The story of the 100 years of the Ephrata Fair is really a microcosmic story of a century of American history.
The fair began as a welcome-home celebration for World War I veterans. A little more than two decades later, it welcomed home veterans of World War II. The fair survived the tuberculosis scare, though shady characters capitalized on peoples’ fears with sideshows such as the “Lady in the Iron Lung.” The fair rolled on through the flame-up and eventual cooling of the American automobile industry — at one time new model Chevrolets, Fords, Chryslers and Hudsons lined Main Street. Before radios and televisions were omnipresent, politicians made their stump speeches at the fair.
The story of the 100 years of the Ephrata Fair is a story about a community coming together to celebrate itself, to sustain itself and to entertain itself.
Trying to make sense of that story with words and pictures was a big task, and without the right editors, designers and writers, images and anecdotes would go spinning by like a carnival ride. When the 100th Anniversary Committee of the Ephrata Farmers Day Association approached local authors and historians Larry Alexander and Phil Eisemann to write the lion’s share of the 256-page “100 Years of the Ephrata Fair: Honoring the Past and Celebrating the Future,” they couldn’t have picked two more passionate people.
Alexander has several historical nonfiction books to his credit and is currently working on a historical fiction novel. Eisemann, a regular contributor to the Ephrata Review, conducted more than 50 interviews for this project. The result is a collection culled from historical research and oral history.
I sat down with Alexander and Eisemann in Eisemann’s home on East Main Street in Ephrata to talk about the historical significance of the Ephrata Fair, their own memories of fairs gone by and the future of the fair.
Can you tell me some of your childhood memories of the Ephrata Fair?
Larry: I remember watching the kids at the Key Club. The initiation was you got behind this canvas backdrop with a hole and they threw tomatoes at you. ... Every year they had guys there getting their faces splattered with tomatoes.
Phil: I’ll add to that. In 1958, I was a member of the Key Club and we were anxious for money to go to the Pittsburgh Key Club convention. A friend and I came up with that idea. So I got to be the first person to stand behind that sign and I was pelted with tomatoes for my 20 minutes and then I went home. I lived right across the street, but by the time I got home I was covered in hives from head to foot. I didn’t realize then that I was allergic to tomatoes.
What are some of the highlights of the fair for both of you?
Larry: The parade. Of course, at one time it was the rides. When I was a kid, we used to have “Kiddie’s Day” every Thursday (during Fair week). We used to have a half-day off from school and they gave us sheets of tickets for free rides. We’d go downtown and we’d spend these free ride tickets. And when we ran out, we’d go looking for Sgt. Harold Greenly, the policeman. He’d have spare tickets and ice cream. You’d get another sheet of tickets and you got a Popsicle. And you’d go out and spend them and you’d go back and you’d get more tickets. You weren’t supposed to get another Popsicle, but sometimes he’d give you one. And you could do that until the tickets were all gone. And they did that for years. They gave out a phenomenal amount of tickets.
Phil: It’s such an integral part of the history of this community. I’ve volunteered with the Ephrata Lions at the bingo stand and I used to be in the fire company and we’d wash down the street after the fair was over. I’ve always been involved in the exhibits. I always enter something in the exhibits. I whittle, so I put a piece of woodwork in every year. My sister-in-law puts a sweater in every year.
And I see people I know. They come here to Ephrata for that week to get together. It’s just so much a part of this community.
Can you tell me about the process of writing this book?
Larry: I did more of the history end of it. I was researching at the historical society and going through old Ephrata Reviews and books. Phil did a lot of the grunt work as far as interviews.
Phil: I did 56 interviews of people involved in the fair or just to get their perspectives on the fair. What I wrote was from the research I did from those interviews.
What sort of interesting things did you discover during your research?
Phil: I became absolutely fascinated with the FFA (Future Farmers of America) and the 4-H, and how much these kids are involved in, not only raising these animals, but also in showing people around, and in participating in the fair. This is something they work for all year. And you have like three generations in families who’ve displayed animals here in Ephrata. These people are passionate about this.
Also what interested me is there is not a single fair. There are three. How I found this out is at the end of every interview I’d say: “Bill Gates comes to town this year and he’s walking around and he says, ‘This is really great.’ And he says, ‘I’ll write you a check for $5 million that you must spend on the fair.’ How would you spend it?”
The carnival people say: “We just pay the debts and we’ll keep things going downtown and make sure it doesn’t change.”
The agricultural people say: “We’re going to go out and buy ground and have a fairground so we don’t have all this moving in and out.”
The parade people say: “We going to hire the Mummers and the Blue Band.”
So, it’s not a single fair. It’s three fairs: the carnival, the parade and the agricultural, and they happen to function at the same time.
Larry: What I found that was interesting was just the evolution of the fair. The very first one, most of it was on the sidewalks and in shop windows. They strung Japanese lanterns across town for lighting. They’d build a bandstand and have girls dress up in patriotic costumes and play patriotic songs and all this quaint entertainment, which they took very seriously. The stands originally faced the sidewalks because we had trolley cars running up and down the street. That was until 1947. When the trolley service ended and the tracks were ripped up, they flipped the stands around and now people can go into the street.
It started out as two days, then went to three, then four, then five because they could get more state funding. That’s why Lloyd Gerhart, the president of the fair forever…
Phil: And mayor forever.
Larry: And mayor forever. He went to a fifth day because they qualified for more state funding that way. Sometime in the ‘70s I believe it was. But just how it evolved. Rides started to appear. Early rides were at the parking lot where the post office is. It was called the Owl Lot, because the Owls, a fraternal club, had a clubhouse there.
