The Great New York State Fair is a beloved attraction with a rich history that draws people from all over the state to the Syracuse area. But more than just an event on grounds near Onondaga Lake, the Fair has a culture and an identity all its own. In this week's edition of Your Hometown, our Kat De Maria shows us the community of the Great New York State Fair.
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NY STATE FAIR -- For twelve days, the Great New York State Fair comes to life as a city. It has a Main Street, businesses and entertainment. And at the Fair, the infield is a neighborhood, with some people who've lived there for decades.
"I came here in 1956 when I was a 4H kid," said John Stenson of Warsaw.
45 years later, Stenson, his children, and grandchildren are still making the Fair their home for two weeks each summer.
"We enjoy the Fair. And the people you see are all here involved one way or another either as a tourist or workers or what have you. And we're here pretty much for the same purpose," Stenson said.
Along with the Fair's residents, there are the nearly million people who stop by for a visit. One day last year, Director Dan O'Hara says the number of people at the Fair rivaled that of the surrounding area.
"The City of Syracuse has a population of let's say 125,000. And we had 117,000 people on this property for about a 12-hour period. It's a city," he said, "with the infrastructure of a city."
"We have DPW, we have an administration. We have a fire department...we have a police organization, the New York State Police. You have vendors, exhibitors, which are representative of different businesses in a city," O'Hara said.
The beginnings of what's now become the Great New York State Fair were much more modest, dating back 170 years to 1841.
"The legislature appropriated about $8,000 to have a celebration of agriculture. And the village of Syracuse was selected because of its proximity to the canal system, railroad and really in Upstate, it was the center of the agricultural community," O'Hara said.
"It was held in Syracuse because it was a central location. And then over the years it did move to different locations but eventually did return back to Syracuse, and has become sort of a permanent part of our local culture," said Dennis Connors, history curator with the Onondaga Historical Association.
In 1890, the Fair moved to its permanent home in the Town of Geddes. And by the time of the Great Depression, the grounds looked similar to how they are today, with the landmark buildings in place.
Before and after, the Fairgrounds became a different kind of home: to soldiers fighting World Wars I and II. The Fair went on around military operations during the first war, but stopped from 1942 to 1947.
"It was a major supply depot. And I think that's important. Given the equipment and the ammunition and the other materials necessary to support the war effort, they just couldn't accommodate the fair, nor would they have wanted to have a fair," O'Hara said.
Since 1948, the Fair has grown to what it is today: adding days and attractions and adapting to modern needs, including people in the neighborhood...who don't travel light.
"We bring refrigerators and we bring freezers. And we bring all of our stuff like chairs and tables and grills and bikes...we bring fire pits so we have wood," said Corinne Slocum of Fulton.
...A lot more than Slocum's family brought when they started making the Fair their home more than 30 years ago.
"Yes. We've gotten much more advanced," Slocum said.
Throughout the year, events on the Fairgrounds add to the economy of the surrounding area. The Fair itself draws people from across New York. And this city impacts the ones around it.
"It's in a prominent location, being that it's right on the shores of Onondaga Lake. It has a major physical presence, with all of the permanent buildings and of course all the rides and all the rest of it. It's hard to live in Central New York and not know that the State Fair is here," Connors said.
O'Hara himself spends the twelve days on the grounds.
"It's my hometown, yes it is. And I'm very proud and glad to be part of it," he said, as are the people who give the Fair community its character.
"It's a tradition. If you've been here and if you enjoy it, it's in your blood even though your cultures may be different as you get older. You still come back to the Fair," Stenson said.
After Labor Day, the Fair city goes dark. But the people who have the Fair in their blood make sure the next year, it comes to life again.
If you haven't gotten a chance yet to experience the community of the Great New York State Fair yet, it runs through Labor Day.