Gone but not forgotten: Beloved events that were once at the Ephrata Fair

By on June 28, 2018

(The following is the sixth in a series of monthly articles leading up to the 100th Ephrata Fair, set for Sept. 25-29. The feature highlights beloved elements of the past that no longer exist)

Once we were delighted to get four channels on our black and white TV, no more.

Once a new mother was in the hospital five days after delivery, no more. Once our cars got 12 miles from a 32-cent gallon of leaded gasoline and we were lucky to get 100,000 miles from a vehicle, no more. Life’s one constant is change and so it is with the Ephrata Farmers Day, better known as the Ephrata Fair.

Some of the Fair activities which defined its existence have passed into memory. The purpose of articles such as this is to assure the memory abides.

Three years before she was named Miss America in Atlantic City, Ephrata’s own Evelyn Ay was crowned Ephrata Fair’s Tobacco Queen in 1950. (Photo courtesy of The Historical Society Of The Cocalico Valley)

The Tobacco Queen

One fascinating outcome of research is finding facts which have no connection but are an intriguing coincidence. For example, the first Miss America was crowned on February 1, 1919, the same year as the first Ephrata Farmers Day. The two would come to be linked. The next year the precursor to the Miss America pageant was opened as a promotion for Atlantic City. Suddenly “Miss” pageants were a national rage. In 1924, the Farmers Day Committee proposed a new feature for the Saturday program.

“The selection of a ‘Miss Ephrata,’ all single women, 18 years of age and up, are eligible for entry in the contest.” Beyond the honor, the prize was a free trip to Atlantic City. The minimum of 12 entries required must not have been reached as the contest was not held. Twenty-six years later, it started with a bang that was to change the nature of the Fair for years to come. The 1950 pageant crowned Miss Ephrata Fair/Tobacco Queen of Lancaster County. The titles were based on the sponsors. Every major merchant or manufacturer in town got in on the act by either sponsoring a contestant or providing gifts, which ranged from three pairs of nylon panties from the Walter Moyer Company to a corsage from the Forget-Me-Not flower shop. Nine contestants strutted on the South State Street stage, constructed as a reviewing stand for the parade. The “Tobacco Queen” moniker was added to acknowledge the sponsorship of Bayuk Cigars Inc. of Philadelphia, who decorated the stage with ads for its “Phillies” cigars and provided a chunk of the financing. It was a lavish production hosted by Shep Fields, a radio personality of the time, who brought along his “Rippling Rhythm” big band. It was a roaring success, with 6,000 people attending.

The Ephrata Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) sponsored a local girl named Evelyn Ay, who would go on to establish Ephrata as the only town in the world with both a Miss America and (later) a Mr. America (Ray Mentzer). Her rise established the Ephrata Fair as the premier event of its type in Lancaster County. Also, Ay’s sponsorship by the Ephrata Jaycees would tie that organization to the Ephrata Fair pageant for the next 30 years. In 1957, Miss Ephrata Fair became Miss Lancaster County. This was more than just a name change. Before, any young lady with a sponsor could enter; after, only winners of local contests where admitted. The woman crowned Miss Lancaster County went directly to the Miss Pennsylvania pageant, the winner of which went on to compete for Miss America. Five Miss Lancaster County winners became Miss Pennsylvania and two finished in the top ten in Atlantic City.

Dave Dierwechter, as a part of the Ephrata Jaycees, was deeply involved. He and his wife chaperoned several Miss Lancaster County winners. This involved supporting her during the pageant and accompanying her to events she attended during the year. Miss Lancaster County attended ribbon cuttings, club meetings, store openings, children’s events and other public functions, but it was the parades which Dave enjoyed most. The parade sponsor always provides a big convertible Dave and his wife would drive, with their charge sitting on the back. To his mind, the key to Ephrata’s success was change which emphasized scholarship over beauty and talent over physical form. During the more than 20 years of his involvement, the leadership of the pageant moved from the Farmers Day Association/ Ephrata Jaycees to a separate entity named the Lancaster County Scholarship Foundation. In early 1970s, beauty pageants became a target of the rising feminist movement. By making some judicious changes, the Miss Lancaster County pageant continued to be an event which sold out the house on Saturday of the Fair.

Serving as director of the corporation, Dave and his board members steered the program from the model denigrated by some groups. Under the new approach, scoring was talent 50 percent, interview 25 percent and evening gown/ swimsuit 25 percent. The two-and-a-half hour production on Saturday night of the Fair featured a 16-piece orchestra, which accompanied the contestants. Over the years, the pageant moved from South State Street to the (original) Main Theater to the Highland School (then the high school) auditorium, and ultimately to the auditorium of the high school on Oak Boulevard.

