moved to its present location, which was expanded in 1867. The first superintendent of the fair was J.W. Canfield, grandson of Canfield’s founder.

Canfield was the agricultural heart of the county, so this made sense. But Youngstown had never been happy about the decision to site the county seat in Canfield. Youngstown was going through its first industrial boom, starting in the 1840’s, and especially in the 1860’s during the Civil War. In 1874, a bill to move the county seat to Youngstown passed in the state legislature. The bill was challenged in court, first argued in Canfield with James A. Garfield representing Canfield. The case eventually went to the Ohio Supreme Court, with the court upholding the bill.

The move of the county seat to Youngstown meant a different future for Canfield, combining the feel of a farming community with Classical Revival architecture, giving the community a sense of refinement–a community of schools and churches. In 1881, the Northeastern Ohio Normal School was established in Canfield to educate teachers for the community. It operated until 1910 when it closed for lack of funds.

For most of the year, Canfield is known as a quiet, relatively affluent city of good schools, a town square that retains its historic character, and a diverse mix of restaurants and local businesses. But for one week of every year, the rest of the county, as well as people from far and wide come to the largest county fair in Ohio. That’s how most of us growing up in Youngstown discovered Canfield.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Grandstand

Canfield Fair Marker

Canfield Fair Historic Marker with Grandstand in background. Photo courtesy of Jenn Wintermantel, via Used with permission of owner.

It’s fair time again! I have so many memories of visits to the fair, and the fairgrounds and many of them revolve around the grandstand. During fairs past, I watched harness races, pig iron competitions, and tractor pulls (not being able to hear a thing afterwards and smelling of diesel exhaust!). Then there were shows. I can remember going to see the Beachboys and Kenny Loggins at different shows over the years. This year, the big act is Pentatonix, a group I happen to love. But you probably would have had to buy the tickets the day they came out. Some past acts were Toby Keith, John Mellencamp, Reba McEntire, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The first encounter some of us had with the grandstand were those ominous announcements: “Susie and Michael are at the sound tower by the grandstand and have lost their parents and they’d like to find you” (or something like that). The other experience we had was going underneath the grandstand for all the vendors who were selling everything from trinkets to pots and pans, and miracle cleaning solutions. There was one of these, a powder that came in a can that could be used for cleaning carpet stains and other stains. The stuff really worked and one of our missions at the fair was to buy a can every year.

The grandstand was built in 1936. Over the entrance, where grandstand events are posted and the trademark rooster stands, you can see engraved in the cement “WPA 1936.” WPA stands for Works Progress Administration, a Depression-era program designed to put thousands of out-of-work men to work on public infrastructure projects. This one has lasted 83 years and counting! The grandstand can seat 6200 people.

There is an interesting story behind this. Because it was a WPA project, the ownership of the ground and the grandstand, originally owned by the fairgrounds, was transferred to the county in 1935 so they could apply for the construction. It remained in county hands until 2001. The transfer might have happened in 1996, but the fair board borrowed $300,000 at that time for grandstand improvements from the county, and the county did not want to complete the transfer until the loan was paid. In 2001, the grandstand transferred back to fair ownership for the price of $1.

Over the years I visited the grandstand for other things. There used to be stock car races and demolition derbies on the track and I went to some of those. The demolition derbies were fun, because people were intentionally trying to hit each other, doing as much damage as possible while still keeping going in a kind of “last man standing” contest. Apparently these still happen, with one scheduled on Friday night of this year’s fair.

Twice during my growing up years there were “crusades” with associates of Billy Graham, once when I was young with a preacher by the name of Lane Adams, and when I was in college with Leighton Ford. My big memory of the latter event was that one night my father and I were the “night watchmen” over all the sound equipment. All we could do if there was a problem was to call the real police, but fortunately, all we saw that night were the stars as we camped out on the stage.

Often, the grandstand represented a place where you could get out of the sun on a hot day at the fair. You could watch pig iron pulling contests and cheerleader competitions and marching bands. It was part of the “fair experience” and stands as a monument to the workers who built it, the fair board who have maintained it, and all who have performed there.

