The largest agricultural fair in the Northeast opens today in western Massachusetts. The Eastern States Exposition – the Big E -- is steeped in tradition, but fair operators are looking to the future.
How big a deal is the Big E? Attendance records were set in each of the two previous years. 1.5 million people passed through the gates of the fairgrounds in West Springfield last year and that established the Big E as the fifth largest fair in North America, according to Big E President Eugene Cassidy.
"The impact of the Big E is really dramatic. I hope it is something people take notice of and appreciate."
The year-round fairground operations have a $500 million local economic impact according to a study released earlier this year. 3,500 people work at the Big E during the annual 17-day run.
There’s a lot of pressure to come up with the “bigger and better” shows and exhibits to keep people coming back and attract new fairgoers.
" I hope people come out and support us," said Cassidy.
This year’s special exhibit at the Big E honors the 50th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair. It includes a collection of 250 souvenirs and artifacts from the World’s Fair, a replica of the Unisphere, which was the symbol of the fair, and a restored 1965 Ford Mustang.
One of the entertainment headliners, ZZ Top, cancelled its September 26th concert because of an injury to a band member. But Lynyrd Skynyrd has reportedly been booked to fill the open date, and shows are scheduled to go on by Darius Rucker, Christopher Cross, New Odyssey and others.
The Big E staples include a daily circus and parade, products and crafts for sale from each of the six New England states, and a midway with carnival rides and games.
" Our mission is to promote agriculture and industry. I hope everybody who comes to the fair takes time to walk through the barns to learn about food production," said Cassidy.
Food is a big reason people go to fairs. Fair food is typically fried and there is plenty of that at the Big E. Deep-fried S’mores is the new temptation at this year’s Big E. But there is also a wine and cheese barn, and fresh seafood is being brought in daily from an oyster farm in Rhode Island.
Big E vice president Sue Lavoie is in charge of the fair’s vast and eclectic food offerings, and her advise is for people to sample one new treat.
" Most of the people I talk with say ' I always get my fried dough here or my beer at this stand', so they know what they like and they have a routine."
This year’s Big E begins the countdown to the fair’s 100th anniversary in 2016. To coincide with the anniversary, the Big E will launch a capital fundraising campaign. Cassidy would not reveal the goal, but said it would be “substantial.” The Big E has spent $51 million on infrastructure in the last 20 years.
"When you have a 100 year old facility with 44 buildings on it those millions get spent real quick. We have to prepare ourselves for the next four generations and that is what we are thinking about now," Cassidy said.
This year’s Big E runs through September 28.