We spent this week listening in to the sounds of the Erie County Fair.
I Got it!
The sound of an over-modulated PA system, and a guy sitting on a stool grumbling out the numbers of I GOT IT! is a tradition at Western New York lawn fetes, carnivals, and of course the Erie County Fair.
I Got It! was created when a change in state law banned bingo from firehalls.
Orrin “Peck” Catlin took matters into his own hands, building the first eight “I Got It!” units in his Blasdell garage for use at the Big Tree Volunteer fire company.
It was enough like the game of chance bingo to be attractive to the ladies who lined up to play bingo, but also added an element of skill– making it a legal amusement.
That was more than 50 years ago, and we’ve been laying down our quarters to toss those little red rubber balls ever since.
Yelling I GOT IT!… one of the great sounds of the Erie County Fair.
Ramblin’ Lou Schriver
He started pickin’ at barn dances, and started entertaining on the radio in 1947, playing live and recorded music as a disc jockey.
That can, and Ramblin’ Lou’s “Nudie Suit,”with his famous blue jacket emblazoned with an image of Niagara Falls crafted out of sequins by famous County & Western tailor Nudie Cohn, has been one of the most popular displays at the Fair’s Heritage and History Center.
Elvis, Gene Autry, Hank Williams– all regularly wore suits crafted by Nudie Cohn.
Ramblin’ Lou Schriver died at the age of 86 in 2015, but he’s still at the fair in spirit, as the Ramblin’ Lou family band continues to perform daily at the Avenue of the Flags stage.
The Human Block Head (and other oddities)
The oddities shows were once very much a part of the fair.
Melvin Burhardt had a few different acts over the decades. He was “the man with the rubber neck” and spent some time with the Ripley’s Oddotorium as “The Two Faced Man.”
He could contort his face so that half was Happy Melvin– with a raised eyebrow and a smile, and the other half was sad Melvin– with a scrunched eyebrow and a scowl.
The James E. Strates Shows have provided the midway attractions for the Erie County Fair since the 1920s. When Burkhardt joined Strates in 1956, his act was one of 18 sideshows.
He was best known to Erie County Fair goers as one of many “Human Block Heads” who came through the fair. Through the years, there were dozens of people who learned the Nail Head trick of hammering nails, or ramming knives, right into their faces.
It’s not comfortable– but it’s also not actual hammering. You can see the trick explained all over the internet.
There were many acts through the years named Alligator Man or Alligator Boy or Alligator girl– those were people who suffered from ichthyosis, which causes profound scaling of the skin. Tall people with Marfan syndrome. Hairy people with Hypertrichosis.
The human oddities are gone from the fair and most circuses and fairs, in part because of our changing sensibilities, but also because most of what we once considered odd or freakish is not so much anymore– especially when YouTube is filled with great, scientific explanations for the tricks and diseases which people put on display during these shows.
While they are gone and never to return, the oddities and sideshows are a part of the history of the fair that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Demolition Derby & Joie Chitwood
The Demolition Derby has been a final-weekend-of-the-fair tradition for generations.
Billed through the years as “The 100 car Demolition Derby,” “The 200 car Demolition Derby,” and then later as “The World’s Largest Demolition Derby,” through the 50s and 60s, ads in the sports section of the Buffalo Evening News and Courier-Express goaded men on to join with headlines screaming, “WANTED MEN WITH IRON NERVES” and “WANTED… MEN WITH COURAGE TO DRIVE AUTOMOBILES HEAD ON AT 60 MPH CREATING A 120 MPH IMPACT.”
For about as long as there’s been auto racing and auto thrill shows, motor mayhem has been a big part of The Erie County Fair. Joie Chitwood was the original stock car daredevil, and he and Erie County Fair staple for decades.
Joie Chitwood… The Demolition Derby… all kinds of automotive daring… a long standing part of the tradition at the Erie County Fair.
Chef Felix’s pizza truck
Chef Felix’s pizza truck was a fixture at the Erie County Fair for 34 years.
Starting just after World War II, at a time when pizza was far more of an exotic treat than something you could find virtually everywhere. Felix Coniglio dished out whole pies and pizza by the slice as well.
And it was not only the smells of the pizzas cooked right in his truck that filled the midway, but it was his voice, too, coming from a speaker on the side of the truck.
Chef Felix Coniglio was selling pizza pies at the fair after he left the Navy following World War II up until he died in 1992.
Hear these and many other sounds of the Fair at the Erie County Fair’s Heritage & History Center.
Located inside the Fair’s 1885 Octagon Building, the Heritage & History Center opened during the 177th Fair to chronicle over 195 years of agriculture, food, competition and excitement that have come to symbolize the Erie County Fair to generations of Western New Yorkers. Exhibits were curated to showcase the inspiring traditions that have laid the foundation for the present-day Fair as well as reflect the progression of change in our society.
Read more from the Heritage & History Center from the man behind the museum, Marty Biniasz.