October flew by and I can’t quite believe it. I’m still eating pumpkin bars with cream cheese frosting and sipping apple cider, mourning the end of my October-long horror movie marathon and pretending the thermometer hasn’t dipped to its lowest point since last year. So, in an effort to hang on to the kinder, gentler fall and stave off the looming shadow of winter, I will revisit one of my favorite fall offerings from a state that is known for them.
The Bloomsburg Fair, held annually in the college town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, is a celebration of all things Columbia County. Conceived as a one-day agricultural display in October and eventually expanded to cover an entire week starting on the third Saturday after Labor Day, it is now the largest agricultural fair in the state. In all its manifestations, the Bloomsburg Fair has been a harbinger of fall in PA since 1855.
I’ve never lived near The Fair*—my father’s job sent us all over and never near Bloomsburg—but its proximity to my parents’ hometown and extended family ensured its presence in my life. My father still talks wistfully of stopping by the Fair for a hearty pancake breakfast before high school football practice. In my adolescence, when we lived a mere 1,000 miles from Bloomsburg, we’d jump in the Ford Explorer and go. After a quick 17-hour jaunt there we were, walking through the 5th street gate to its colored lights and cornucopia of smells. To me it was better than walking into the Chocolate Room in Willy Wonka’s factory. We couldn’t make it every year, but we made it often enough to enrich my memory with a treasure trove of Fair triumphs that span my youth.
As a child I mined for gems in a flume and won a vial of the tiniest gold flakes to take home to my rock collection. At some point in the late 90s—I must’ve been around 10—I rode the Himalaya. I distinctly remember Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba” blaring as I tried in vain to peel myself from the inside wall of the circling ride, uncertain whether or not I was actually having fun. My cousins and I paid the extra admission that privileged us to climb the steps to the Motordrome, an experience that guaranteed Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines would enamor me from the opening scene. Another year, after successfully recovering from a particularly unfortunate misstep that left me dangling by one arm from the rock wall, my cousin graced me with perhaps the greatest compliment he’s ever given me. “That was awesome,” he whisper-yelled, “You looked like Cliffhanger!” I bought Pokémon cards from a carny to feed my preteen addiction. I pretended to be tipsy from my Birch Beer in a Fair Mug. I ate, and ate, and ate.
The summer before I started 8th grade we moved 1,000 miles further away, and the Fair trips dried up. As I completed high school in Texas the Fair became a distant dream. Then, midway through college, my parents surprised me with airline tickets for my birthday. They even hid clues around the house as if they were telling a toddler she’d be making her first trip to Disneyland. I played the part well by turning into a blubbering mess of tears and awed disbelief. I returned in 2010 and 2012 with fresh eyes that allowed me to count the ways I love the Fair.
For one, the Bloomsburg Fair has everything you’ve come to expect from fair entertainment. At one end of the fairgrounds is a midway replete with rides and games. Somewhere in the middle are the racetrack—home to favorites such as the demolition derby and tractor pull—and the Grandstand, booked each night with well-known musical acts from the Country, Rock and Pop genres. Underneath the Grandstand infomercial gurus pitch steamvacs and knives that could cut through the Rock of Gibraltar in one fell swoop. 4-H students show off their prize animals in the barns along the outer fence. Near the other end of the fairgrounds the “freak shows” lure curious kids with the opportunity to see Tiny Tim, the smallest horse, Porky, the world’s largest pig, and sometimes even a snake with a woman’s head. Or is it a woman with a snake’s body? The recently added Skyride, in the same vein as a ski-lift, provides fairgoers a bird’s-eye view while shuttling them from end to end.
