Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Your Complete Guide to New England's The Big E

An Overview of Springfield's The Big E
There’s a familiar response when you tell people you are headed to “The Big E”: a wave of nostalgia and bemusement washes over their face as they invariably reply “wow, it’s just impossible to see it all in a single day.”

New England Fall Events is always up for a challenge so this year we ventured to Springfield, MA with the ambition to see as much as we possibly could. Our aim was to offer our dear readers our take on how you can get the most from attending this jumbo-sized fall destination. 
Confession: we didn’t see it “all” but we managed to fit in a whole heck of a lot in a single day and we’re here to tell you it’s possible. 

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Storrowton Village
A leisurely stroll along the Avenue
of the States and Storrowton Village.
The Eastern States Exposition, commonly referred to as “The Big E”, has history on its side. With 99 years under their belt, their Centennial season is slated for Sept 16th – Oct 2nd, 2016 and their particular formula of agriculture, entertainment, food, amusement rides, education, history, and endless vendors, has huge appeal to folks of all stripes and varied interests. Though most US states put on their own State Fair, The Big E is the only regional fair in the country—essentially representing the six New England states in a single, wicked big expo.

People are liable to describe The Big E as “huge” and make no mistake, it absolutely is. The fairgrounds and entertainment options do seem to go on and on and, as many also would agree, it can be a little overwhelming. In addition to the free entertainment and activities included in fair admission, there are endless ways to expand your experience with midway games, amusement rides, rock concerts, country music shows—for an extra fee. This is an annual fall festival on steroids plus a whole lot more.

Planning Ahead
New England Fall Events_The Big E_Clydesdales on Parade
Clydesdales at the afternoon parade.
We can’t stress enough that attending this event with some preparation and eyes wide open can go a long way towards making the most from the time you have there. In short, come with a strategy. Thankfully, The Big E’s free app for your phone will make it infinitely easier to both plan ahead and to draw up an agenda for how you’d like to spend a day or weekend. The app is invaluable—download it from iTunes or GooglePlay, familiarize yourself with it in advance, select your events you’d like to see from their daily schedule, and let the app work its magic. The notifications will keep you on track and the maps will help you find your way. We used the app ourselves by adding multiple events to our to-do list (often adding repeats of events as a back-up plan) and it was handy to know that if we missed the 11:00am sheep shearing demo because we were on the other side of the fairgrounds buried in a food vendor line, we would still have an option to catch the 3:00pm demo later.

Entertainment planning is one thing. Planning your movement is an entirely different story. Because the fairgrounds are, indeed, super-sized, you’ll need to give yourself more time than you ever imagined to navigate both the crowds of fair-goers and to physically trek across to the building where your event/activity is to be held. To top it off, you’ll probably want to arrive early to get a seat to the event before it fills up.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food Midway
The start of the day at The Big E.
Even with advance research and the trusty app, it is a plain fact that The Big E must be experienced to be understood. We were prepared for the crowds and for a full day of walking but it still took a bit of time for us to get our bearings. The gates open at 8:00am but the majority of the buildings and exhibits open at 10:00am so we started our day right at 9:30 to give us a chance to park and get inside. We planned to attend The Big E on a Friday figuring the crowds might be lighter on a weekday during school hours and they were. Even with school in session, there were still thousands of people on the grounds by the times the gates opened that morning.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_Sheep and Goats
Happy sheep waiting for their showing.
As we often do, we engaged festival attendees to get a feel for who seeks out events like The Big E and to learn what kinds of things they love. We knew many people who had previously attended The Big E and we took note of their “must-sees”. While at The Big E, we spoke with dozens of people of every age and, to a person, everyone we met had been coming to The Big E since they were kids.  We chatted up folks from every corner of New England and a significant number from New York and Pennsylvania. Some had been coming to The Big E for forty or fifty years and it was a fall tradition for their family. Each person had their own beloved exhibits, demos, or foods they looked forward to and all were wise enough to come to The Big E prepared.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Midway
Giant rides and thrills at Midway.
For starters, you wouldn’t dare attend The Big E without your comfiest walking shoes. If you have little ones, you’ll be grateful to have your stroller in tow because little legs simply can’t endure all the walking. Those who may find walking long distances a challenge (or need frequent rest breaks) would be wise rent a wheelchair or a scooter to make their fair experience more manageable.

The Big E even offers strollers ($10), wagons ($15), double strollers ($15), wheelchairs ($15), and motorized scooters ($50) to rent for the day on a first come-first served availability; no reservations accepted.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Maple Cream Cone
Just a taste of the maple cream cone.
Admission to The Big E is quite affordable, particularly if you are making a full day (and night) of your time. The standard adult price is $12 in advance and $15 at the gate but you’ll also want to factor in the car parking ($10, cash only). 

There are plentiful free activities to discover but there also is the constant magnetic pull of vendors, amusement rides, and food stalls which will have you tapping back into your wallet again and again. Most vendors accept plastic for payment but you’ll need cash on hand for the unexpected cash-only situations like parking your car in the adjacent lot which seems ripe for catching people unprepared.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Big Yellow Slide
The Big Yellow Slide accommodated
a wedding ceremony that afternoon.
Everyone’s advice for seeing a show or demo is to “get there early” but as rookies to The Big E, we found it nearly impossible to get anywhere early enough. Fifteen minutes early just won’t guarantee that you’ll snag a seat (sheep shearing), a view (racing pigs) or in some cases, admission (Circus Spectacular). 
Occasionally, there may be a special circumstance which closes your favorite ride temporarily (a wedding ceremony halted public admission to the very popular Big Yellow Slide for a good while) which all goes to say, “get there really early” and “just roll with it” are two helpful mantras to have. We were there on a Friday from morning through evening and we can only imagine that everything we experienced crowd-wise and line-wise must increase exponentially on a Saturday or Sunday. Even with the very helpful Big E app to keep us on track with our wish-list of events, we still hadn’t mastered how long it would take to walk from one end of the fairground to the opposite end (maybe 15 minutes) and to get there early enough to secure a spot for the popular entertainment, most of which is included in the fair admission.

