Every farmer likes a good story

By on April 27, 2018

Every farmer likes a good story

By Phil Eisemann




The following is the fourth in a series of articles leading up to the 100th year of the Ephrata Fair in September.

In effort to capture how beloved the annual event is and how its been embraced by the community, writer Phil Eisemann sat down with dozens of individuals over the past year.

Following are some of the many stories that will be shared in the upcoming picture book commemorating the 100th year (see page A13).

Another look

Ida Leed died in 1953. this author knew his great-grandmother as an old, grumpy woman who lived with his grandparents. He was later to find she had good reason to be cantankerous. She had been widowed twice, in both cases tragically and at a young age, and three of her four children died before reaching maturity.

While researching for this book, the author came across the announcement of the first Farmers Day in Ephrata on the front page of the October 17, 1919 Ephrata Review.

“A number of our town’s popular young ladies, under the supervision of Mrs. I.R. Leed will render a “procession of the allied nations” on Saturday evening at 8 o’clock. This program will take place on the elevated platform on the Square, and will be one of the features to help entertain during the ‘Farmers’ Days. The young ladies will appear in music and song, and after the program is rendered will work for the cause of “Welcome Home” celebration for the soldier boys of the town and surrounding country”. The woman he knew as Mother Leed had a vital role in the first Farmers Day program. Sometimes history makes us take another look at people and maybe change our perspective. In 1919, she was 39 years old and in excellent health and situation. She was married to a respected member of the community and they were living in a new home they had built on the corner of Church and Pine streets. Her son Hugh, a First Lieutenant in the Army Quartermaster Corps, was one of the soldiers returning from the First World War. Life was good, fortunately she had no foresight, for times would soon get hard. The author had come away with another view of a woman who was a part of his life. Research will do that.

‘Will’ enjoy the fair

Rich and Barb Will hark back to the late 1930s for their earliest Ephrata Fair experiences.

Rich was raised in a home along Steimetz Road just across the town boarder and along the Railroad tracks. At Fair time, he and his brothers would walk the tracks into town, competing on the way see who could walk farthest balancing on the rail. His father would give each boy 25 cents. This allowed five things. At the time, all food was five cents and all rides were five cents; five things for a quarter.

Barb, on the other hand, grew up in town and remembers her mother walking her downtown at age six. Barb’s mother was an ardent needle worker, known for her crocheting. She always entered some of her fancywork. The reason for going was to check out the domestic exhibits in the store windows. This was not to a young Barb’s liking. She would have much sooner spent time riding the merry-go-round. After a thorough perusal of the exhibits, her Mom would treat her daughter to either a candy apple or cotton candy.

During Rich and Barb’s earliest exposure to the Fair, the United States was still in the Great Depression. Going to the Ephrata Fair was comparable to today’s kids going to Hersheypark or Disney World.

Among vivid memories was one occasion when Rich and some of his buddies sneaked into the Royer Building and climbed to the roof. It was late Saturday and the raffle tickets were about to be drawn by the American Legion to determine the winners of the three shiny new cars on the platform. Main Street was packed with onlookers. Imagine their thrill when the father of one of the boys with Rich on the roof, won a car.

Both Rich and Barb vividly remember the daredevils who rode motorcycles in the barrel. A large wooden cylinder was set up in the parking lot of Steffy Buick along South State Street. Inside, the floor was beveled from a center point. Around the top was a gallery for paid spectators. Through a door at the bottom, a leather clad rider would enter and mount a stripped down and very loud bike. He would go around the bottom of the drum until he worked up enough centrifugal force to permit him to ride up the side of the cylinder. He would tear around the barrel coming thrillingly close to the spectators looking over the top edge. After several rounds he would slow and work his way to the bottom where his female partner would get on the rear seat. Again he would ride up the vertical surface. When he reached the proper speed, his partner would stand up on pegs protruding from the rear axle. It was a thrill show worth the 50 cents.