Where the Bloom Fair starts to become special is in the red brick exhibit buildings that line Avenue A. For all the growth it has experienced over its 158 years, the Bloomsburg Fair has remained true to its roots as a showcase for local products. The fruits of Keystone State soil and toil adorn the exhibition halls in beautiful and comprehensive array, punctuated throughout by the blues, reds and whites of award ribbons. Vibrant flowers, bonsai trees, table arrangements, wreaths and Christmas trees brighten the Horticultural Building. The Arts & Crafts Building boasts photographs, paintings, needlework, clothing, afghans and quilts, as well as a section for hobbies. The “hobbies” displayed usually manifest in the form of extensive collections, from baseball cards to Hess trucks. The Education Building acts as a kind of science fair wherein kids from area schools can share their projects, to include studies of local wildlife and agriculture. One could easily lose the better part of a day discovering the work in any one of these buildings.
I enjoy perusing all of the aforementioned but my absolute favorite is the Agriculture Building. The long building is lined on both sides and down the middle by every kind of nut, fruit, egg, vegetable, herb, hay, grain, honey, jam, jelly, marmalade and preserve you can think of, and some you can’t. For instance, there are 14 types of tomato listed in the rules and regulations. Can you think of 14 types of tomato? If not, get thee to the Fair and learn a thing or two! As I walk up and down the aisles I am struck not only by the skill required to coax these gifts from the Earth, but the artistry involved in displaying them. Just five stalks of rhubarb tied together, please, and ten ears of corn stacked in a pyramid and bound just so. The utmost care and attention to detail must be paid before seed even hits soil until the entry meets the judge’s eye. It’s a marvel.
Acting as bookends in the building are the Court of Champions—the best and biggest of the group—in the front, and the baked goods contest in the back. The special award pumpkins, sometimes topping out at a thousand pounds, are always a big hit while the contest pies and cakes make me wish I were a judge.
The main attraction for me, however, is the canning exhibit. I am always charmed by the clear jars and their colorful contents. When I was a child I discovered my late great-grandmother’s canned wax beans and beet pickled eggs on the shelf of a dark closet in the corner of the cellar. They may very well still be there. Though I wouldn’t venture a bite of them at this point, I’ve been fascinated by the process ever since. Again there is the skill of preserving and the subtle artistry of the simple yet attractive display. Surveying that exhibit highlights the reasons I fell in love with the Fair: the opportunity to learn about life different from my own, to feel more connected to my country, to understand it better. Now that the word “apple” more commonly refers to a brand of electronics than the fruit in our everyday lives it is easy to believe that Americans on the whole are cut off from the land. But here are people holding to the old ways, benefitting from ingenuity passed down by our pioneering forebears. I aspire to learn from them.
Now, let’s get down to it. Much as I value the educational aspects of the Fair we all know the true lure of any fair worth its salt is the food. Please my palate and we’ll be friends forever, and the Bloomsburg Fair has never let me down. The requisite cotton candy, caramel apples and fried everything—vegetables to candy bars—are present, but here again it is the local gems that shine. Church groups and hunt clubs peddle pillowy potato and cheese-filled pierogies and cabbage and noodle-based haluski, both NEPA** staples with eastern European roots. Comforting warm bowls of hearty ham and bean soup and Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie call to fairgoers in the brisk fall air. The Pennsylvania Dutch stand near the Grandstand offers whoopie pies, pumpkin rolls and creamy sharp cheddar. Near Gate 3 is a stand with a beef ‘n cheddar served on thick slices of bread from a local bakery, a sandwich that would send Arby’s home in shame. All of these are distinct local flavors.
The same can be said for most of my personal favorites. The BBQ sandwich as served in Columbia County, Pennsylvania is not what most people associate with the acronym. Rather, it begins with warm sliced ham, turkey, pork or chicken and is topped with varying types of relish or chow-chow, depending on the restaurant. My go-to is May’s ham BBQ.
My favorite pizza at the Fair is a rare breed that hails from a no kidding blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roadside joint in Nescopeck, PA. I would walk a country mile for this semi-sweet, soft-crusted pizza. There are several locations around the Fair and as long as the sign says Polock’s or Denny & Pearl’s, you’re okay.