Congratulations, Canfield Fair on your 173rd year! You are “something to crow about!”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Pumpkin Barn

Pumpkin Barn 2004

Pictures outside the Pumpkin Barn are a must! Bob Trube, all rights reserved, 2004.

How many of you took pictures here? These are younger versions of my son and me in the left eye of the Mr. Pumpkin, and my good friend, Bob, in the right eye.

After looking at the pumpkin pyramid, you walked up to the porch and gawked at all the huge pumpkins on display, some over 1,000 pounds, and all somewhat flattened out and distorted by their own weight. After that, you stepped into the barn and looked at the biggest pumpkin of the year.

Finally, you wandered through the barn and looked at the incredible variety of colors and shapes of pumpkins and squash, organized into fantastic displays, including various creations of people and animals out of pumpkins. It was a reminder of what a versatile vegetable squash is–for eating, for decoration, for birdhouses, for colorful displays, and for making bizarre creations.


Photo by WDWParksGal-Stock, Fall Harvest at the Canfield Fair, via Deviant Art

Did you know that the pumpkin show was not always a part of the Canfield Fair? It was started only in 1962, which makes this year’s the 57th pumpkin show. It was the brainchild of Homer Schaeffer and Ray Carr, who thought the Canfield Fair needed a pumpkin show similar to the Circleville Pumpkin Show, south of Columbus. The first year, the winning pumpkin weighed just 85 pounds and was grown by John Gavin.

The pumpkins grew in size over the years. By 1991, the largest was 544 pounds, grown by Ron and Kathy Moffett, who won a number of championships during the 1990’s. The 1,000 pound threshold was surpassed in 2008 by Jerry Rose, who had won a number of grand champions. Another Jerry, Jerry Snyder set the all-time record at 1512 pounds in 2017. This year’s winner, grown by Chuck Greathouse, came in at 1381 pounds.

How do you weigh one of these monsters? Very carefully, to be sure. I came across this video of pumpkin weighing at the Fair in 2017. I was particularly impressed to see it was grown by a young boy. If you think a 1500 pound pumpkin is impressive, there is a giant pumpkin weigh-in at the end of the season and it is not unusual to have a 2,000 pound pumpkin!

All the pumpkin growers will tell you that the seed is the secret to growing a huge pumpkin (really a form of squash). Seeds from championship pumpkins can run as much as $50 a seed (that is right–one seed!). Of course, weather, pruning, and insect control are very important. If the idea of raising a REALLY large pumpkin, and not just looking at them fascinates you, there is a local group in the Canfield-Salem area called the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers, part of a global organization called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth.

For most of us, a picture at Mr. Pumpkin, and walking through all the squash and pumpkin displays is enough. After all, there is so much else to see and good food to sample!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Midway Memories


Father and son at DiRusso’s

The 170th Canfield Fair starts next Wednesday. And hearing of this brings back memories that stretch from childhood until the early years of our son’s marriage. I wonder if it is like this for you:

  • Going to the fair as a child and seeing all the lights at night, particularly from the top of the ferris wheel and experiencing a whole new sense of wonder.
  • Seeing real live farm animals, smelling them, and realizing they don’t have the same sense of privacy we do when they pee and poop!
  • Having my first footlong hotdog, having never heard of such a think but thinking, “what a wonderful idea.”
  • Going to the fair with a girl and trying (and not usually succeeding) to win her a prize in the games of skill. Eye-hand coordination was never my strong suit.
  • Strolling the midway with a girl, sharing a cup of fair fries drizzled with vinegar.
  • Working one year in college at an old-time evangelist’s booth showing the curious these glass boxes designed to foster the fear of hell so they would turn to Jesus. I still like encouraging people to “turn to Jesus”, but decided this was not the way I wanted to go about it.
  • Going to some of the grandstand shows. I remember seeing the Beach Boys one year, Kenny Loggins another, and countless tractor pulls. Can we say “deaf”.
  • Then there were all those vendors under the grandstand. We would get a can of carpet cleaner from one of them that really worked!
  • For many years, we used the fair for an annual reunion with college friends. We started when our kids were in strollers and this went until our kids were getting married.
  • We always had to stop at DiRusso’s for an Italian Sausage sandwich. And once my son’s stomach could handle it, he joined the fun.
  • For a period of time, we could buy the kids a ride wristband and turn ’em loose for a few hours so that we could look at some of the exhibits like the art show and various 4-H exhibits that they would consider b-o-r-i-n-g.
  • Speaking of the art exhibit, the fair was responsible for my wife showing one of her paintings in public for the first timed, at the urging of our artist friend.
  • We grew up in the city but it was amazing to watch young boys and girls ride horses and put them through their paces competing for various ribbons. Then we’d walk through the barns and see them caring for these animals, sometimes sleeping in an adjacent stall or a trailer and being impressed with how responsible they were.
  • I think I always loved the nights the most, with all the lights of rides and stands. There seemed to be a haze over the midway–a combination of all the things being fried and the humidity of a late summer night.