Before the kiddy rides moved in, freak shows and snake oil salesmen were confined to West Main Street. Rich remembers The Mighty Adam who strutted on his flatbed truck, naked to the waist showing off his prodigious torso. He was peddling an elixir guaranteed to cure all ills. Among his customers, was Rich’s dad. Across from The Mighty Adam was a freak tent. Rich remembers one of the show’s denizens sitting on his haunches calmly munching on what appeared to be a living snake. Both Rick and Barb agreed the culture lever of Ephrata Fair exhibits has improved.

The Woman in the Iron Lung

During the first half of the 20th Century the Ephrata Fair was at a peak.

Every night the midway was so crowded that one was forced to go with the flow rather than navigate on your own. During this time three new cars set on a stand in front of the railroad station. In front of these shining vehicles was a large drum with the stubs of raffle tickets to be drawn Saturday night. The closing event of the Fair was the awarding of these cars to lucky winners. Huge crowds brought out some strange attractions.

During this time Polio was generally feared. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was afflicted. Every community knew of a case or two. It was not until 1955, that the Salk vaccine was introduced making infection by the virus rare. In the 1950s everybody was aware of the disease. A canny carnie played on this fear by displaying “The Woman in the Iron Lung”. The polio virus caused muscle paralysis. If it infected the lungs breathing became difficult or impossible. One, now obsolete, treatment was to place the patient in a large metal tube from the neck down. On the foot end of the tube was a diaphragm which was pressed to raise the atmospheric pressure within the chamber, compressing the lungs. It was then withdrawn reducing the pressure and drawing air into the lungs. This large and impressive piece of machinery was in a white trailer with a large red cross on the side and signs touting it as an educational display. The woman in this contraption lying still with closed eyes was a slight girl drawing maximum sympathy. Of course, she was attended by a white garbed “nurse”. Billed as a public service, there was no charge but next to the “nurse” was a glass box and a sign requesting donations “for research and relief”. This box always seemed to have mostly paper money. It was said around town that after the midway closed the “Woman in the Iron Lung” and her “nurse” could be seen going into Good’s Hotel for a night’s sleep.

The Woman in the Iron Lung was on display on the corner of East Main Street and Lake Street. After the Salk vaccine was introduced, the fear abated and The Woman in the Iron Lung no longer appeared. In its place was Hitler’s Car. For a quarter, you could enter a tent and see an armored Mercedes Benz said to be the same car which carried Adolph Hitler around the Third Reich. Well, it might have been. By the 1960s, this too was gone.

Finned Imposters

Ray Blanck began his career in Ephrata as a grocer on the corner of Park Avenue and Locust Street.

Later he would establish a successful insurance business. He was a highly respected member of the community and a pillar of the Ephrata Church of the Brethren. He and his wife Mildred had one son, Dr. Ronald Blanck, who joined the Army Medical Corps after medical school and stayed to rise to the rank of Lieutenant General as Surgeon General of the Army. One year, Ron and his wife Donna brought their two young daughters to Ephrata to experience the fair. While Ron and Donna took their girls on the rides, Ray waited on the State Street side of the Mentzer Building holding the four goldfish in a plastic bag, which the girls had won throwing ping pong balls into bowls at the Ephrata Rec Center stand. An acquaintance stopped and began a conversation during the course of which Ray absentmindedly placed the water filled bag on the barrier wall next to the stairway leading to the basement office. The water shifted and the bag fell with a splat onto the floor 10 feet below, dooming the fish.

Picturing his granddaughter’s grief he took off at a fast trot for the Rec Center stand where he was seen frantically and unsuccessfully tossing ping pong balls. The story goes that after investing five dollars he explained his situation to the stand attendant and offered ten dollars for four fish. Showing mercy, it was agreed and the girls never knew the fish they took home were finned imposters.

Clinging Cats

Andy Kulp raised his family on the corner of South Maple Street and Sugar Alley. Being two blocks from the Fair, his four kids had ready access to the late fall festival. His oldest, Kenny, was not a willing scholar.