The Avenue of the States
We were advised by a life-long, Big E devotee to check out of the State Buildings at the top of the day because she insisted the buildings get more crowded as the day goes on—and she was right.  As the Avenue of the States and Storrowtown Village were already on our own “must-see” list, we happily made a beeline to this section of the grounds to start our day.

The handsome buildings lining the avenue are modeled after the six New England states’ original State Houses. Each building is managed independently by that state rather than The Big E and it functions as a showcase for homegrown businesses. It’s a place where goods and services important to that state as well as popular and native foods associated with their agricultural economy can be found. Each state building definitely had its own personality based on the kinds of booths they held.
The particular Friday we attended The Big E happened to land on the designated “New Hampshire Day so it seemed apropos that we begin exploring their building first. A brass band playing jaunty tunes welcomed us to the Granite State’s building.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_State House Buildings
The buildings along the Avenue of the States are modeled replicas of the original State House buildings.

Inside the New Hampshire building we found booths and stations featuring NH-based businesses and goods. The food stations, predictably, drew long lines for chowder served in bread bowls or to load up with a plate of creamy mac and cheese. A sample of what you’ll find in the various vendor stalls inside New Hampshire include herb dip, blueberry pie, whittled tchotchkes, chocolate covered fruit kebobs, hand-thrown pottery, maple cotton candy, Critter Gear (catnip goodies, leashed), maple syrup treats, hand-woven rugs, Moxie souvenirs, and more…all made in or with some connection to New Hampshire.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_NH Building_Moxie
L to R: Moxie soda souvenirs, creamy mac and cheese, and jugs of maple syrup in the NH state building.

Experienced Big E attendees appeared to collectively browse through the buildings in a counter-clockwise direction—a crowd pattern—unofficial or not—that we got wise to a bit too late. If you think of each building as a wheel, it seemed as if those who walked through more swiftly opted to walk near the center/hub of the wheel; those who leisurely browsed or who stopped into every booth shuffled along more slowly on the perimeter.  

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_NH Building
L to R: Whittle wood characters, Bunny Boogie hand lotions and creams, sign in the CT building points us towards NH.

You can enter and exit through the front of the state buildings or, more efficiently, exit through a side door (after completing your counter-clockwise trip of the booths) which offers a convenient way to exit one state building and enter through the side door of the next state house, in this case, Connecticut.

We found the Connecticut booths to be the most varied of the states with booths highlighting everything from the CT Wine Trail, to a cigar/tobacconist, universities, casinos, taffy pulling, and woodturning. It is the Connecticut building that is “Home of the Original Chocolate Covered Bacon” which is a draw for many.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_CT Building
The Lego booth inside the CT building was abuzz with fair-goers making their mini Lego cow.

The busiest booth by far inside Connecticut was the bustling Lego station where visitors are invited to create a “make and take” mini Lego cow at their step-by-step building table (Enfield, CT is where the US Headquarters for Lego resides). Another favorite area in the Connecticut house is situated in the rear building where the Connecticut Dinosaur Park has a few sandpits set up for children to play archaeologist by digging up and clearing “bones” and which sports a large Parasaurolophus for a fun photo op. Connecticut’s rear building also holds many picnic tables which is handy for resting your tired feet (important!), enjoying some food at a proper table, and enjoying the live band that keeps the energy in the building lively.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_CT Building_Bacon_Dino Park
CT booths included a confectioner serving up chocolate covered bacon, a dinosaur dig for kids, and a CT tobacconist.

Vermont is the next building in line and the lovely stained glass transom over the front door offers a sneak peek at the agriculture and flavor of Vermont—cheese, apples, pie, bread, and dairy set against a verdant hilly landscape. The booths in the Vermont building sell smoked and cured meats, maple candy, cheese, maple syrup, flannel clothingVermont breweries, and apple desserts. We couldn’t resist a slice of deep dish apple pie served Vermont-style which New Englanders would know arrives with a chunky slice of sharp cheddar on the side.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_VT Building_Apple Pie_Stained Glass
The VT building featured a lovely stained glass transom, cheddar apple pie, and a maple candy maker.

The vaulted ceilings of Maine’s building give it open log-cabin feel as the sunlight pours into the atrium. Maine’s offerings included tons of tasty treats such as maple coffee, blueberry crisp, lobster rolls, a dozen whoopee pie varieties, more maple cotton candy, smoked salmon on a stick, and maple French toast sundaes. One of The Big E food “must-haves” folks mentioned is the loaded baked potato which can be found in the Maine building and the insanely long queue of people underscored its immense popularity. More than just food, Maine also had non-food related booths, some highlights being the rustic log beds and lamps, handmade soaps, and Alan Claude graphic lighthouse prints.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Maine Building_Loaded Baked Potato, Lighthouse Prints
Maine's state building was host to lighthouse prints for sale, handmade furniture, and the popular loaded baked potato.

Many of the Massachusetts’ booths are food-focused and you won’t hear any complaints from us about that! Springfield’s own Koffee Kup Bakery showcased giant cupcakes while others doled out mini maple cream cones, lobster rolls, cups of fresh raspberries, homemade ice cream, chili dogs, sweet and savory pies, cider donuts, and even a Friendlys booth.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Massachusetts Building_Patriots Bruins Cupcakes
Massachusetts' building held many food booths. The sports team cupcakes were a hit and the raspberry cups were so fresh!

