As I stood in line to enter the Barnstable County Fair, a thick blanket of grey clouds hung low in the sky. The wind was strong and rather cold. There was a slight drizzle, which threatened to turn into something more disruptive, and, because I arrived just as the fair gates were opening, the crowd was sparse. Yet, I was incredibly excited to be there. And, judging from all of the energized kids running around me, I was not alone in my state of ebullient anticipation. Since as long back as I can remember, the sight of a ferris wheel arching high up over the skyline has always thrilled me. The county fair – with its deep fried treats, rusted, neon-covered rides, moist-eyed farm animals, and exhausted, chain-smoking carnival workers – is an age-old summer tradition that I look forward to every year.
Upon entering the fairgrounds, I like to make a loop around the place to see what’s going on and to map out in my mind all that I’d like to do, but I didn’t make it very far before I saw 5 black bears pacing up and down in a cage right next to a sign that read: “The Great Bear Show at Noon.” I was horrified. Haven’t we, in today’s enlightened/sanitized era, done away with spectacles of animal cruelty, just as we have dropped the freak shows featuring bearded ladies and conjoined twins? So, out of my discomfort and curiosity, I decided to stick around. Before the show started, Arena Rock blared over two large speakers while the paunchy and tired-looking Bob Steele, the man behind The Great Bear Show, outfitted in a soiled tan uniform, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, fed each bear its own pre-performance sweet potato snack. His assistant Amber sat smoking behind a folding table strewn with a variety of bear-related mementos that audience members were later invited to purchase.
The show began with Steele delivering a brief lecture about the different types of bears found in North America, their mating and feeding habits, and how The Great Bear Show rescues bears that would not make it in the wild. But the children were growing restless. They wanted to see bears, not learn about the Grizzly’s gestation period. So, soon enough, the bears were brought out of their cage with chains around their snouts and placed so that they are all sitting upright in large wire chairs. While each bear individually performed tricks (such as waltzing and riding a push scooter) Steele repeatedly told the audience that bears are playful and agile, so these tricks were just another part of the natural tempramant of bears. As a 400 pound black bear stood on its back legs balancing on a large ball, Steele said that, “The ball was similar to bear playing on a rock in the wild.” Oh, really?Just like in the wild, you say? Am I supposed to buy this? But the children around me loved it. They were enthralled. But I was disheartened. Steele seemed good-natured enough, but he is running a for-profit operation and, let’s just say, the whole thing left a terrible taste in my mouth. Let’s hope there is no Great Bear Show next year.
Needing to shake of the moral implications of witnessing a bear ride a scooter, I headed off to less treachurous ground. I first started with the wonderful Flower Show, which is full of beautiful entries from exhibitors all around Massachusetts.
After relaxing amongst the gorgeous, elegantly displayed flowers, I headed over to the petting zoo area to spend some quality time with the horse, bunnies, sheep, and others barn animals – all happily chewing hay in their stalls.
I also stopped to check out the sheep – many of whom were newly shorn and wearing these incredibly endearing hooded jackets that made them look like little sheepy superheros.
I also was lucky enough to stumble upon a ram judging content, which was extremely entertaining. All these glorious and cacophonous black-faced rams were being posed and trotted about for the judges. They all looked the same to me – mostly like they’d rather be doing anything else but this – yet, alas, there must always be winners and losers, even in the barnyard.
After spending an extended gawking session amongst the amazing variety of chickens, I took a long time marveling at the wonderful quilts, hooked rugs, photographs, and vegetables that locals had, after much creativity, time, and hard work, produced and entered into the many various fair competitions.
Once I was filled up to the brim with good wholesome entertainment, I headed to the rides and games section of the fair. This part of the fairgrounds is full of packs of teenagers unencumbered by parental supervision and, thus, able to laugh, flirt, and sulk to their heart’s content.
The rides and the games are exactly the same as they have been since I was a kid. My favorite and most dreaded of all the rides is the Zipper. Designed in 1968, and a mainstay at most carnivals around the country, the Zipper is a neck snapping, g-force fueled, scream-inducing experience.
This ride terrified me as a child and even now, as the snug metal mesh car I was encased in began to ascend, I was full of regret. “Why am I here?” I thought to myself. In 2006, two young Minnesotan girls were flung out of the ride when the door to one of the Zipper cars flew open because it was not properly secured. I thought of them as the ride began – seeing myself sailing out into the heavens after being spit from this rusted contraption. But soon enough, as my car began to spin and spin, and my skull crashed and banged in the tiny enclosure, I was too full of fear and joy to think about much of anything. And even now, I’m quite sure I will find myself paying the $5 (!!) to experience the same thrilling trauma next year and the year after that.
In an attempt to recover from the Zipper, I walked around the very empty games area – each stall manned by weary and ashen-colored carnival workers with nary a customer in sight. I’m sure that once nighttime comes, everyone gets bustling and hustling, but while I was there, it was strangely quiet. But, as I have gone way passed the years when I longed for large stuffed animals, I decided to focus my energies on honoring my annual fair tradition of eating a large quantity of sugar-coated fried dough.
So, full, frazzled, and totally satisfied, I left. All and all, starting with the dancing bears and concluding with some bone crushing rides, the Barnstable County Fair is just what I expect from a small town carnival – a mixture of sweet and unsavory, risk and reward, and an absolute must-do event every time it comes to town.
The Barnstable County Fair is on from July 17-25, so today’s the last day! And it is sunny and perfect weather for taking in the fair. The traffic will be epic and the crowds will be overwhelming, but it will be an experience to remember.
Admissions are $10 for adults and children under 12 get in for free with a paying adult. Ride tickets cost $1 each and most of the rides are 5 tickets each – making them a pretty expensive cheap thrill. But some are worth it.