Being a hardworking and burley kid at Fair time, he would slip out of school to make a few bucks helping the carnies set up the rides. His brother Galen remembers the men driving long steel stakes directly into the blacktop covering of the street to anchor the Ferris wheels and other rides. Unlike his brother, Galen describes himself at the time as a “skinny kid”. He attached himself to a stand right in the middle of the midway. Targets were lined up on a shelf about four feet from a counter. For a set price, the customer was given three baseballs. If one or more cats were toppled completely off the shelf the prize was a plush animal. Galen was hired to set the cats back in place and to serve as a ringer. You see there was an almost invisible cord behind the targets which when manipulated by the stand owner prevented the cats from falling off the shelf. Galen explains that particularly lucrative targets were often young men with their girlfriends. They would stand there considering and their girls would greedily eye the prize. At a signal this “skinny kid” would slip out of the back of the stand and come around the front and lay down his quarter. With his three balls and the failsafe off he would easily knock down three cats, taking away the biggest prize. The hardy mark would think, “If that skinny kid can do it, I surly can”. The operator would apply the cheat line and the sucker would be stripped of his coin. When a sufficient profit had been made a prize would be allowed.

Galen stayed with the Fair and served as the president of the Ephrata Fair Association for five years. You will see him in the parade as a member of the Lancaster County Corvette Club showing off one of Ephrata’s young beauties in his magnificent ride.


Mayor Ralph Mowen arrived in Ephrata as a sophomore in high school.

When he first saw the Ephrata Fair his reaction was “WOW, they close the street for a week.” He remembers many good times hanging out with his friends and having fun. He is particularly fond of the food offered on the midway, in order of preference: Sweigert’s Steaks, Akron Lions Toasted Cheeseburgers, Fink’s French Fries, and the Greek Gyros. As a young man he was known to consume all four in a single day. We assume as part of a growth spurt.

After high school he enlisted in the Air Force, missing four fairs. As an adult, especially being involved in local government, he says, “I love the Fair. I love when it comes. But I am glad when it is gone.” When he returned to town in the late 1960’s he joined the Pioneer Fire Company and the Fire Police. During this time the Ephrata Borough Police Force consisted of 10 officers, far too few to see to the needs of the town and patrol the Fair. The Ephrata Fair Association hired the fire police to provide security while the midway was in business. They would come on duty at 6 p.m. and remain until the fair closed after midnight. Patrolling in pairs, they would do their best to keep the peace. This was made more challenging by the three active liquor licenses midtown: Kip’s, The Brass Rail, and Gill’s. Fair patrons, usually young males, would decide to enter one of these establishments to loosen up a little after a day at work, often carrying an attitude out of the bars with them. According to Ralph, and the record, they were successful in tamping down exuberance. If things got too complicated they would call in the Borough officers.

During this period the fire police were armed. There were some very close calls. Ralph credits Pennsylvania legislators with great wisdom when they disarmed the Fire Police.

Snake Dance

Until recently, the Ephrata Fair served two functions for Ephrata High School students. It was the practice for the junior class to select colors. Jackets and hats were purchased by the students in these colors. These garments usually arrived just before the Fair and students used the opportunity to show off their class pride. It was not uncommon to see 11th graders sweating, as often the Fair week was too warm for the jackets. Still they did not miss the chance to show off their new status.

Until into the 1960s, football games were scheduled with no consideration for the Ephrata Fair. Until the War Memorial Field was built, games were played in the field behind the Highland School, then the high school. After the game, if Ephrata won, some of the members of the band would gather at the square along with all available students. The band would go first in a straight line followed by the students who would place their hands on the hips of the person preceding them forming a snake. Mimicking the movements of this reptile they would dance from one end of the Fair to the other and back. This only happened a few times but those times were memorable.

Lost Car Found Love

Bill Peters, Ephrata electrical contractor and mainstay of Pioneer Fire Company and the fire police, was born and raised in Annville. He was working as a welder in Lebanon and had just bought a new Mercury car.