Massachusetts’ central hallway is devoted to booths promoting tourism across the state (regional areas, local wineries, amusement parks, etc). Here you will find Massachusetts farm info from the likes of the New England Apples Association and MassGrown, and tables with brochures and maps for local services such as Mass DCR’s park systems.

A larger than life Mr. Potato Head holds court in the foyer of the Rhode Island building which is a nod to “his” Rhody roots with the RI-headquartered Hasbro toy company. Mr. Potato Head is also an unofficial ambassador with several life-sized spud statues dotted throughout the state as an enticement to draw family tourism. 

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_RI Building_Dels Lemonade_Dunkin Donuts_Mr Potato Head
Rhode Island touted Del's Frozen Lemonade, a giant Mr. Potato Head, and a miniature vintage Dunkin Donuts store.

Inside the state building here at The Big E, Rhode Island is lovingly honored at the “My Little Town” collectible booth, Autocrat and Eclipse coffee syrup ornaments, RI-manufactured drill bits, bread bowl chowders, Kenyon’s Grist Mill Clam Cakes, seafood, Del’s Frozen Lemonade, handmade children’s clothing, jewelry, tea, and others.

Storrowtown Village History Museum
Storrowton Village was high on our list of must-sees at The Big E. This living history museum is situated on the Avenue of the States across from the state buildings which together combine for a very convenient and “manageable” Big E experience. Imagine our surprise to find that Storrowtown Village was one of the least crowded attractions we attended that morning. With so much action, food, games, and hullabaloo competing for your attention at The Big E, quaint and calm Storrowton Village is a veritable respite from the crowds and bustle.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Storrowtown Village
Scenes from the peaceful Storrowton Village, The Big E's living history museum.

With docents, artisans, and tradespeople dotting the interior buildings and outdoor booths, the 18th and 19th century buildings encircle a postcard-pretty common where children and run and play across the grass and under the shade from trees. Not just any living history museum, Storrowton Village’s nine standalone housing structures have a fascinating back story.

Helen Osborne Storrow, an early trustee of the Eastern States Exposition (aka The Big E), is responsible for the development of this exhibit on the fairgrounds. These buildings have the remarkable distinction of having been built in place elsewhere (originally in other parts of Massachusetts or New Hampshire). They were purchased, deconstructed, transported to Springfield’s fairgrounds, and then re-built on the new village property. These buildings faithfully represent the original use of the building and are intended to highlight various aspects of early New England life.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Storrowtown Village
L to R: Storrowton's tinsmithing exhibit, the gazebo on the village common, and Storrowton's preserved law office.

The Phillips House homestead was built in 1767 in Taunton, MA before it was purchased in 1930 and added to Storrowton Village as a way for expo visitors to experience first-hand the beauty and character of 18th-century New England craftsmanship. Among the village structures you’ll find the steepled meeting house, the Little Red Schoolhouse, a farmhouse, a tiny law office, a stone blacksmith shop, a tavern, and a sunny yellow mansion.

Situated between two village houses we stumbled across what proved to be one of our absolute favorite demonstrations of the day—the paper marbling demonstration by John Bielik and his apprentice Kevin Lynch. With two large, shallow troughs of water, Mr. Lynch spattered drops of paint onto the still water with multiple colors as Mr. Bielik narrated the process and answered questions from the audience.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Storrowtown Village_John Bielik_Paper Marbling
John Bielik and Kevin Lynch demonstrate stunning paper marbling techniques at their Storrowtown Village exhibit.

Once the paint had settled, Mr. Lynch artfully dragged needles and rakes across the water to pull the paint into gorgeous scrolls and technical patterns. Once pleased with the design, he gently laid a sheet of paper to float on the surface of the water and sopped up excess paint outside the paper edges with scraps of newspaper. With great care he lifted the paper up from the corner and affixed the marbled paper to a board where he washed away residual paint with a stream of water. At last the paper is hung to dry and on kept on display for us fair-goers to appreciate and admire. Better yet, the marbled papers we saw were available for purchase ($10-$20)—we bought two!

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Avenue of the States_Storrowtown Village_Little Red Schoolhouse
Storrowton's Little Red Schoolhouse.
Other interesting demonstrations within Storrowton Village were tinsmithing, chair making, and broom making. We enjoyed chatting with the potter Reggie Delarm who mentioned she’d been coming to The Big E most of her life and now shares her artistry with the rest of us each season. She also filled us in on Helen Osborne Storrow’s vision and the history of how Storrowton Village came to be.

When we asked Ms. Delarm about what her “must-sees” were, she insisted we not overlook the events and demos at the Mallary Complex. During our chat, another fair-goer introduced himself and was delighted to offer his Big E top spots. He pulled out a copy of the fairground map (in fact, he had five spare copies!) and pointed out how to get from point A to B to C to see it all.

Craft Common 
New England Fall Events_The Big E_Craft Common_Log Cabin Lamps
With a handy new printed map in tow, we headed out beyond the Avenue of the States to check out the Craft Common where we window shopped stall after stall (after stall…after stall) of crafters too numerous to mention. The timing of The Big E, landing during the last three weekends of September, lends itself nicely to early-bird holiday shopping. Not exclusive to artisan stalls, if you are looking for lotions, toe rings, reed diffusers, switch plate covers, bamboo flutes, personalized ornaments, slippers, or log cabin lamps, you will easily find it here. These vendors are not exclusive to New England crafters/producers as you’ll find in the Avenue of the States buildings nor are the crafts limited to handmade products.

