The Ephrata Fair: 100 years and counting

By on January 31, 2018

The following is the first in a monthly series of articles focused on the Ephrata Fair, leading up to its 100th anniversary in September.

An early photo of the Ephrata Fair looking east on Main Street near the square. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley

An early photo of the Ephrata Fair looking east on Main Street near the square. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley

When the Ephrata Fair opens this September, it will bring with it an air of eagerness and excitement never experienced before, because this year the granddaddy of all Lancaster County fairs turns a robust 100.

What today we know as a five-day extravaganza that fills the downtown as well as Grater Park with music, rides, food stands, games, and livestock, had a humble birth.

It was in July 1919 when four men gathered at the Cloister Club, a civic group headquartered on the second floor above the Joseph Harris Department Store in the red brick building that today houses the Friendly Mini Mart and Wiggles and Giggles.

The men, Penn State professor Ed Hibshman, Floyd “Dutch” Bucher, Lancaster County’s first agricultural agent, Ephrata Review publisher Arthur Yeager and hardware store owner I. Leonard Sprecher, were discussing fund-raising ideas for a Welcome Home celebration to be thrown on Nov. 8 for veterans to mark the one-year anniversary of the end of what was then called the Great War.

Gazing out over Main Street, Hibshman noted the number of people who stopped to peruse displays in various store windows. He suggested a farmer’s day fair, a two-day community event with local produce and handmade items showcased in store windows. Bucher informed them that state money was available for crop-judging contests.

A committee was quickly formed and the date set for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 17-18. Merchants quickly came on-board, offering up their show windows for the exhibition of various crops, canned fruit and vegetables, baked goods and fancy needlework. Live stock competition such as steer and poultry judging became part of the plan.

Despite the eagerness there was some skepticism about the fair’s chances for success.

“At first the committee felt rather doubtful as to whether the task could be successfully accomplished,” The Ephrata Review reported that September, “but reports are encouraging and the statement has been made that the farmers will bring plenty of exhibits to make Ephrata’s Fair something out of the ordinary.”

Without knowing it, the community had just initiated a tradition that would stretch out for the next one hundred years and beyond.

In the decades that followed, the fair grew in size and popularity. In the early 1920s, rides were erected, mostly set up at the corner of Lake and Main streets in a vacant lot where the post office now stands. Food vendors, mostly civic groups looking to raise funds, set up stands. One of the first appeared as early as 1919 when the Society of Farm Women operated two roofless 8- by 12-foot stands. That stand, purchased by the Hinkletown Mennonite Church in 1999, remains to this day. The Farm Women were joined by others including the Akron Lions which appeared around 1927, selling coffee for a nickel and a grilled cheese sandwich for 25 cents.

The fair’s success grew annually. A third day was added in 1922 and a fourth day in 1937.

American Legion Post 429 in 1933 chanced off a brand new Plymouth. The car was won by Ephrata’s Clyde Wolf. This kicked off the popular car giveaways where as many as three new vehicles were chanced off on the last night of the fair. It would be a popular attraction until 1962 when the state banned gambling.

Multiple small parades, sometimes as many as three a year, were merged into one communitywide event in 1934. The Ephrata Fair Parade was born. Held on Wednesday night of fair week, the parade has become the gemstone of the fair and annually draws tens of thousands of spectators.

In those early years all stands on Main Street faced the sidewalk rather than the street in order to keep pedestrians out of the pathway of trolley cars that rolled through town. With the end of trolley service in 1947 and the removal of the rails stands were turned to face the street giving the fair its current day appearance.

The fair’s first-ever beauty pageant was held in 1950 on a stage erected in front of Butzer’s Garage, now the site of Pioneer Fire Company. The Miss Ephrata Fair Tobacco Queen of Lancaster County pageant, as it was then called, featured nine contestants between the ages of 17 and 25. Judging was based on beauty, talent and personality. Over 6,000 people were in attendance when a flimsy brown “crown” made to resemble a tobacco leaf was placed upon the head of the winner, Ephrata’s Evelyn Ay. For “Evie,” it was just the start. In 1953, as Miss Pennsylvania, she would be crowned Miss America 1954 in Atlantic City.

Kiddies Day debuted in 1951 when area children could get free rides and free ice cream handed out by borough police officer Harold “Dutch” Greenly. Sponsored by the local merchants, at its height as many as 5,000 free ride tickets were dispensed. Due to costs, free rides gave way in 1976 to discounted rides, a practice that is still observed.

The popular Baby Parade was begun in 1956 and, with the exception of 1958 when it had no chairperson, became an annual event showcasing the area’s newest and youngest residents.

The agricultural activities taking place in Ephrata Park such as tractor pulls and livestock judging formally became known as Tent City in 1968.

The fair’s favorite white rat, “Fat Albert,” appeared in 1970 while 1971 saw the start of the popular, but controversial, greased pig chase. Also in 1971 a fifth day was added to the fair and, because of the opening of the new Pioneer Fire Hall, the parade was re-routed away from the midway and down Lake Street to East Fulton.

As the 1980s dawned, a visible change was taking place along the midway. Wood and canvas stands that required hammers, nails and screwdrivers to erect were disappearing and being replaced by pre-fabricated trailers.

Over the last few decades the Ephrata Fair has changed little in appearance, but as it enters its second hundred years, its organizers face a series of challenges. Most notable — unless someone steps up to head the event, the annual Baby Parade may disappear.

Since its inception, proceeds from the fair have been donated back to the community, but the fair’s future is under constant threat. First, there are the ever-changing state and federal regulations coupled with spiraling insurance costs. To survive these, the fair must maintain current levels of funding and seek additional sources as well, largely through obtaining additional sponsorships, a program begun in 2005. Another challenge is to keep up interest in the agricultural aspect of the fair. Since the local Plain community takes little part in the fair, that has slowly been fading away.

A key here, not only for the agricultural end but for the fair as a whole, is to keep the community involved. To do that, the Farmers Day Association is seeking ways to spark interest among the younger generation by such methods as increasing the fair’s presence on social media. One highly visible effort along these lines was the video wall which debuted at the 99th fair bearing announcements about fair activities, information on lost children and publicly acknowledging fair sponsors, was a hit.

The trick, the organizers believe, is keeping the fair “new and interesting.”

The Ephrata Fair itself cannot be expanded much beyond its present-day boundaries, but its look will be changing as Lancaster County’s oldest fair enters its second century, honoring the past and celebrating the future.

Larry Alexander is a freelance columnist based in Ephrata. He is an award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author. He can be contacted at larry2851@yahoo.com. 

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