The Big E: New England's Great State Fair
Each fall brings to western Massachusetts one of the most highly anticipated events of the year, the annual New England Great State Fair, otherwise known as The Big E. Started back in 1917, The Big E is a 17 day extravaganza of exhibits, entertainment, agriculture, and of course food. With something for everyone, it’s no wonder that The Big E now draws over one million visitors annually to one of the country’s oldest and most revered fall festivals.
With its long and rich tradition, The Big E has transformed itself over the years to really become one of the largest and most visited attractions here in Massachusetts. The Big E is currently the sixth largest state fair in the country and the largest on the east coast.
Originally conceived by Joshua Brooks as a means of showcasing and expanding New England’s agricultural base, the 175-acre site in West Springfield was purchased early in the 20th century and developed with cattle barns and a Coliseum. When a group of New England businessmen convinced the National Dairy Show to move their annual fair from Chicago to West Springfield in 1916 the site was christened with its first event.
The following year the very first Eastern States Exposition was held and the fair has been held every year since except for interruptions by the two World Wars. Over the next few decades the fair thrived and in an effort to make it a truly New England event each state constructed a building that would display it products, culture and heritage. This was the creation of the Avenue of States, one of the more popular attractions at The Big E.
Today, The Big E takes place over seventeen days starting on the second Friday after Labor Day. The fair is held on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition and is located in West Springfield, Massachusetts just over the Connecticut River from downtown Springfield.
Avenue of States
The Avenue of States is the area of the exposition grounds where each New England state has its own building. The building and land that they sit on actually belong to the individual states so this is the only place where someone can visit all six New England states within a few minutes.
Come Big E time the buildings become a hub of activity as each state puts its best foot forward in displaying their wares and unique native foods. If you are in the mood for a baked potato then by all means head to the Maine state building. Have a hankering for fried clams or Del’s Lemonade, then head to the Rhode Island building. Looking for tourist information about Cape Cod, then stop into the Massachusetts building. Each state really goes all out to promote the best that they have to offer. It’s a great way to discover all six New England states in one convenient location.
A big part of The Big E has always been centered around animals and the numerous livestock displays on hand. This continues the fair’s tradition and farming roots from the early days of the exposition. Toward this end, there is an entire building, the Mallory Complex that is dedicated to housing farm animals including sheep, goats, cows, pigs and chickens.
For the kids there is a petting zoo and they also put on smaller-scale pony and dog show. The 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) are also very active at the Big E with over 7000 participants. It’s a wonderful site to see so many young kids and adults who have a passion for farming and taking care of the livestock.
Farm-A-Rama, located in the Stroh Building continues with the agriculture theme with a chick hatchery, giant pumpkins from throughout New England, and the famous Hallamore Clydesdale's that take part in The Big E daily parade. If you've never seen a Clydesdale up close and personal they are amazing animals and worth a visit.
Farm-A-Rama gives kids and adults the opportunity to touch the animals and it's a great place to see how the animals are cared for. You can watch sheep being sheared and witness hundreds of chicks being born in the hatchery. It's a great place for kids to learn what is involved in caring for animals and to respect our four legged friends.
Food is certainly one of the big attractions at The Big E and there is plenty of it here to enjoy. From the New England State buildings offering their favorite local fares to the over 140 food locations throughout the grounds you will never go hungry at The Big E. Famous for its original Craz-E Burger, this concoction takes a bacon cheeseburger and sandwiches it between the two halves of a glazed donut. Go figure! And if dessert is your thing then try one of The Big E’s famous Cream Puffs or The Big Éclair.
No matter what your taste buds desire, you are certain to find it here at the Big E. In honor of the 250th anniversary of the creation of the Sandwich, The Big E proudly boosts that it offers 250 different sandwiches for you to sample. If you leave The Big E hungry you have no one to blame but yourself.
Entertaining the masses is a high priority at The Big E and they do not disappoint in this respect.
The Mardi Gras Parade is a much anticipated daily event and the Court of Honor Stage holds daily concerts that are free to all.
Look for the Big Top on the grounds and you've found the Big E Super Circus that gives three free shows daily.
And if all of this is not enough there is the Comcast Arena with a seating capacity of 6,000 for open-air weekend concerts. Past shows have included Chris Daugherty, Destiny’s Child, Willey Nelson, Brad Paisley, Jessica Simpson, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, and American Idols Jordan Sparks.
Up until a few years ago the concerts were free but with such big names coming to town and the demand far exceeding the capacity of the venue they now sell tickets to these marquee events. Get your tickets early!
Mardi Gras Parade
If you love horses then you are in for a treat as The Big E hosts three horse shows. Whether it’s Hunter/Jumpers, Saddle Horses, or the big, beautiful draft horses, there is a show for you. The draft horses will amaze you with their brute strength as they drive their wagons across the coliseum. And don’t forget to pay a visit to my personal favorites, the Clydesdales.
Rides and Games
What kind of fair would it be if they didn't have the Midway for kids of all ages? If rides and games are your thing then head to The Big E’s North American Midway to be spun, flipped, and twirled around on your favorite rides. With rides for kids of all ages as well as adults there is something here to satisfy every thrill seeking adventurous soul.
If you’re in a shopping mood then there is plenty for you at The Big E as hundreds of vendors line the streets and walkways of the fair grounds.
Many local businesses from throughout New England will setup shop here to sell their goods. You can find a wide variety of items ranging from clothing to household goods to state-specific items.
Two large buildings on the fair grounds are dedicated to vendors. The Better Living Center is the largest and contains vendors selling home improvement, cooking and other household wares.
The International Building is where you will find vendors selling multi-culture items including imported goods from Italy and Ireland in keeping with New England’s diverse cultural background.
Big E Info
- Most exhibits and buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Tickets are $15 but coupons are available from many sources.
- Kids 6 - 12 are $10
- Age 5 and under are free
- Monday to Thursday is Six after Five, tickets are $6 after 5 p.m.
The Big E truly is a wonderful collaboration of the best that New England has to offer. The attendance numbers every year are a testament to the popularity and diversity that this annual event brings to the region. If you are looking for a great day of fun, food, culture and entertainment then plan on spending a day at New England’s Great State Fair.
Aerial View of the Eastern Exposition Grounds
Other Articles on New England by the Author
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© 2013 Bill De Giulio