The Fair was always the last fling of summer for us. School didn’t start until after Labor Day back then. Even as adults, the Fair marked the end of the easier pace of summer as our kids started back to school, and everyone got back from vacation at work. I think for all of us around Youngstown, it was, and still is for those who live there, the last big celebration of summer.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Elephant Ears


Elephant ears with different toppings. By Arge300exx (Own work) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know about you but as Canfield Fair time approaches, I find myself hankering for an elephant ear, or at least a few bites of one! This was always the perfect snack food for an afternoon at the fair. You could stroll down one of the midways with your friends and share one of these all around. The light, crispy fried dough with sugar and cinnamon on top was absolutely delectable, and after you finished the ear, there was the finger licking! And there was always enough to go around for at least four of you, and if you wanted more, someone else in your group could buy.

I never worked at one of the concessions, but I can only imagine that this was hot work, rolling out dough and pulling ears out of the frying oil. I also suspect that it was pretty hard to avoid a few burns, hopefully none severe. God bless those folks who worked all day to serve us up such tasty fair food.

Of course there are a number of recipes online for how to make these at home. Here is a video from AllRecipes posted on YouTube. My mouth was watering just watching them make this. I liked the idea of 6 tablespoons of shortening or butter in this recipe (and then more butter on top of the fried dough which helps the sugar and cinnamon mix to stick).

This is another one of those foods that goes under a variety of names. At the Canfield Fair, you wouldn’t know what people were talking about if you called them anything other than elephant ears. But they are also called fried dough (which is what they are but not particularly imaginative), doughboys, fry bread, scones (unlike the scones I’m familiar with), flying saucers (I can see that), beaver tails, buñuelos, and pizza fritte. I kind of like beaver tails but wonder if they are shaped differently to look more like a beaver tail.

After you finished the elephant ear, it was time to wash it down with a lemon shake-up (more sugar!).  Together, they made for the perfect treat on a hot fair afternoon, not too heavy on the stomach for all those rides, and not to hard on the wallet either.

If you make it to the Fair this year, eat an elephant ear for me!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — DiRusso’s


My wife and I were stopping by the local Gordon Food Service store to pick up a variety of items. And what did we spot by the front entrance of the store? A DiRusso’s cooler loaded with their wonderful Italian sausage! We ended up buying a box, which we do periodically. We like to fry up our own pepper and onion mix that we top the sausage with on a good hoagie bun. Brings back memories of many trips to the Canfield Fair.

Our latest DiRusso's purchase

Our latest DiRusso’s purchase

The summer we moved to Columbus was a hard one for us. Our son, five at the time, broke the femur in one of his legs in a freak mishap. Usually, we would meet up on Labor Day weekend with friends at the Canfield Fair. We couldn’t that year and so they brought DiRusso’s down to us and the whole house had that smell you notice as you approach a DiRusso’s concession.

A DiRusso’s stand was always one of our first stops at the Canfield Fair. It kind of became a bonding experience with my son and we had this thing going of who could go hotter–kind of our version of chest thumping. All I can remember is the first bite into one of those sandwiches, particularly if a year had gone by without one, was heaven on a bun!

