It would still be dark out when we got up for the Canfield Fair in Canfield, OH. As kids, we would be sooooo excited that we didn’t even care how early it was. The weather was the same every year — so cool in the mornings that we would have to wear a jacket — and as the sun came out and it warmed up, a thick dew would coat the grass. The Canfield Fair marked the true end of Summer and the beginning of Fall for us. It was held every year over Labor Day, starting the Wednesday before and running through Labor Day.
We usually went on Saturday of Labor Day weekend, getting up at the crack of dawn, meeting the rest of our caravan at the intersection of Rt. 168 and Rt. 51 in Darlington, PA to get prime parking at the fair. Yea, we were those people that were there before the gates opened at 8 am. The caravan consisted of our family car, my grandparents and Aunt Mary, and my Uncle John and his family. And all three vehicles would be fully packed with coolers and food, folding chairs and card tables. Uncle John and his family drove up from Parkersburg, WV — and we were just so excited — we could hardly wait to see our cousins Teresa and Matt. We got to see them three, maybe four times a year. And it was never enough! And when our caravan met up, we weren’t even allowed to say “hello”, we just had to get on our way like we would miss something! I remember turning around in the backseat of our car, just hoping to catch a glimpse of them.
It wasn’t good enough to eat greasy fair food — we had to bring our own. We would meet up and eat at the cars for lunch, pulling out card tables and coolers, even covering them with table cloths. My Dad made fried chicken the night before. Aunt Polly called my Dad’s fried chicken, “Uncle Bob’s Fried Chicken,” and we had the same conversation every year that he should open his own restaurant. I may be partial, but it truly was the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. Even with the recipe — I’ve tried to replicate it, but it’s just not the same. We always had a big spread. Teresa reminded me that Grandma always brought bananas, and after we were all done eating lunch, she gave each of us kids a banana. I don’t think I would have remembered that without the reminder — it’s funny what our brains retain and funny to realize what each of us remember the most.
Grandma and Grandpap always had a case or two of beer in the trunk, even though nobody really drank much alcohol. One year, Grandma’s beer was confiscated, and she was madder than bull in a china shop. When we were ready to leave the fair for the night, she was sure to reclaim her beer at the office and give them piece of her mind for the second time! I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of the wrath of that polish woman! But, little did they know that she had another full cooler of beer, and she enjoyed a cold one despite them anyways!
So this past Thursday, Tom and I met up with my sister, Debbie, my Mom and my niece, Megan at the fair. It had been an exhausting week at work, but I really wanted to go. Tom was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to walk the entire fair. And I knew he was right, but I figured we could take our time and leave when I wasn’t able to go any longer. That’s why going in the evening was perfect — a few hours and call it a night.
I was overwhelmed with nostalgia just pulling into the parking lot. Very little had changed, except now we made our way to the handicap parking lot. I felt privileged to park four rows from the gate. But, somehow it was deceiving. I felt like I was in some kind of bad dream — the entrance gate just kept getting further and further away, and I could ever seem to reach it. When we finally got there, Tom said he would slow down. Was I really walking so fast to get through the gate? My hip was already thumping, and I feared that this was going to be a long night. Little did I realize until we exited later that night that there was a slight grade and we were going uphill, while going at a faster pace. But by that time, Tom had to bring the car anyways. My leg had had enough.
The gate we went into came right to the goat and sheep barn. On the other side of that barn were all the steam engines. That made me smile, remembering Grandpap Knowlson. He would spent the entire day there — as a kid, I never understood his fascination with them, but later when he told stories, you knew he missed the “simpler times” in his own life. I wonder how the “internet kids” generation (those born after 1990) will define “simpler times” one day? Some of the old-timers still operated the steam engines — sputter, sputter, putt, putt, spoof and then all over again in a soft rhythm.
We walked past the steam engines and toward Old MacDonald’s Barn. This was a special barn where they showcased all the baby animals. Inside were baby ducks, rabbits, lambs, goats, ponies and more. Nothing had changed — only now it seemed smaller to me than I remembered. Plus, there were wash stations and the entrance/exit, and they encouraged you wash your hands to stop e-coli bacteria. I think I got more bacteria on my hands trying to use the pumps, because the sanitizers were empty!