Gail Rabold Witwer of Ephrata was Miss Lancaster County 1968. By her own admission, she was very young to be involved. A year younger than her classmates, she was 17 when she entered and won the Janecees Miss Ephrata pageant the June she graduated from high school. In September, she entered Shippensburg to study elementary education. During the first semester of her freshmen year, her parents drove to Shippensburg to pick her up for the pageant during the last week in September. In January, she transferred to Millersville University where she could live at home and be available for the ribbon cuttings, builder’s shows, Girl Scout meetings, parades, small town pageants and almost weekly appearances being Miss Lancaster County required. In June for the Miss Pennsylvania pageant, there was some concern that she was young. Even at that age and uncoached, she finished fourth. With her obligations fulfilled, she registered at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia where she completed her degree in elementary education. In 2011, she retired from Cocalico Union after 47 “wonderful” years in the classroom.

By the early 1980s, major changes in the attitudes of our society caused interest in beauty pageants to decline. Miss Lancaster County will be crowned this year at the EPAC theater in Ephrata Park. The last time Miss Lancaster County was associated with the Ephrata Fair was 1990.

Mrs. Fire Chief

At the beginning of the 21st Century, it is hard to understand the beauty pageant craze of the mid-20th Century. For several years in the 1950s, the Miss America Pageant was the most watched show on television. Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International, Miss Earth, Miss Teen USA and Mrs. American were added to the mix. In Ephrata the addition in 1963 was Mrs. Fire Chief of Lancaster County. Any fire company in the county could nominate the wife of a member or a member of their auxiliary. The first pageant was held on a bandstand setup on East Main Street in front of the Main Theater. It was reported that 1,500 spectators watched as four judges assessed the “beauty, poise, and personality” of 17 entries. In addition, they were asked to answer one question on fire company activities. The master of ceremonies was Professor Schnitzel, a local PA Dutch comedian, backed by Frankie Widders and his orchestra. Mrs. Carlton Rintz (her age and physical dimensions were listed under the picture) of Quarryville received a trophy and a $100 Savings Bond. Mrs. Fire Chief began her duties the next week, riding in the State Fireman’s Convention parade. The following week she was in the New Holland Fair parade.

By 1975, the pageant had moved to the Ephrata American Legion ballroom. Mrs. Jerilyn Yost, representing the Reinholds Fire Company, was runner up to the Gordonville winner. It was 42 years ago, and her recollection of it is somewhat vague. She does remember they dressed at home and rode in the parade. The house was crowded and the questions asked were not too difficult.

There can be no doubt the Mrs. Lancaster County Fire Chief was a flaming success. It was so hot, 33 contestants entered in 1976. Out of control, the sponsors had no burning desire to keep it going and it was soon extinguished.

Ephrata’s Gail Rabold (Witwer) getting set to ride in the Ephrata Fair parade in the fall of 1967 as Miss Lancaster County. (Image courtesy of the family)

Orating and hand shaking

At the first Farmers Day at Ephrata, seven of the 11 events planned for the stage in the square were addresses by political and agricultural leaders. A bit of historic perspective is necessary here.

The first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, was licensed on November 2, 1920. AM radios sets would not be common in Ephrata homes for 15 years. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to use radio as a public medium of information. At the time of the first Farmers Day, information was to be had only in the public square or newspapers. Political and educational speakers were the source of information as well as entertainment. A gathering the size of Ephrata’s Fair was ideal for the expression of political views. From the 1920s into the 1960s, both major parties held political rallies on the midway during the Fair. Close to the November elections and attracting crowds from over the area, the Ephrata Fair was a must stop for Congressional, Senatorial and State office seekers. In 1954, future Governor George Leader spent Saturday evening working the crowds on Main Street. Senator Joseph Clark addressed a rally in 1962 and both candidates for the United States Senate worked the Ephrata Fair in 1965. It was around this time that television took over as the primary platform for political advertising. Both major parties have booths at the Fair every year and local candidates are a part of the parade, but no longer do aspirants for higher office have to press the flesh on the midway.


One of the most profound changes of the 100 years of the Fair in Ephrata is the manner in which we are entertained.

Even science fiction writers of our great-grand parent’s generation could not conceive of people walking the sidewalks with heads bowed over tiny electronic devices being constantly entertained. Those born before the Second World War can relate to their more participatory entertainment: the group sing. As late as the 1950s, the Main Theater would show “Follow the Bouncing Ball” shorts before the feature. This was a cartoon in which the characters acted out songs while the lyrics scrolled at the bottom of the screen. A ball would bounce from word to word as it was to be sung. We would all join in full voice.

The Community Sing was a vital Fair activity into the middle of the 20th Century. This activity would draw special mention in The Ephrata Review as in 1929, when the Potentate of the Rajah Shrine Temple came from Reading to lead the singing. For his efforts, he was presented a pig decorated with ribbons. Alas, the only time our community makes a joyful noise together now is at Christmas.