The first potato pancake stand you come to after passing underneath or behind the Grandstand has the best potato pancakes I’ve tasted. I spotted large buckets of Lonczynski’s potato pancake batter, a T & L Pierogies product, in the fridge. Some potato pancakes are too bland or too near hashbrowns for me, but these are the perfect blend of potato and onion and salt and pepper and like nothing I’ve had before or since. A word to the wise though: moderation. Last year I was so excited to have a plateful in front of me again that I endeavored to take down my order of five in one sitting, not caring to even attempt to sop up some of the grease. I took a seat on one of the benches in front of the pig barn to finish off the last now cold pancake, and I could have sworn for a moment that I could actually feel my arteries hardening. As I sat there with the smell of the pig barn in my nostrils, my mouth and windpipe coated in grease, convinced I could actually feel my body giving up, I thought, What a way to go.
My estimation of Vince’s Cheesesteaks, based in Allentown, has changed somewhat over the years. It’s not quite what you’d find in Philly. In my opinion, a Philadelphia cheesesteak is best enjoyed simply: meat, cheese and perhaps some onions, if that’s your thing. On the other hand, Vince’s steaks—made with finely chopped knuckle steak that is unspectacular on its own—seem to be enhanced by the plethora of toppings offered. The more the merrier. Many of the people who form the lines in front of Vince’s seem to go all in for onions, peppers, sauce, and even pickles. I still can’t bring myself to sully the glorious cheese. When I was a kid a palpable buzz about Vince’s sent me on a quest across this fair that to short legs seemed to stretch on forever in an unknowable arrangement. Finally stumbling across the busy stand was like finding a lost treasure, a treasure of cascading melted cheese. Truly, the melted white American cheese is the calling card and highlight of a Vince’s cheesesteak. If you think you can get on board with that, Vince’s might be for you. I was in love at first bite. Back then I’d eat anything with the right amount of cheese on it. My tastes have matured… and I don’t know who I’m kidding, I’ll still eat just about anything with cheese. I’m ambivalent about Vince’s these days, but I still check up on my old love from time to time.
The desserts of the Fair are nearly as prolific and just as tempting as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Apple dumpling stands abound but I personally gravitate to Bissinger’s, famous for apple or peach dumplings and cinnamon ice cream, though you may of course order plain vanilla ice cream if you prefer. The line usually wraps around the tent, but it moves quickly.
Just last year I discovered that my favorite donuts from the Hometown Farmer’s Market, Plain ‘N Fancy Donuts of Schuylkill Haven, are not only present at the Fair but have two stands! I nearly cried at the discovery, multipurpose tears of joy, desperation for my stomach that would have to find room for yet another treat, and despair at the thought of my past self walking by these very same stands for years with no idea of the wonders within. Come for a powdered donut so soft, so light, so generously cream-filled, that it converted me from donut indifference to dedicated disciple.
For refreshment the many Kohr’s orangeade stands are unparalleled, although the Benton Cider Mill is a bona fide favorite as well. Starr’s Cider of Millville serves a refreshing cider slush if you’re not already too cold. Birch beer is also readily available throughout though I usually stick to Fair Mug stand. As a kid I was partial to it because they serve a golden variety of birch beer. I suppose its appearance held the same kitschy appeal as candy cigarettes. As an adult I’m thankful for the keepsake of a unique Bloomsburg Fair mug for each year, and the birch is quite good.
What I love about the Bloomsburg Fair are the things that make it uniquely Pennsylvania, uniquely Columbia County. The Fair’s history is mine too, and it runs deeper than our shared experience of my childhood memories. I get a charge from seeing large cauldrons of ham and bean soup behind hand-painted signs. Although I’ve moved around a lot, this is what I come from. It feels like home. Beyond satisfying through the comfort of flavors I grew up with, the local dishes evoke the hard working, dollar stretching perseverance of the immigrants who settled in this region and made it great. Being surrounded by haluski and pierogies makes me proud, as well as hungry. Leave it to me to get all sentimental about food.
I didn’t make it to the Fair this year. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll get back again, but I’m always on my way. If you decide to visit, and I certainly hope you do, have a mug of birch beer for me.
* – So-called in my family because the Bloom Fair is all the fair you’ll ever need.
** – Northeast Pennsylvania region