His buddy convinced him to drive down to this place called Ephrata to take a look at the fair. There was no place to park so they drove around until the found an open slot in front of a funeral home along the railroad tracks. The two excited young men went to explore the fair and had a great time. When it was time to go home they had no idea where they had parked the car. They were walking north on State Street and met two girls in front of Hubers Nash dealership (now Ephrata Area Social Services) and asked where there was a funeral home along the railroad tracks. This got a laugh from the girls who took mercy on these stupid boys and took them to the corner of Church and West Chestnut Streets.

Although a bit humiliated, they returned to Ephrata in a few weeks and met the same girls. After Bill finished his time in the Navy, he came to Ephrata and was married to the guide who helped him find his beloved new Mercury.


Fair Hoops

Stan “Whitey” Von Neda, Ephrata’s only professional basketball player, grew up in his parent’s home on Spring Garden Street.

He remembers the joy as a child looking out across the town and there was the fair. Every year the Von Nedas would go as a family to the Farm Women’s stand for a sitdown dinner. Whitey claims he has never had such good chicken pot pie. One of the special events for him was a trip to the Roxie Theater (Now Liberty Tax Service and CAP). During the Fair there would be a new Western with cartoons every night. After some time at the fair, for ten cents, you could get lost in another world. One year he and a basketball teammate set up their own stand in front of the Owls Club (now the residence east of the Post Office). It was a simple affair consisting of a hoop and a backboard. Customers were challenged to match Whitey or his friend Bob Garver shot-for-shot. They had many takers, as both were competent basketball shots, they came away with a bit of money. Now almost 96 and living at Masonic Village in Elizabethtown, Whitey still tries to get to the fair every year. For him it is an opportunity to meet and talk to old friends who come to town every year for the occasion. Unfortunately, every year there are a few less old acquaintances with whom to meet.

Sunday Morning Surprise

A common reminisce of the Ephrata Fair is the minor shock of looking down Main Street on Sunday morning and finding everything gone.

This was particularly profound for Bob Good who grew up in the Good Hotel right in the middle of the action (the Good Hotel was on the site of what is now the addition to the Ephrata National Bank). As the son of David Good, town burgess (mayor) and hotel owner, a part of his chores was to greet and socialize with guests. His parents looked on their patrons more as house guests than customers. During fair week, one of the rooms was always taken by Mr. Sweeny, whom Bob says reminded him of Emmett Kelly, the famous Ringling Brothers clown. Mr. Sweeny was a gentle soul who ran one of the games on the midway and often chatted with the young Bob. Like the Fair, Bob knew when he woke up on Monday morning Mr. Sweeny would be gone. And every Sunday morning following the Fair when he woke up there would be a giant teddy bear at the foot of his bed. In that way, Mr. Sweeny stayed around until the next year.

Moved By The Fair

In 1984, Beth Quickel was a young mother living in Lancaster with her Lancaster police officer husband.

Her parents from York called and told her about this parade they had in the town of Ephrata. She needed a break, and would she like to tag along. She was so impressed with this community event she and her husband decided they had to move to Ephrata. Unfortunately, at the time the employment rules of the Lancaster Police Force made a move impossible. If they couldn’t live here at least they could worship in Ephrata so they joined the Bethany United Church of Christ.

When in 1998, it became possible for them to move they bought a house in town and became involved. Between jobs in 2009, Beth decided to become a fulltime volunteer at the Fair. Her first year, she signed in flowers and became a band greeter for the parade. It delighted her no end to see people gathering to renew acquaintances and enjoy the spectacle. Firmly ensconced in Ephrata, she is now on the board of The Ephrata Farmers Day Association, chairing the Publicity Committee and the Centennial Committee. To her mind, the Fair is a vital part of her community. Times change and the Fair must change with them. She has no doubt that what is now a good thing will become better. By bringing Beth here, the fair did a lot to assure its future.

About Patrick Burns

Social media editor and staff writer for Ephrata Review and Lititz Record Express.

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