Until 1993, there were at least two bandstands on the midway. One was in the center of town and the other at the base of the hill on East Main Street. In addition to beauty pageants and orators, all kinds of entertainment was offered. There were big bands, hillbilly groups, clowns, jugglers, comedians, singers, brass bands, cornet bands and harmonica bands. Radio personalities would spin records, kids would dance, and, on several occasions, there were amateur boxing bouts. In 1994, the bandstands were not erected. They were replaced by a strolling Dixieland band and a German Band, which played at various stops along the midway. The 99th Fair added an up to date big screen at the railroad station.

Few fair memories invoke as many fond emotions as the car giveaways that were a highlight on the midway for several decades. (Photo courtesy of the Nissley family)

And there was also…

A Horse Show — Lloyd and Miriam Gerhart were the backbone of the Ephrata Farmers Day Association for the second half of the 20th Century. They were also dedicated horse people. As grand marshal of the parade, Lloyd would ride his favorite wearing a red jacket and a white top hat. It was only natural they should introduce a horse show as a part of the Fair. It did not take.

Dog Parade — In 1933 a dog parade was introduced with a host of prizes. This morphed into a pet parade. In 1971, it was won by Brian Weaver of Denver who showed “Vanilla” his pet albino skunk. Maybe that is why there is no longer a pet show.

Pony Rides –When the Fair is in town, the block between Main Street and Locust to the north or Franklin to the south is closed. At various times, on Washington or Lake, pony rides were offered. For a small fee, a child to could mount a saddled pony and ride as it is led down the block and back.

Dunk Tanks — It was all a matter of how offensive the person on the bench could be. Usually it was a clown sitting on a bench over a tank of water. He would shout insults at passers-by. For a set fee, three balls could be acquired to throw at a target. If hit, the bench collapsed and the clown went into the water.

Hucksters — For many years, there were stands with salesmen peddling devices or remedies. Before the Food and Drug Administration put the clamps on cure-all notions often mostly alcohol with small quantities of opioid were hawked by fast talking barkers. Later, it was kitchen utensils designed to slice, dice, cube, and fillet to perfection. “No Kitchen is complete without one.”

But the big one was…

In 1929, The Ephrata American Legion Post raffled a brand new Plymouth.

The cars were displayed on a stand in front of the railroad station. Starting around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday night, people would begin to gather. Within an hour, the area was packed. In the background was the sound of screeching nails as they were pulled from stands being disassembled. But all anyone could hear was the rustle of the tickets in the rotating drum. After the winners were announced, everyone went home and the Fair was officially over for another year. The raffle was immensely popular.

Soon home appliances and Savings Bonds were added to the prizes. In the early 1950s, the Ephrata American Legion employed a man fulltime to take one of the new cars to events all over Eastern Pennsylvania selling raffle tickets. By 1957, others got in on the act. The Ephrata Lions Club offered a Buick, a Mercury, a Chevrolet and seven $25 Savings Bonds. At the same time, the American Legion put up a Mercury, a Ford, and a Plymouth. The Jaycees raffled a Volkswagen and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a Pontiac and five $25 Savings Bonds. In 1962, the State of Pennsylvania cracked down on gambling and the car raffles ended.

As the tickets were very popular and sold in a wide radius, the cars usually went to other communities. There are a few exceptions. Tony Kulkuskie, as a very little boy, remembers his father Alex driving a car with holes in the floor. It was just after the Second World War and the car companies had been producing war machinery. New cars were just coming on the market. Tony and his wife had heard different stories but it is possible his Dad bought the ticket somewhere in the Coal Regions after refereeing a game. Neither were sure, but sometime in the early 1950s, Alex Kulkuskie won a brand new two-tone green Buick Special which he drove to his social studies teaching job at Manheim Township, until it ran no more.

One hundred years is an eye blink in time. Humankind has been gathering in town squares to exchange goods, gossip and gaiety since tribes settled in villages. The very basis of civilization was families banning together to form villages.

The community fair is a celebration of this societal leap. We first gathered to exchange goods and services. But a community is much more than business. We gather to show our community spirit to the world, be it a grand parade or a night of family fun. We gather because we are proud of our individual achievements and want to display them, be it a prize hog or a delicate piece of knitting. We gather because we want to enjoy the company of our neighbors, be it a meal or a chat on the midway. We gather to have fun together, be it a laugh at a game or a ride on a Ferris wheel. We gather for altruistic reasons, be it selling food to support community groups or raise funds for our neighbors in need.

But mostly we gather during the last full week in September, because we are devoted to this town on the Cocalico Creek. Its long and glorious history is the core of our being. We are rooted in families who have come to build and prosper. We are committed to the sense of community which began with a group of nonconformist religious who encamped along the creek, blossomed at the base of the mountain with a small town fair and continues today in a diverse community gathering.

A great-grandmother involved in the 1919 Fair would not recognize what happens at the end of September, but she would recognize the spirit and resolve with which the Ephrata Farmers Day is executed. She and all of her neighbors in that long ago Ephrata would approve.


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