Written by Jack Garland Thursday, 12 September 2013 00:00
The annual Mineola Fair in the heart of the village celebrates a tradition stretching back several centuries.
In his book The Mineola Fair, author James Carpenter reports that the colonists of Queens County arranged for an annual gathering as early as 1692. In 1841, almost 60 years before Nassau County was established, the Queens County Agricultural Society was formed and hosted this event at various locations. In 1866, the society was granted use of acreage in Mineola, which became home to the fair for a good part of its existence.
Today, Mineola’s ZIP code outlines the boundaries of the original fairgrounds: Old Country Rd. south to Eleventh Street, and Washington Avenue west to County Seat Drive. A huge racetrack, grandstand, and stables were located along the east side. The rest of the landscaped site featured an assortment of exhibition buildings as well as scenic shady areas. Although the artistic design of the fairgrounds rivaled that of many large municipal parks, beauty and serenity were probably not too evident when thousands of people crowded in to enjoy the lively annual event.
I remember the fair of five or six decades ago, and, through my parents memories, the fairs of 70 or 80 years ago. My parents recalled the annual appearance of Gypsies (seemingly, out of nowhere) during the Fair. These enterprising individuals would congregate with their horses and wagons along the north side of Old Country Road to sell food and souvenirs, and to tell fortunes. Although they added exotic flair, their activities contributed to the congested traffic and not to the revenue of the Agricultural Society. By the 40’s, the Gypsies were gone.
In the 40s and 50s, the Mineola Fair took place during the final days of summer. For young school children, we could think or talk of nothing else.
A typical day at the fair would start with a trek through the farm machinery exhibits and competitive displays of livestock, pies, crafts, preserves, needlework, poultry, and flowers, each location having its own characteristic aroma. The midway was garish, noisy, and, to me, just a little frightening. It would typically feature a “freak show” and assorted games of chance that my dad would refer to as “Sucker Street.” Without a doubt, though, my favorite attractions were the rides.
The 1950 season of the Fair was an important one for me because I knew I was finally old enough (six) to go beyond the kiddy rides and carousel to the “really good” rides and we would just walk home when we were ready.
After we had consumed several cotton candies and had seen all the exhibits and attractions, it was time to check out the serious rides. We decided to skip the Caterpillar, and started with The Whip. Next, we boarded the Tilt-a-Whirl, and the operator generously provided a long ride. I was walking from the ride jabbering away when I noticed my sister’s face had acquired a greenish-purple color the sky gets just before a thunderstorm. She could barely stand, much less navigate. There was no doubt that our day at the Fair had ended. Mary recovered in time to join the entire neighborhood by the “birdhouses” at the south end of Berkley Road to view the Fair’s nightly fireworks display.
One year, there was a widely promoted appearance by TV puppet Howdy Doody’s two sidekicks, Clarabelle the Clown and Buffalo Bob Smith. The outdoor stage for this performance looked like a boxing ring without the ropes, and, at show time, it was surrounded by hundreds of us young fans waiting to see our favorite TV stars in the flesh. In a classic bait and switch, they put someone into a clown suit and face paint who created a pretty convincing Clarabelle, especially the signature pressurized seltzer bottle. Buffalo Bob, however, was an unknown actor dressed up in buckskins. Except for the fact that he (and the first six rows of audience) ended up getting drenched with seltzer, he bore no resemblance to the real Buffalo Bob seen each day on television. Everybody noticed and nobody cared.
Although the fairgrounds hosted such off-season functions as sulky horse racing and military drills, during most of the year the land remained idle. Over the years, pieces of the valuable property were chipped away for other uses. In
1934, the Cow Barn near the northwest corner of the grounds was transformed into the popular Mineola Skating Rink, a business that remained in operation until 1960. In 1939, construction began on the trio of buildings we now know as the New Courthouse. A familiar sight at the south end of the fairgrounds was the lineup of red and yellow busses belonging to the Hempstead Bus Company; an automobile exhibit hall had become its maintenance shop.
One year later, in 1952, shortly before the fair, a mysterious object appeared in the sky. It was actually an unmanned, tethered blimp. To our young eyes, it had the scale of the Hindenburg, but it was probably less than one hundred feet in length. As we took a better look, we could make out along the side of the object the word, “IKE”. Gen. Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower was scheduled to make a speech at the fair that evening.
“IKE” gloriously floated toward the stratosphere, slowly deflated, and gently returned to earth, draping itself across a back yard in Garden City.
At the closing of the 1952 season, a glorious 86-year tradition came to an end in order to make way for additional county buildings. The Fair moved a couple of miles east to Roosevelt Raceway where, combined with an “Industrial
Exhibition”, it continued its success for several years as the Mineola Fair, but in name only.
For a tranquil rekindling of memories, I recommend the Old Bethpage Village Restoration where you can, once again, visit a portion of the old fairgrounds. Included in this historical collection of buildings is a huge, cruciform replica of
Exhibition Hall, one of the Mineola Fair’s first structures. In addition, the actual superintendent’s office and some of the stables have been transplanted from the original fairgrounds to this beautiful rural setting. After almost two centuries of being a gypsy in its own right, the Queens County Agricultural Society is alive and well. It has added Nassau and Suffolk to its name and sponsors what it calls the “Long Island Fair” at the Restoration, its current home.
Perhaps the best way to re-live the Mineola Fair, though, is to go to the Mineola Fair! It’s great to see a large, enthusiastic crowd in the downtown area each year, and….. um….. Could someone please direct me to the cotton candy?