The Big E Food
From the Craft Common, we felt ready to explore West and East Roads which, in addition to being the main drag through the center of The Big E, have the distinction of playing host over a hundred food vendors. The food choices are abundant and the sheer amount of options creates pure sensory overload. It scratching the surface to talk about The Big E experience only in terms of the food, much of it fried, and the more outrageously conceived the better. For whatever reason The Big E earns a disproportionate amount of buzz heaped on the fried food and over the top food options, we feel, at the expense of hyping a more rounded festival experience that can truly be so varied and educational. To each his own however, and the bottom line is that when it comes to food, people really do love to try it all.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_Eclair and Cream Puffs
The Big E's signature cream puff.
In 2002 the “Big E Cream Puff” was designated the official dessert of The Big E and there is a full bakery on the grounds dedicated just to baking puffs fresh and in large quantities, selling over 50,000 each fair season. Fairgoers everywhere carry platefuls, conefuls, and stickfuls of chewy, crunchy, and gooey treats. In every nook and cranny of The Big E there is an opportunity to purchase food. There are healthier food options and a handful of gluten-free choices but “healthy” is not the name of the game at a state fair so, as you would expect, the crazier, more decadent foodstuffs appear also to be the most popular.

We can’t resist noting the diversity of food selection (and if you love fair food, start drooling now). We saw pierogies, deep fried Oreos, kangaroo sausage, egg rolls, wings, kettle corn, candy apples, deep fried Snickers/Reeses, pretzels, beer brats, beer nuts, tacos, camel burgers, sno-cones, slushies, ice-cream- stuffed donuts, smoothies, fried green beans/zucchini/mozzarella/mushrooms,  pizza, cheesesteaks, tempura, fries, pork-stuffed corn cakes, beignets, chicken pitas, super dogs, fried dough,  corn dogs, turkey legs, BBQ anything, oysters, sausage, cheese curds, apple crisp, ├ęclair, any kind of fried seafood, kielbasa, lobster rolls, meatball subs, burgers, chicken fingers and much, much, (much) more. Sure, some of the food carts are repeated in different areas of the fairground but remarkably, there are more varied options than there are duplicates.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_Fried Food_Lobster Roll_Donuts
L to R: Ice-cream stuffed donut vendor, lobster roll plate, and an exotic selection of wild game burgers.

The Big E is touted as the Home of the Craz-E Burger -- a bacon cheeseburger served between a grilled glazed donut “bun.”  According to The Big E, the Craz-E Burger earned its title through a naming contest on Facebook beating out other front runners such as “Heart Attack on a Bun” which also manages to capture the spirit of this burger creation. 

If you’ve always been eager to try a Deep Fried Martini (mini pillows of fried dough filled with a martini “mixture”, you’ll find them inside the Young Building which also houses the Guinness Pub.
The BBQ Sundae was another curiosity drawing scores of people who couldn’t wait to spoon layered bites of pulled pork, cornbread, mashed potatoes, beans, and coleslaw from a sundae cup.
Bacon figures prominently and popularly here in many of the food items and more creative concoctions. From the aforementioned Craz-E Burger to the chocolate-covered bacon in the Connecticut building, sprinkle some bacon bits on your donut and you’ll find a line 10 people deep waiting to score one.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_Kettle Corn, Pork Cake, Big E Cream Puff
L to R: Pulled pork food vendor, kettle corn samples in the CT building, and a Big E cream puff bakery kiosk.

For a fair that inundates you with food, (with tens of thousands of people) you may find it surprising that there aren’t tons of picnic tables to sit and eat your snacks. The picnic tables are lumped together, some with umbrellas, and not marked anywhere on the printable map. You can find benches here and there throughout the grounds (though not necessarily central to where you are buying your food as you can find in the Connecticut Building) and some vendors had small tables set up behind their area. There is a food court, a few beer gardens, and other more “traditional” sit-down restaurants like the Storrowtown Tavern offering a menu at an elevated price.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_BBQ Sundae_Pork Palace
Pork Palace's layered BBQ "sundae" 
A lifelong Big E-going friend of ours tipped us off to the incredible dinner deal at the Lion’s Club lodge (across from the Xfinity Arena entrance) where we could rest our tired feet inside at their tables and enjoy a ¼ BBQ chicken platter for only $8.95. Even better, the Lion’s Club lodge provides some much needed calm and quiet from the go-go-go of the day. For families, this is a very nice, affordable meal option where you can all sit down together and take a break from the stimulation of the fair.

If fair food is your thing and you plan to try many options, most items from the food vendors are not too pricey but don’t expect to find a screaming deal either. In short, like anything, it will eventually do a number on your wallet throughout the day (and why the Lion’s Club meal is such a bang for your buck affordability-wise). All the food vendors we saw, including the Lion’s Club, accepted plastic as well as cash which is handy but you’ll find numerous ATMs throughout the grounds too.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_Deep Fried Candy
Deep fried candy vendor.
Because there are limitless food options, on the Friday we attended the lines at the individual food vendors weren’t very long at all. There are certain novelty treats that will generate longer lines and by evening (when concert goers arrived and kids were out of school) the lines—and crowds-- definitely did increase. The BBQ lines near the Xfinity arena gate seemed the longest but that may be owing to its convenient proximity the venue for the concert goers looking for a quick bite before heading in. Of course, you should certainly expect food lines to be longer on a weekend which are the most highly attended of the fair dates.

