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Thunderstorms dampen the Great Allentown Fair

10/16/2013

By Linda McNatt

Photo courtesy of

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The crash, boom, bam sound effects at the Zac Brown Concert at the Great Allentown, Pa. Fair on Thursday, Aug. 28 had nothing to do with the musical entertainment.  Rather, it was Mother Nature calling up her troops in the battle of the thunderstorms.

The big storm threatened for most of the day, fair marketing director Bonnie Brosious said. Unfortunately, thunderstorms threatened on most days of the fair. The big one came through on Thursday night, just as Brown's popular band was really rocking. Tickets were $69, and more than 10,000 people attended the event in the grandstands.

"One of the weather people had come through earlier in the concert and told us a big thunderstorm was on the way," she said. "Then, he came back later and said that things had calmed down. Right after that, we started hearing the thunder anPhoto By d seeing the lightning. The storm was back."

Soon after the lightning became apparent, officials started clearing out the grandstands. Six songs shy of finishing the act, Brown's band cleared the stage. More than four inches of rain came down on the fairgrounds, which quickly flooded in the hour's time it took for the storm to finally pass.

Adding to the problem, the streets around the fairgrounds also flooded rapidly, making it difficult for people attending the event to even get out.  "At first, we were hoping we were leaving the stage for a little bit, hoping we could get back," said Brosious. "But when you're 161 years old, you've had it all. You get to see it all."

The Great Allentown, Pa. Fair started in 1852 when the Lehigh County Agricultural Society, the non-profit owner and operator of the fair began operations.
In the early days, fair officials promised to make the object of the fair the improvement and advancement of agriculture, horticulture, livestock, domestic and mechanical arts and the entertainment of the organization's membership and patrons.

Across 46 acres of fairgrounds in Allentown, fair officials continue to reward the achievements of the farmers, gardeners and homemakers. The fair typically attracts more than a half-million visitors each year. Thousands participate in the fair's competitive exhibits.

The fair is in a good position to attract visitors, said Brosious, with a location only 50 miles north of Philadelphia and 90 miles west of New York City.

But, she admitted, this year wasn't the best for attracting record-breaking crowds. In addition to the less than ideal weather, the schools in the area, for the first time anyone could recall, went back to school before Labor Day. The fair started on August 27. Students returned to school on Aug. 26.

Brosious said everybody believes that school officials were thinking about the impact last year of Hurricane Sandy, when students were out of school for so long because of damages from the hurricane.

"Most people aren't going to take their children out of school because of a fair", she said, but one school district adversely affected most of the fair's 4-H members.

"The fair was good, but it was tough," she said.

Still, the midway and concessions did well.

The midway, provided by Power's Great American Midway, featured 21 adult rides and  15 rides for children. There were 44 games, two fun houses and a side show. The advance wristband for rides cost $15 for the day. At the fair, the wristband was $22. Individual ride tickets were four for $5.

And the food was - well, fantastic.

"We've always been thought of as an eating fair," she said. "The carnival had ten food stands and we had 45 independents.

With almost everything - corn dogs, burgers, pizza, cotton candy, funnel cakes, gyros and steak sandwiches on hand. 

One vendor, a local restaurant, was celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Brass Rail introduced the cheese steak sandwich to the area and offered specials on their specialty throughout the fair. 

Another local restaurant, Bissinger's, sold apple and peach dumplings served with vanilla or cinnamon/vanilla ice cream. Bissinger's will be back in 2014, said Brosious.

Admission to the fair this year was $6 for anyone over 12 years old.

The fair advertised within a 100 mile radius of Allentown using an advertising budget of $300,000 and every medium available. Fair officials used television, radio and newspapers.  Digital billboards were used for concerts. The local TV station in Allentown was a great support, said Brosious.

"There are no state fairs in Pennsylvania," she said. "This is equivalent to the state fair."

Most of the exhibits, competitions and displays were free, but there was one exhibit inside of the fairgrounds that officials were at first uncertain about. A butterfly farm charged an admission of $2. Brosious said they're not always sure that people will be willing to pay to get into a fair and then willing again to pay for an attraction, but the butterfly farm was as exception.

Fair visitors were allowed to go into an enclosure to see, touch, even feed the butterflies, and it was an outstanding success, busy for the entire seven days of the fair.

"It went over very well," she said. "All week long, it was very popular."

In a Labor Day tradition, the J&J Demolition Derby was held with its "Crazy Compact Cars." Admission to the derby was $15 for adults and $10 for children.

On Sept. 1, Jeff Dunham, a comedian who utilizes puppets in his act, performed for $49 for adults; $39 for children.

John Mayer, with 2012 American Idol winner Phillip Phillips, was in concert for $46 and $66. Tickets for  Austin Mahone and Bridgit Mendler cost $25 and $39. Toby Keith, another headliner, on Aug. 31, cost $65 and $45.

Luke Bryan set a box office record at the fair last year and performed again this year for $59.

There were cooking contests galore as well as the traditional 4H and FFA exhibits.  An "American Frontier" element of the fair included Wolves of the World, racing pigs and Paul Bunyan lumberjack shows.

Despite the weather and a school schedule that didn't always seem to cooperate, the party of the year came together in Allentown.

"There are things you can control, things you can't control," said Brosious. "You can't control the weather. So you do what you can and go on with the show."

The 2014 Great Allentown, Pa. Fair will be held from Aug. 26 through Sept. 1.

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