Biggie

E is for Exposition. Or Eastern. There are two big Es in The Big E—the Eastern States Exposition—which runs through October 3 in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Like a county fair on steroids that covers all of New England, The Big E offers more than you can see and do in a single day.

If you’ve never visited before, pick up a map at one of the information booths to get your bearings. You’ll find fair staples like carnival rides, fried dough, arcade games and farm animals. But the exposition also boasts a building for each participating state on the Avenue of States, the historic buildings of Storrowton Village, the Eastern States Exposition Horse Show, a daily parade and major weekend concerts—for an extra ticket price—including, still coming up, Flo Rida, Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, the Goo Goo Dolls, A Day to Remember and Styx.

sponsored by

The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

“I’ve come to The Big E every year of my life except once, when I was living in Florida,” says Rhonda Olisky, who has co-managed the Connecticut building on the Avenue of States for the past decade. We’re standing on a balcony overlooking a crowd streaming through the hall, which is anchored by a tourism desk and features vendors from all over Connecticut including, just outside, New Haven’s own Bear’s Smokehouse. A few vendors are missing this year due to pandemic staffing issues, including farm wineries that normally do tastings and the popular PEZ candy booth. “They were stretched too thin already,” Olisky says. “They’ll be back next year, though!” Masks are required indoors but not out, and most people are complying.

Shopping is a big part of The Big E, and not just on the Avenue of States. You can purchase a mattress, a hot tub, cigars, wine, plenty of flannel and leather and stuff you had no idea you needed: a fully furnished cabin in miniature, a sign noting your home’s exact latitude and longitude, a bottle of emu oil for smoother skin. And, of course, there’s food. The line for baked potatoes ($8) at the Maine building took several hairpin turns. One couple from Southington told me they’d waited 35 minutes for theirs, but it was “totally worth it.” After scouting the options, my husband and I settled into Rhode Island and shared a grilled cheese and lobster sandwich with tomato and applejack bacon on toasted sourdough bread ($18)—crispy outside, gooey inside and totally delicious—with a 20-ounce pint of robust, refreshing Coast Pale Ale ($10) from Newport Craft Brewing & Distilling at the Rhode Island Brewers Guild booth. Don’t expect any bargains.

What you’ll enjoy most at The Big E depends, of course on your interests, whether swinging upside-down from high above the fair on the Star Dancer (ride tickets cost extra), winning a stuffed animal at the Water Gun Fun game or listening to live accordion music while you drink at the Wurst Haus. But we came across a few genuine crowd-pleasers. Everyone loves the baby animals in the Farm-a-Rama building and the teams of massive Clydesdale horses that pull a red Budweiser wagon near the head of the parade. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an up-close look at their white-striped faces and hair-fringed hooves as the wagon gets ready beside the Coliseum. One surprise favorite was the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs—a small, fenced racetrack running miniature pigs in colored blankets. The show doubles as a comedy act, and the crowd goes wild.

As we walked through The Big E, meaty smoke from the Sirloin Tips booth overpowered the other mingled smells of sunscreen and manure and hay. The midway’s rock soundtrack competed with the screams of riders, the auctioneer call of barkers and the clang of a miniature train circling the grounds. When you hit sensory overload, the best spot for some down time is Storrowton Village, with its little town green and a gazebo stage. The area is bordered by historic buildings, some dating back to the 18th century, which were relocated here beginning in the 1920s. Costumed guides offer tours of several houses, a tavern, a meeting house, a blacksmith shop, a law office and a schoolhouse.

According to Olisky, 51% of Big E attendees are from Connecticut, and most of them come from Hartford County. But a trip to West Springfield isn’t difficult from New Haven—a straight shot up I-91 that only takes an hour by car. Free shuttles transport guests from the Springfield train station on weekends.

After a 2020 hiatus, “It was a little anxious as the gates were opening ’cause no one knew what to expect,” Olisky says. “But as in past years, we had our line out to the avenue of people waiting to come in, and when I saw that, that’s when I was like, ‘I think this is gonna be okay.’”

It’s more than okay. Opening day attendance surpassed that of 2019, with 81,933 fairgoers entering the gates last Friday alone to experience this great big New England bash.

The Big E: Eastern States Exposition
1305 Memorial Ave, West Springfield, MA (map)
Daily 8am-10pm through Oct 3 (buildings open 10am)
Adults $15; children 6-12 $10; under 5 free with advance discounts and season passes available. Parking $10 (cash only).
(413) 737-2443 | info@thebige.com
www.thebige.com

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

Leave a Reply