WEST SPRINGFIELD — A middle-age man with a sleeve of tattoos zipped down a long aisle of food stands on a razor scooter, past fluorescent signs for funnel cake and deep-fried chicken parm balls.
Over the blaring 70s music, workers in lederhosen and retro-style diner uniforms hawked T-shirts, bumper stickers, toe rings, and bedazzled cowboy hats. In line for the Ferris wheel, a gaggle of face-painted teenagers held sticks of pink and blue cotton candy. A young girl in a tie-dye shirt sat on her Dad’s shoulders, filming horses with a selfie stick.
After a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, The Big E is back in all its glory, from amusement park rides to petting zoos to a vast array of downright decadent food.
Known as New England’s “Great State Fair,” the region’s largest agricultural event on Thursday drew a spirited crowd eager to celebrate the start of the fall season and the return of a beloved tradition.
“It’s nice to see people — especially happy people,” said Butch Scranton, 78, who was in a tent selling stickers of everything from scantily clad women and guns to children’s cartoons and puppies. “I can tell people are extra happy this year. They’re all smiling.”
Last year was the first fall in 15 years that Scranton wasn’t at The Big E. This year, the crowds aren’t as big, and Scranton worries “it’ll never be the same.”
But while the pandemic has changed many things, fairs “will still be a part of our new normal” and will remain a fixture in American life, he said.
“People will always need to get out and enjoy themselves,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s in the open air.”
Nearby, Amber Erickson, 26, of Springfield, was smiling ear to ear at Porky’s Pork Palace. The fair is nostalgic for her; she grew up coming to The Big E and has worked at Porky’s for five years.
“I just love the people here, and I love watching people enjoy themselves and just have a good time,” she said. “I’m happy to be back.”
At the livestock display, the smell of deep-fried chicken faded away. Elizabeth Almeida, 41, and her daughter Elena, 10, were watching chicks hatch in a massive incubator. A sign said that 28,800 eggs will hatch over the course of the 17-day event, which runs through Oct. 3.
“They’re cute and funny,” Elena said of the chicks. She felt lucky to miss school to come to the fair.
“It was worth skipping school for,” said Almeida, a mushroom farmer from Westford who received an award for her agricultural photography at the fair that morning. “We love seeing all the animals and the quintessential New England agriculture displays.”
Also taking a day off from school was Charles Dean, a sophomore at Northwestern Regional High School in Connecticut. He was among some 50 students in letterman-style jackets representing the school’s Future Farmers of America organization. Dean and his fellow classmates visited the fair to promote their organization and meet local farmers.
They also had a lot of fun.
“It’s amazing,” Dean said. “It’s a little sweaty, but it’s very fun and cool to experience all this.”
The festival is located in Hampden County, which has the state’s lowest vaccination rate, and some patrons wore masks even outside. The event asks people not to attend if they’re feeling sick, and face coverings are required indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Also spending their day off at the fair were Eleanor Magalis-Hempstead, 65, and her niece Crystal Clay, 45. They came from New London, Conn., because The Big E is one of a kind, they said.
“It’s so big,” said Magalis-Hempstead of an event where donuts are sold by the bucket and people line up for Maine potatoes. “The fairs we have in Connecticut are way smaller.”
At Big E, “there’s something for everyone,” Clay said, holding a stuffed animal she won at the Water Wars game.
On this day, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito took in the sights as well, greeting people and taking selfies before attending a dedication ceremony for Andy Yee, a prominent western Massachusetts restaurant owner who died in May.
“[Yee] was one of those people that could create joy in any setting, in any circumstance, and he did it time and time again for every single minute that he was on Earth,” said Baker, surrounded by Yee’s family.
Yee loved The Big E, his family said as they shared a toast with Baker and Polito. It’s upbeat and joyful, just like him.
“What a way to spend a Thursday!” a man exclaimed as they washed down their beer.
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.