With so much humanity all in one place, you may be wondering about cleanliness. Considering how much food is being bought and eaten on-the-go throughout the fairgrounds, The Big E staff did a truly impressive job keeping the trash cans empty and the streets free of food, trash, and debris. We never worried about stepping in someone’s upended ice cream cone or saw overfull or neglected trash barrels.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Food_fried_food vendors
Afternoon crowds at The Big E.
As we regularly attend dozens of festivals where the only choice is a port-a-potty, it’s a huge plus is that The Big E has no shortage of “real” (indoor, stalled) bathrooms everywhere you look--a very welcome thing. It’s also appreciated that when we wanted to wash our hands from an activity or before/after eating, we could easily find a bathroom with a proper faucet. However--and we hate to look a gift horse in the mouth—we can’t help but point out The Big E’s bathrooms are merely functional and they all are in need of a face lift. Unfortunately, the attention to cleanliness and litter that the exterior fairgrounds are given are not bestowed on the bathroom upkeep.

The Big E Midway
The Midway’s amusement rides and games hold tons of appeal for many folks, especially kids and teens. With two areas—one area features faster, higher, dizzier, thrill-seeking rides and the second area, Kiddieland, is where you’ll find gentler favorites like teacups, the train, swings, and a carousel. Buying a “Midway Magic Pass” ($28, unlimited rides) is the smartest way to go if you are attending on a weekday and plan to go on many rides but the Magic Pass is only valid on Mon-Fri and for single-day use. Otherwise, ride coupons run $1.25 for 1 coupon, $25 for 22 coupons, and $60 for 55 coupons. Most activities charge 3-4 coupons per ride, some more.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Midway_Games and Rides_Ferris Wheel
The Big E Midway features fun for fair-goers both small and tall. Ferris Wheel, swings, thrill rides and a kiddie land.

The rides at The Big E's Midway looked clean, freshly painted, and well-kept. In addition to rides, there is familiar midway game fare like bottle ring toss, squirt gun races, hoops, and others which are geared toward winning prizes such as giant stuffed animals. In the hours after school let out, the Midway become noticeably busier and there are enough rides here that you could easily spend hours of your time and plenty of money at the risk of running out of time for seeing other (free) events and activities on the fairgrounds.

Shopping Shopping Shopping
The Big E is also an expo for shopping. If you are a shopaholic, tchotchke-lover, or a sucker for infomercials and as-seen-on-TV goodies, this just may be your Mecca. The Young Building and The Better Living Center house a combined 178,000 square feet of retail booths inside their massive airplane hangar-sized buildings. Any household, clothing, wearable, buyable item you could ever imagine (and many you couldn’t) is for sale and collectively fill over 150 vendor booths. For us this was the least intriguing part of our Big E adventure and the vendors do not have any discernible hand-crafted requirement or New England connection. 

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Shopping Expo
Endless opportunities to shop from retail vendors at The Big E. L to R: Local wine, pots and pans, aqua massage "lung".

The sheer volume of booths can be as overwhelming in numbers as it may be, for us, underwhelming in appeal but we readily admit we aren’t avowed shopaholics. I don’t know how many people attend The Big E to purchase giant, iron-lung-like, aqua massage capsules, reclining chairs, home security systems, emoji pillows, or barn cupolas but you’ll find them here along with color-changing pots and pans, flagpoles, and a talent agency. Though we did spot the occasional hand-crafted quilt stall or Shark Tank-worthy invention, we were more likely to be accosted by Comcast trying to get us to sign up for a cable package or by someone selling hot water bottles and lucky bamboo.

If you do purchase anything of physical size within these buildings, many vendors will offer to hold your purchased goods at their booth for you to pick up later so you won’t need to lug your new extendable broom or bottle lamp around the fairgrounds all day—all in all, a welcome and important perk.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Shopping Expo_Critter Gear_Magic Sceptre
L to R: ME's Prospect Harbor Soap Company, RI's The Magic Sceptre children's book, NH's Critter Gear.

Not confined to the Young Building and Better Living Center, fair-goers will also find nearly 100 more exterior commercial vendors and large exhibits across the fairgrounds. Large areas were set aside for gazebos, landscapers, barn-builders, hot tub displays, and military recruitment kiosks. Outdoors vendor stalls were populated with cooking knife demos, basement finishers, bed sheet discounters, wrench sets, and evangelical children’s education. There seems nothing too random for someone to sell or exhibit and every eight feet there is an opportunity to purchase something. Again, an early holiday- shopper’s paradise because there is something to fit every personal style imaginable.

Although there are plenty of people buying items from the many vendors, it should be said that considering how much acreage there is to cover on foot and how crowded the fairgrounds can get, anything we considered buying was met with the sobering reality that whatever we acquired we would need to be carried around for hours—a real disincentive. Hm, maybe we don’t need that fancy car wax as badly as we thought…

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Shopping Expo_Wine and Cheese Barn
L to R: Find local wine and cheese in the Wine & Cheese Barn; buy a gazebo or jacuzzi at the fairgrounds.

As we mentioned in our Avenue of the States Building section, inside the state buildings you actually will find crafts, local artisans, small businesses, native food, and manufactured items that are specific and relevant to that New England state. With The Big E functioning as New England’s regional fair, we found the local context for the items the vendors sold within the state buildings both more interesting and frankly more meaningful. We saw many goodies within the state buildings that we wanted to buy (and eat) and remarkably few that caught our eye in the larger vendor warehouses.To be fair, we didn’t attend The Big with shopping high on our to-do list so others may feel quite differently.

The food and goodies for sale in the state buildings appealed to our New England pride and reinforced our appreciation for our local economy and agriculture. Coupled with the charm of the buildings themselves, shopping or browsing in the state buildings was satisfying for us as we were meeting people rooted in New England small business, farming, or manufacturing community. 