When we went to the fair as kids, all the girls went together in the morning before lunch. This included me and my sister, Debbie, my cousin, Teresa, my Aunt Mary, my Aunt Polly, my Mom and Grandma. We followed the same pattern — first going through all of the “buildings.” Us kids loved the health/education building. We got Mr. Yuk stickers in there. And a big yard stick. And lots of pamphlets on stuff we didn’t know what it really was — and I wish I still didn’t! There were health demonstrations, screenings for blood pressure, glaucoma and other things. We were fascinated by it all. One area was set up like a doctor’s office from the turn of the century. It was so old and had original instruments and apothecary jars. I still have at least one wooden yard stick from the fair days.
We would split away from the adults at some point, probably when they were ooing and awing over every single entry in the floral building and the arts & crafts building. We would walk the aisles, looking for things to spend our money on. There was one stand we visited every year — and older woman who owned a jewelry stand. The woman was probably close to 60 back then, thin with leather-like wrinkled skin. She always wore a black cowboy hat with lots of bling. We would go through each piece of jewelry, touching all the shiny objects, the crystals, the gemstones. Or we sifted through all the feathers attached to roach clips that people clipped to their cowboy hats. Boy was I surprised when I learned what roach clips were used for later on! She’s no longer exhibits at the fair. Maybe she got too old. Maybe she retired. Maybe she passed away. Either way, she’ll be burned into my memory forever.
We also loved the booths below the grandstand! They had the best stuff. There was a guy who sold pins — the kind you would wear on a shirt that had a tac on the backside to hold it in place. Aunt Mary and I bought a bunch of Duran Duran pins. I still have those. Teresa tells me that she still has a cat pin and a strawberry pin that she got on two different years. That pin stand is still there! As is the blown glass booth. We used to spend an hour at that booth, looking at the ornate pieces that we could never afford. I would marvel at my favorite piece — Cinderella’s carriage with its big glass wheels and finely spun cage. The detail was amazing and even included a pumpkin with spiraling vines. That same piece was there every year — they either kept making new ones or this one never sold! Either way, it may have well cost a million dollars — it was far, far out of my reach.
Walking through the grandstand building was a bit depressing now. It’s only half full of vendors. The guy who sold the “natural gems” jewelry is no longer there. He sold tiger’s eye, black quartz and jasper with sterling silver. Of course those pieces were so much more expensive than our black hat lady. But we looked anyways.
As we left the grandstand, we realized that it was “bike night” at the fair. There were all kinds of bikes all over the place. They all had entry tags. We took a rest on the benches in the middle of this chaos. We saw all kinds of bikes — from decorative painted to custom things I have never seen on the road! The big rock was still in the middle of all these benches — just like years ago.
There were all the same food vendors, the same salt water taffy man and the Culligan Water booth that featured a giant spigot with water going up the spout instead of the down. The same vendors selling fudge, elephant ears, funnel cakes and ice cream cones. The same vendors selling hot tubs. Seriously, who buys a hot tub at the Canfield Fair?
Then there was the commercial tent — we never made it to this year — but every year my Mom bought a new pairing knife or two. They used to put on demonstrations of things that were “As Seen on TV.” Things like the “miracle rug cleaner”, the “best slicer, dicer, all in one gadget you’ll ever need” or “the best pots and pans you’ll ever own.” I think everyone bought “salad spinners” there one year, and we all got super sprayers for our kitchen and bathroom faucets (those really did work great). We would stop and watch it all. I’m sure this year featured the “Aqua Rug” or some other gimmicky thing.
It’s sad to me that those days are gone and the tradition was lost. Things just change over time no matter how much you wished it stayed the same. But then again, the change is good and it’s forward progress. But, I’m thinking a Canfield reunion is in order for the original crew — the Knowlsons and the Millers and our current families. And for Grandma and Grandpap Knowlson and my Dad, we will always cherish our Canfield memories of them. So here’s to Labor Day 2014 — our Canfield reunion.
What are you best memories from the Canfield Fair?