Father and son at DiRusso's

Father and son at DiRusso’s

DiRusso’s is a Youngstown original. From what I’ve been able to learn in a Vindy article, it all started with Adeline DiRusso’s sausage recipe and a family grocery in Lowellville run by her son, Augustine, “Augie” DiRusso. In the beginning, they just sold the sausage out of the store on East Water Street in Lowellville. By the 1960’s, Augie started setting up concession stands at the Mount Carmel festival in Lowellville, and at the Canfield Fair and other county fairs in the area. Back then, you could get a sandwich for 40 cents. Now they license concessions at over 100 events in the tri-state area.

Nephew Robert DiRusso began working with the company and had his own trailer by age 16 in 1975. Eventually he took over the concession operation while Augie continued running their sausage plant in Lowellville. In 1993 Robert took over the entire operation from Augie and made the decision to go into retail. Eventually they moved their plant to 1035 West Rayen Avenue, its current location where all their products are manufactured and packaged to be distributed to more than three hundred stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.

We’re glad DiRusso’s has made it to our city. We particularly like to get their meatballs and medium-hot sausage. They also sell turkey sausage, sausage patties, turkey meatballs, wedding soup meatballs, breakfast sausage, beef patties and beef hoagies. Makes my mouth water just to type the list. You can also buy direct from them through their website.

Are you a DiRusso’s lover and what is your favorite sandwich or other product?

[Like this post and want to read more about Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown? Just click “On Youngstown” on the menu bar to see all the posts in this series.]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Review Part Two

In week two of my recap of “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts, I cover the period from mid-summer through Halloween which includes “keeping cool”, a couple of posts about the Canfield Fair, back to school, autumn leaves, football, and Halloween.

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

I also wrote some more topical posts on the arts in Youngstown, Youngstown neighborhoods, re-purposing, restaurants, and, of course pizza! I also throw in here a post on the Mahoning River which has not appeared widely before.

So here are the posts from mid-summer up to the present:

1. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — PizzaThis was the second most popular post in this series and the winner of the informal “best pizza” poll was Wedgewood, although over 30 different places were mentioned. Needless to say, lots of good pizza in Youngstown.

2. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The ArtsOne of the surprising things, both past and present about Youngstown, is the thriving arts community and the value placed on beauty.

3. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Keeping CoolMany of us didn’t grow up with air conditioning and in this post I explore all the ways we kept cool on those hot summer days in Youngstown.

4. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Mahoning River.  This has not been posted before on the Youngstown Facebook groups. I explore the history of the river that runs through Youngstown, its gradual return to a place of beauty and the challenges of river cleanup.

5. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Idora ParkIdora Park was the amusement park for many of us growing up in Youngstown. I review its history and sad end — I think most of us regret that we allowed the carousel to be sold away.

6. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Church FestivalsSummers were also the time for many of the great church festivals that are still a big part of Youngstown life.

7. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair FoodWritten around the time of the fair, this post celebrates many of the great places and favorite foods at Ohio’s biggest county fair.

8. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fair MemoriesBesides food, there were many other fun things to do at the fair, and I remember some of our perennial favorites!

9. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Back to SchoolThe funniest thing about this post was that as an afterthought, I mentioned how most of us used cigar boxes for pencil boxes and included an image of a cigar box.  That’s what everyone commented on and some still had those cigar boxes!

10. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — RepurposingThe cigar box reminded me of all the things we saved and found new uses for in working class Youngstown.

11. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown –NeighborhoodsYoungstown was a city of neighborhoods and strong neighborhood identity is key to its future.

12. Review: Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownThis was a special post reviewing a book written by Struthers native Robert Bruno, a sociologist. Bruno puts in words the values of the working class that this whole series explores as he chronicles the life and decline of the Youngstown steel industry and the nature of the working class.

13. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — RestaurantsThe arrival in my home of Classic Restaurants of Youngstown prompted this post celebrating the great places to eat, all local, that we grew up with in Youngstown.

14. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Autumn LeavesI explore memories of autumn leaves from the beauty of Mill Creek Park to the smell and haze of burning leaves across the Mahoning Valley.

15. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Libraries.  I set my own memories of libraries against the backdrop of the history of Youngstown’s library system and its importance to the aspirations of the working class.\

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

Scanned from 1970 Lariat

16. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — FootballMemories of Friday night lights, rivalries like Ursuline-Mooney, and Chaney High School coach Lou “Red” Angelo.

17. Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Halloween. I was reminded in this post that there was a time when people went trick-or-treating for several nights in Youngstown, and found out that everyone else used pillowcases, which were just awesome for holding lots of candy.

So, with last week’s post, that is the series so far. Some of my ideas for future posts include talking about things like Youngstown rock bands and music venues, our love of automobiles (American-made of course), and seasonal posts about Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays.

Readers comments on these posts have reminded me of so many things I’ve forgotten. In that spirit, some of you may be wondering, “why doesn’t he write a post on …?” Truth is, I may have forgotten–but I would love to be reminded and would be happy to acknowledge anyone whose ideas I use!




Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fair Memories

Canfield Fair logo accessed at

Canfield Fair logo accessed at

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!

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

Canfield Fair Ferris Wheel

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?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Food

Canfield Fair logo accessed at

Canfield Fair logo accessed at

The Canfield Fair is next weekend!  I thought I would take the next two weeks to talk about Fair memories, focusing on food this week and general fair memories next week. By the way, for those of you not from Youngstown, the Canfield Fair is the county fair for Mahoning County. It is held in Canfield, the original county seat of Mahoning County before Youngstown’s explosive growth under the influence of industry and immigration. It is the largest county fair in Ohio and among the largest in the country. If you want to go to the quintessential county fair, this is the one to go to.

My first food memory of the fair was when my dad bought me a footlong hot dog. I never knew that hotdogs could be so long and I was in hotdog heaven. It was at the fair that I discovered this wonderful thing called Elephant ears, the perfect snack to munch on as you walked along the midway that you could share with your friends. Along with the wonderful tastes, there was the delicious mix of smells as you walked along the aisles of food vendors and smelled the ribs and barbecued chicken, and of course the Italian sausage stands with all the peppers and onions frying alongside.

Our family made an annual pilgrimage to the fair through most of the years my son was growing up, and when he became old enough, it became a father and son ritual to get our DiRusso’s Italian Sausage sandwich slathered with peppers and onions as soon as we could after we got to the fair. To eat a DiRusso’s is in some ways to celebrate the very best of Youngstown. DiRusso’s stands appear all over the country at fairs and their sausage now can be purchased in stores throughout the midwest including stores near our home. DiRusso’s manufacturing plant and offices are located in the heart of Youngstown, not far from a spot once occupied by steel mills. It represents the rich heritage of good Italian food to come out of Youngstown’s Italian community.

Father and son at DiRusso's

Father and son at DiRusso’s

We had a strategy of eating our way through the fair! Usually you had to chase the DiRusso’s (or a gyro in my wife’s case) with a greasy serving of fries sprinkled with malt vinegar. Then you stopped for your first lemon-shakeup, which was so refreshing on those late summer afternoons at the fair. Sure, the kids did rides and you looked at exhibits (more on this next week), but you were always thinking about what you were going to eat next–at least that was true with the crowd I went with. At some time in the day we would stop at the Parker’s Ice Cream stand (I believe that was the name). We had friends who worked there, and it was really good ice cream! Or we would stop at Lord of Life Lutheran’s Apple Dumpling stand. There were several churches that served barbecue chicken dinners and often later in the day we would make for one of these, usually run by an African-American congregation whose name I cannot recall.

By evening you were stuffed but the one nice thing about the fair is that you could walk it off while noshing on some kettle corn, or another lemon shake if you were thirsty. Sometimes we would pick up fudge at one of the fudge stand to take home to parents, when they were still living in Youngstown. As you walked along, you realized that you could come back every day and eat a totally different selection of food. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all you could find–steakburgers and stromboli, egg rolls and dippin dots, cotton candy and funnel cakes. This “Best of Fair” website gives a pretty good idea of the various concessions you will find.

What were/are your favorite fair foods (this goes for any fair, but especially the Canfield Fair)?