And some of the things that they would do to try to make it interesting. Like after World War II, it was a pretty patriotic thing, they had war planes strafing the town, to show the people. But they couldn’t come in as low as they wanted to because of insurance purposes. They did demonstrations like that.
And how the agricultural end grew and they moved it down to the park. It used to be in a lot where the Main Theater is, but in 1968 it became Tent City.
What were some of the other big changes in the fair over the years?
Larry: The idea is to keep the young people interested. And that’s been becoming an increasing struggle. They’re trying to go more social media now.
Phil: Another big change in the fair is that until the early ‘60s, this was a must-go place for any political candidate. We used to have U.S. senators come here and hold Democrat and Republican rallies. One night a week was a political rally for each party. They’d give two-hour speeches.
The Ephrata Fair is billed as the largest street fair in the state. Are there numbers to back that up?
Phil: That was kind of a joke. I picked that up from talking to people. Every year Lloyd Gerhart, the mayor, (said) it went up 10,000 (people).
Larry: He rode in the parade in the lead car…
Phil: Or on a horse…
Larry: And he’d tell you how many people were there. He’d say, “I count the feet and divide by two.” But I think Lloyd was the driving force behind the fair for many years. He was president of the fair commission for like 47 years.
The Ephrata Fair seems like the place to go if you want a real feel for Lancaster County culture.
Larry: One of the things I think is interesting is that some of these stands keep coming back. The Farm Women’s stand was one of the first food stands in 1919 – and it’s still there. It was sold to the Hinkletown Mennonite Church. The Farm Women were aging and they weren’t getting new members so they put it up for sale. The Hinkletown Mennonite Church bought it and for two years they co-ran it until the Farm Women backed out.
Phil: And every year they make their clam patties. They take a sample of that clam patty mix to one of the Farm Women to taste because when they bought that stand, they bought the recipe for that clam patty, and these women want to make sure it meets their standards.
Larry: And the Akron Lions have been there for at least 75 years. The money they make that week funds all their programs for the year.
Phil: Two and a half tons of French fries…
Larry: And that’s just the Akron Lions.
Phil: 14,000 toasted cheeseburgers. The statistics are mind boggling.
How else does the town benefit from the fair?
Larry: Well, of course the Farmer’s Day Association donates its profits (to the) ambulance, the fire company, stuff like that. So, it comes back to the community. One year they bought the hospital a new van. They helped fund the expansion way back in the ‘60s.
Phil: The money coming into the community from that is pretty spectacular.
Larry: The Lloyd Roland Park in Akron was built with fair money.
Phil: But there’s also the sense of community that comes out of it.
Larry: The one thing I really like about the fair is the fact that I can go and see people I have not seen for years.
Phil: It’s a reunion.
Phil, I saw one of the articles that you wrote for the Ephrata Review about the hucksters that would come to the fair.
Phil: Evidently the snake oil salesmen were here up until the Food and Drug Administration got after them, which would’ve been after the Second World War. I can remember that for years and years. Starting in the early ‘50s and into the early ‘60s, the only place you could get a tattoo in Lancaster County was at the Ephrata Fair. There was a tattoo artist that was halfway up North State Street. Just for the fair. He had a tent and he came in and he did tattoos here at the fair.
There was also the Lady in the Iron Lung. When I was a kid, everybody was terrified of tuberculosis. One kind of tuberculosis attacked the lungs and they would put the patient in a big tube with a big air pump on the end that would expand and contract the lungs and then the person could breathe. So there was a big white van and a nurse standing there and you’d walk in and you’d have to give a contribution and there was this woman lying in the iron lung and you could look at her. Well, of course, I knew from Bob Good whose father owned the hotel that she and the nurse spent the night in the room at the hotel. So it was completely bogus. Then that disappeared. Then Hitler’s car appeared!
Phil: For about six or seven years, Adolf Hitler’s Mercedes Benz was down there.
One guy lived right around the corner here and his job when he was a little kid was to help a guy who had big stuffed cats – maybe 2 feet high – and you could throw a ball and if you knocked a cat over you would win. OK, so his job was to stand behind there and work the wires that kept the cats from falling over. So, you’d take the wires down and the (game operator) would knock ‘em down and say, “See, it’s easy to do.” Then you’d work the wires again and …
Larry: I remember one year the police shut down several stands. They would get you in to play a game and then they’d bait you to bet more and more. They shut a couple of those down one year.
The subtitle of the book is “Honoring the past, celebrating the future.” What do you see for the future of the fair?
Phil: The future of the fair, as far as I’m concerned, is nebulous. Unless we really want it, it’s not going to happen. It’s economically becoming less and less viable. When I talked to the Akron Lions and the Ephrata Lions, I was one of the young guys, and I’m 77. Service clubs are dying all over. And generations aren’t following through on service clubs. This could be the death-knell of something like the Ephrata Fair. Unless we want it, it won’t happen.
Larry: The (members of) Fair Association are all over middle age, I think there are very few that would be under 40. You hope that the younger people in their families would pick it up. I think the community still likes it. People are still going out to it, and I think they would miss it if it were gone.
Phil: Most people don’t realize just how much work goes into it.
Larry: (The fair) shuts down Saturday and Monday they are back planning the next one.
“100 Years of the Ephrata Fair: Honoring the Past and Celebrating the Future” by Larry Alexander and Phil Eisemann is a limited edition hardcover book available for $32. For more information and to order a copy visit www.ephratafair.org.