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Butter Scultpture
The Cabot butter sculpture encased
outside the Mallary Complex.
For us, one of the most fascinating parts of The Big E was the focus on agriculture. Not only did we find it immensely educational and interesting but it was also one of the more relaxed areas on the fairgrounds.
Outside the ginormous Mallary Complex, fairgoers can peer in at the 600 Lb. butter sculpture sponsored and donated by Cabot Creamery/Agrimark. Adjacent to the butter sculpture are the Christmas trees on exhibit by the New England Christmas Tree Alliance. The trees on display are entrants in a competition where the trees are judged by the quality of their taper, handle, stem, top, foliage, cleanliness, and overall appeal. These trees are displayed without decoration save for the award winners which sported a ribbon their quality.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Swifty Swine Racing Pigs_Mallary COmplex
Swift Swine Racing (and swimming) Pigs
Also outside of the complex is a cordoned off area where large crowds gather to cheer on the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs. This is a popular entertainment for families and the bleacher seating fills up quickly. Although there is room to stand, the crowds will be several people deep and would prove challenging for kids and shorter folks to see the show.

The Mallary Complex itself is where fairgoers can learn about animal showmanship, test their knowledge about cow trivia, watch animal care demonstrations, competitive livestock showings, and sheep shearing demos, and chat with farmers.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex
The local 4-H clubs provide well-organized and interesting educational facts at their Mallery Complex display.

Inside, the 4-H exhibits are thoughtful, interesting, and engaging. The display boards utilize interactive flaps, cut outs, pictures, charts, and trivia to highlight educational facts about cows and dairy. You can test your luck at naming the five most common beef breeds and learn to identify where to the pastern, poll, and dewlap are on a cow.  The information is well-organized, hand-made, and useful to know for kids and adults alike. We were impressed by the intelligent exhibit the 4-H clubs presented and we appreciated that it was included in our tour of the Mallary Complex.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex
The heifer showing inside the Mallary Complex. Steven Pampreen (center) preparing to show his Belted Galloway.

We enjoyed speaking with Steven Pampreen, a teen farmer from Connecticut, who was showing his Beltie cow Bubba later that night. He explained that his cow would be judged by the measure of how well it had been cared for, its health, size, grooming, and Steven’s skillfulness in raising it to be prepared for auction three days later. We later learned that Steven placed 2nd in his class at the Junior Belted Galloway competition—nice job Steven!

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex_Sheep Shearing Demo
Sheep shearing demos are terrific fun!
The sheep shearing demo is great fun. Entertaining and efficient, the host of the event manages to narrate, educate, and answer questions all while adeptly and safely shearing the wool from the sheep. This area offers a few benches from which to watch the demo (ahhh, so happy to rest our tired feet!) and the farmer also instructs how to spin wool into yarn using a simple method employing a stick and a compact disk.

As we wandered through the Mallary Complex we took in the sights and sounds of livestock. We couldn’t help but find it immensely funny to hear the cacophony of Baaaaaas emanating from hundreds of goats and sheep awaiting their showing and bleating with as much tonal variety and personality as a person could dream up. We were quite content observing the different breeds -- some resting in holding pens, others being primped and fussed over for their showing. We paused to take in the Tunis sheep showing which was held quite close to the holding pens and convenient for fair-goers to enjoy both.
The complex also houses the Fiber Nook which is a medium-sized store selling beautiful hand-crafted items ranging from alpaca slippers and gorgeous crocheted afghans to skeins of wool.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex_Goat and Sheep Showing
Primping and prepping for the sheep showing inside the Mallary Complex.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex_Fiber Wool Nook
Wool samples outside the Fiber Nook.
A few things worth noting about the Mallary Complex:  It’s important to know guests are not permitted to touch the animals and unfortunately we saw quite a few fair guests who reached into the pens to pet the heads or scratch behind the ears of the unattended animals. For safety reasons, please do not disregard this policy, certainly without asking permission of the animal’s owner, and respect that they may wish to decline their permission.

As the Mallary Complex is filled with livestock—it’s the animals’ domain after all—you might be delighted to know that the bathrooms in the main hallway offer a hot water tap to wash your hands—yes, with actual hot water coming through which is quite the novelty and very appreciated!

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Mallary Complex_Sheep and Goat
Snuggled in and waiting for her showing.
There are livestock shows in different facilities on the fairgrounds with the majority held within areas of the Mallary Complex as well as inside the Coliseum—a larger arena with 360 degree seating.

We spent some time in the Coliseum watching the participants in the 4-H Horse Pleasure Class, who had competed earlier in the day, receive their awards and take a few “victory” laps for our collective appreciation. The gentleman on the microphone introduced each class of riders and explained the characteristics and technique that the horses and riders were judged by. Like other demonstrations we saw at The Big E, this is a casual setting for spectators to wander in, observe, learn something, cheer on the participants, and depart at their leisure. There are proper seats for the audience and plenty of seats for everyone. Due to the size of the facility, there isn’t much risk of not getting a seat if you were to arrive late or mid-show.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Agriculture_4H_Coliseum_Horse Pleasure Class
Scenes from the winners circle and presentation held inside the Coliseum.

With so many events and activities competing for attention at The Big E—the midway rides, food, shopping, etc--we fear that the livestock demos, shows, and education could easily be overlooked as an important and worthwhile way to spend your time at The Big E. It was one of our favorite parts of our visit and the many farmers we met were generous with their time and happy to talk about their animals. In every instance where we stopped to chat, it was gratifying to come away having learned something new. We insist you make time to explore what the Mallary Complex offers.

The Stroh Building and New England Center
The New England Center is located near the main entrance of The Big E's fairgrounds close to the Craft Common. It’s here that you’ll find creative areas exhibits and competition entries for needlework, quilting, hand weaving, crochet, rugs, knitting, and photography. The level of artistry was impressive particularly the stunning quilts which were hung on display to be admired in their full glory. Though not limited to New England crafters, most of the competitors did seem to drawn from the northeast which gave it a local feel.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Quilting Competition
The stunning entries in the quilt competition were on full display for our enjoyment. Incredible crafting talent! 

