In the middle of summer, a ton of people converged on a tiny town in western Pennsylvania. They were there for the Big Butler Fair, which ran from June 27 through July 5, but Ben Roenigk, president of the Big Butler Fair Association, said he believes that all of the people came to welcome a native son home who has made a really big name for himself.
Bret Michaels was born and raised in Prospect, Pa., the small town where the fair has been held for the last 159 years. The fair, known as one of the biggest and best in the state, will celebrate its 160th anniversary next year, said Roenigk. Prospect has a population of only about 1,200 people. "Bret Michaels, from Butler County, came home," he said. "He was the lead singer in Poison and is now on his own. We were all pretty excited."
Michaels was lead singer of the metal band Poison when the band sold over 30 million records worldwide and 15 million records in the United States alone. The band also charted ten singles to the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, including six top 10 singles and the number one single, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn."
Michaels also has several solo albums to his credit, including a soundtrack album to the movie A Letter from Death Row, which Michaels starred in, wrote and directed in 1998, and a classic Poison-style rock album, Song of Life in 2003.
Michaels has appeared in several movies and TV shows, including as a judge on the talent show Nashville Star which led to his country influenced rock album Freedom of Sound in 2005. Michaels was the winning contestant on NBC's reality show Celebrity Apprentice 3 and was also featured in his own reality docu-series, Bret Michaels.
Michaels appeared in a free concert at the fair on July 2, said Roenigk.
Another big entertainment event was the Animal Planet's Gator Boys. The boys, based in Florida, appeared at the fair every day, three times a day, said Roenigk.
And then there was the school bus demolition derby, an event that was introduced at the Big Butler Fair and has been adopted by other fairs across the country.
"The kids – the school kids – love seeing those school buses smashed," said Roenigk, with a chuckle.
The Big Butler Fair was established in 1855, and the first fair was held in 1856 on a plot of land east of the city. The next year, the fair moved to a site near the present location of the Pullman-Stanard plant. Joseph Douthett was the first president of the association and the fair prospered under his direction until activities were curtailed by the Civil War.
In 1856, the Butler Agricultural and Stock Association was formed. The fair went on for eleven years after the war until the Butler Driving and Fair Association replaced the first group. A tract of 33 acres was leased and a half-mile race track was developed.
The Big Butler Fair is the largest fair in Western Pennsylvania and considered by many to be the best fair in the country, said Roenigk. Families come from all over Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia to attend the Big Butler Fair to enjoy fireworks, the midway, games, demolition derbies, concerts and truck pulls. Pittsburgh, for example, is about an hour's drive away, said Roenigk. The Big Butler Fair lost some competition a couple of years ago when the Alleghany Fair closed down, he said. That move may have even helped increase attendance.
Roenigk said that more than 100,000 people attended the 2014 Big Butler Fair, about a 20 percent increase over last year.
The fair today operates on a 150-acre fairground, with food, carnival rides and perpetual fun going on for all nine days of the event With a budget of about $60,000, Roenigk said the fair was advertised on the fair's website, through social media, television and radio. He said they probably went over budget slightly this year because of the extreme effort to advertise.
"The Bret Michaels thing got us all a little more excited," he said.
But there was more than Bret Michaels to get excited about. There was actually something going on every minute, including harness racing and "bike night," which was held on Friday night. Participants could ride their motorcycles into the grandstand through the west gate and their admission to the fairgrounds was free. There was a $5 cost for each motorcycle they brought in.
On Friday, June 27, there was a special concert by The Clarks, billed as "Pittsburgh's superstars." The Clarks are an American rock band that has stayed together for more than 20 years. The Clarks have been musical superstars in and around their hometown of Pittsburgh for years.
There were also antique tractor pulls. Tractor pull competitions included super stock tractors and "smoker" tractors.
There was square dancing on Saturday, June 28, held in the 4H barn. The demolition derby championships were held. Cars with no mufflers and missing parts were allowed to participate as their radiators spewed steam and blown tires belched and fenders buckled under the banging of bumper to bumper collisions.
There was also a "run what ya brung" truck pull and competition. In addition, the big rigs and semi trucks moved in for a truck pull competition. A freestyle motorcross motorcycle event was also featured.
The midway displayed the games and fun of Powers Great American Midways, based in Corfu, New York. Powers combined both of their units for the Big Butler Fair.
Powers Great American Midways is owned by Corky and Debbie Powers. The couple has four children and seven grandchildren, all of them working in the business.
Fourth of July at the fair, of course, featured a spectacular fireworks display by Shively Fireworks. The Y108 Freedom festival featured Joe Diffie and Charee' White as a special guest.
When it was all over, Roenigk said he was a happy man.
"The weather was fantastic," he said. "It was in the high 70s every day. There were afternoons when it got a little warmer but the temperatures always stayed below 90- degrees. Overall, we couldn't be more excited, and we're looking forward to next year."