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Cream Puff Tray_Eclair
The New England Center also holds the distinction of being home to The Big E’s cream puff and ├ęclair bakery. The wide counters for ordering your treats overlook the bakery itself, large enough to generate the volume of pastry needed to keep fair-goers happy with their creamy treats.
As befitting the official dessert of a fair the size of this one, these softball-sized puffs are filled fresh and busting with fluffy whipped cream. As anyone who loves pastry knows, a cream puff shouldn’t be filled too far in advance of eating lest the pastry become soggy. Here you can see The Big E bakers stuffing your puff while you wait.
The cream puff bakery has a small window kiosk outside the building where you can order your $4 puff or you can order from the sizable counter indoors which has more cashiers and where lines will likely move quickly.

The Stroh Building is a standalone building across from the Midway, sandwiched between the Young Building and the Coliseum. This building is home to the popular Farm-o-Rama which is a collection of agricultural exhibits featuring everything from giant pumpkins to gardening. There are milking demos, more sheep shearing demos, beekeeping exhibits, storytelling, and an animated, talking vegetable “puppet” show.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Stroh_Farm o Rama
Kid-focused educational exhibits at Farm-A-Rama where children can learn about raising livestock.

A clever way for you or your kids to get more from the numerous exhibits is to participate in one of the scavenger hunts—easy or advanced—by grabbing a printed list of scavenger items posted in a wall folder nearby. There are challenges where you’ll be quizzed on identifying farming items such as horseshoe nails, pail clip, a hay net and a candler.

There are live animals in this building strictly intended for observation and educational purposes. We saw chinchilla rabbits, alpaca, fluffy chicks, and 3-week old piglets on display. The animal exhibits are typically accompanied by details on how the animals are raised, the food they eat, and other care-taking info. Stroh is also where the Clydesdales are housed in their stalls and where kids can try their hand at milking a (fiberglass) cow.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Stroh_Farm o Rama
Children delighted in the livestock display held inside the Stroh Building's Farm-A-Rama exhibit.

If you’ve ever wondered of how manure is converted into fertilizer, soil, animal bedding, methane energy uses, every step of the “Basic Anaerobic Digester System” is detailed in a diagram flow chart and a large diorama that breaks down each step in the process—both fascinating and well done.
The pumpkin exhibit showcases painted and styled pumpkins--Lightning McQueen, New England Patriots, and Banana Split -- submitted by local children and adults for a decorating competition.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Stroh_Farm o Rama
L to R: Pumpkin decorated as a chicken, pumpkin fun facts, the elaborate anaerobic digestion diorama.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Clydesdales on Parade
Clydesdale horses await the start
of the afternoon parade festivities.
The exhibits inside the Stroh Building are geared toward young children and focuses on easy-to-follow, interactive agricultural displays. The colorful signs, displays, and activities hold great appeal for families and it’s a great way for children to see a wide variety of smaller animals.

As we exited the Stroh Building, we fortuitously happened across several majestic Clydesdales waiting on the side street in preparation for the daily 5:00pm parade through the center of the fairground. We stuck around to enjoy the parade through “town”—a collection of classic cars, local sponsored floats, several high school marching bands and color guard and—stars of the show—the aforementioned Clydesdales.

The Circus Museum
New England Fall Events_The Big E_Circus Museum_Clyde Reynolds_Brooke Evans_Miniature Circus
The sandwich board invited us in.
One of the most delightful exhibits at the fair is also one we nearly missed completely! After 10 hours of fun, we were quickly developing fair fatigue and decided to call it a day. We were walking to our car when we spotted a sandwich board inviting us into the “Clyde Reynolds and Brooke Evans’ Circus in Miniature” and we couldn’t resist a detour.

Housed inside the Hamden Building, this peek into circus history as conveyed through spectacular miniatures was a sight to behold! The museum boasts a number of large and small scale circus scenes which were donated to The Big E from the private collection of native New Englander Clyde Reynolds, a life-long circus lover, collector, and talented model builder himself.

It is here where fairgoers young and old can marvel over tiny, detailed, hand-painted, (and many hand-carved) creations capturing moments in time both under the big top and behind the scenes. Ranging from Mr. Reynolds’ wood-carved Circus Wagon Parade to the diminutive hand-painted recreations of classic circus posters from the Hagenbeck & Wallace side show, you’ll want give yourself time to really take in this splendid exhibit.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Circus Museum_Clyde Reynolds_Brooke Evans_Miniature Circus Parade Wagons
Just a sample of Clyde Reynolds' detailed circus wagons on parade inside The Big E's Miniature Circus Museum. 

Retired carnival manager-turned-model-builder Brooke Evans’ display of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as captured from 1946 is both expansive and breathtaking. With many of the pieces hand-carved, the birds-eye view perspective of the circus in miniature is a fascinating way to understand the true scale and production of a circus.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Circus Museum_Clyde Reynolds_Brooke Evans_Miniature Circus Scenes
A miniature sneak peak into circus life in front of the tent, under the tent, and circus life behind the scenes.

Children will adore peering into these teeny scenes encased by Plexiglas cases. The cases, though, are not at eye level for younger children which means you will get some exercise lifting your little ones up to see the panoramic displays.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Circus Museum_Clyde Reynolds_Brooke Evans_Miniature Circus Scenes_Ringling Bros Barnum Bailey
Miniature Ringling Bros. Circus display
Considering that The Big E hosts an average over 79,000 people daily on their fairgrounds, it was rather surprising that there were just six people browsing the museum when we were there. It is unfortunate that this gem wasn’t on our original “must-see” radar—and we quite nearly missed it altogether-- despite our advance research. In fact, there isn’t much at all about this museum on their otherwise comprehensive website so you’ll just have to see it first-hand. 
One of the absolute treasures of The Big E, we implore you not to miss the Miniature Circus Museum and, if you attend in the evening like we did, you might even have the place to yourself!

Top Tips for Families Attending The Big E

Relaxing in the Farm-a-Rama Exhibit.
If your kids can fit, bring a stroller or a wagon to tow them. With so much physical ground to cover, little legs will wear out fast. Wagons and strollers can be rented for $10-15 but there are no advance reservations and they are rented first-come-first serve.

There is a drop-off area if you don’t plan to park or if you wish to drop off part of your group while your driver parks in a lot down the road.

Bring cash as the parking lots do not accept plastic.

Wear smart, comfortable, durable walking shoes. Leave the flip flops at home.

New England Fall Events_The Big E_Circus Museum_Miniature Circus Model_Clyde Reynolds_Brooke Evans_Lion Tamers
A detailed lion taming scene created
in miniature at the circus museum.
The crowds can be exhausting and overwhelming. Take breaks to rest in the calmer areas on the fairgrounds. We found the calmest areas to be Storrowton Village, the Mallary Complex, and the Coliseum. The Midway, the shopping complexes (the Young and Better Living buildings) the States Buildings, and Farm-o-Rama were the busiest on the Friday we attended. 

If you can attend on a weekday, do. Not only will the crowds and lines be more manageable but you can take advantage of the Midway Magic Pass which includes unlimited midway rides for a more affordable rate (and not available on the weekends).

You can enter the fairgrounds before the exhibits open. By arriving at the exhibits just before they open up at 10:00am you can be one of the first to see some of the more popular exhibits while there is still elbow room.

Painted squash entries at the veggie
display inside the Stroh building.
Popular shows like the Circus Spectacular and the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs can be enjoyed free of charge but there are limited seats (and viewing area) so unless you get there really early, you won’t get into the circus or be able to see the pigs’ tricks. Arriving 10 minutes before the show won’t cut the mustard on a busy day.

The amount of money you spend on food will add up fast. Consider snacking and sharing throughout the day to pace yourself financially and belly-wise.

There are gluten-free options but they may not be as healthful as you want. Plus, some gluten-free options like kettle corn and ice cream aren’t really lunch-worthy or nutritious (though kids won’t complain!). Other options like sirloin tips and salads may not be realistic “kid food”. There is a baked potato station near the food court and another in the Maine Building but Maine’s wildly popular loaded baked potato is also famous for its lines and could involve a 45-90 minute wait in line. Some tacos from the Crows’ Nest Mexican food vendor are gluten-safe and the BBQ pulled pork from the Pork Palace is made with gluten-free rub. In short, you may find gluten-free food for your child but you would be wise to pack a back-up lunch just to be confident.

A goat awaits his afternoon showing
inside the Mallary Complex.
If you don’t live nearby, consider staying overnight to attend over two days and spread out your entertainment. There is a lot to fit in and if your kids insist on midway rides that will eat up a couple hours of your time. The reasonable admission fee makes a two-day event do-able but all the extras—food, midway, purchases will add up.

The shopping extras will also tug at your wallet relentlessly and at nearly every corner of the fairgrounds—face-painting, jewelry, toys, games, etc. For kids who are learning about money, consider allotting each child an allowance for the day to spend how they wish to help you keep a lid on how much you are doling out.

Take advantage of the many interesting demonstrations and countless free exhibits. For kids, Farm-o-Rama is a must and don’t even think of skipping the Miniature Circus Museum. Allow time to browse the Mallary Complex and enjoy learning about and visiting the livestock.
Breathtaking quilts on display inside
the New England Center building.

Remind your children that the livestock are never to be touched or petted, no matter how cute.

The Mallary Complex has bathrooms with warm/hot water taps to get a good hand-washing in!

Kiddieland is the part of the Midway that hosts rides for smaller children—teacups, train rides, carousel, mini swings, etc.-- all for a fee.

There is a Mother’s Nursing Lounge inside the New England Center though we aren’t sure of the level of amenities or comfort you will find.

Sample award-winning local cheese.
You’ll find diaper changing stations in certain rest rooms around the grounds. Baby changing stations are in the ladies’ rooms inside the Young Building, Coliseum, Better Living Center, Visitors’ Center, Food Court, and the New England Center. There are diaper changing stations in the men’s rooms inside the Better Living Center, Visitors’ Center and Food Court. The Mallary Complex and the Moses Building host family bathrooms.

Make sure your family has a plan and knows what to do in the event that anyone is separated from your party. There is a “Lost People Center” at The Big E but it’s best to have a plan in place that your children understand and can follow.

Do yourself a favor by downloading the free Big E app. You can plan ahead, select events to populate your customized schedule, and if you enable the notification setting the app will alert you when events on your schedule are coming up! If there are vendors or attractions on your must-see list you can even customize your fairgrounds map to help you identify what you’d like to see. It’s a very flexible and super useful app. We suggest tinkering with it ahead of time to become familiar with how it can help you and to customize your fair experience.  Find it on iTunes and GooglePlay.

New England Fall Events Top Five Must-Sees for Families
The Miniature Circus Museum… for wonder and charm.

The Mallary Complex… for interesting educational exhibits, animal demos, livestock showings, and an overall calmer environment.

Farm-o-Rama…for farm related displays, small live animals to observe, and interactive exhibits geared towards kids. Try the scavenger hunt!

The Coliseum… consult the schedule to check out the horse showmanship which will delight kids.

The Connecticut Building…for the make-and-take Lego booth and the Dinosaur dig in the rear building.

No comments:

Post a Comment