The Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y. and its midway provider, Strates Shows, are on track to make history in eight years. In 2024, this long-time partnership will result in the first centennial of a carnival company and a fair.
"Strates Shows and the Strates family are delighted to be part of the time-honored tradition of the Erie County Fair," said E. James Strates, President, Strates Shows. "In 1924, when my father signed the first contract, little did we know or expect that nine decades later the relationship would still be flourishing and growing. There is a bond between not only the show and the fair, but with independent operators, agricultural people, the local community and our many lifelong friends. It's an unbroken tradition that few fairs and carnivals share."
Strates, who at 86 has never known a summer that he did not spend on the midway in Hamburg, a Buffalo suburb, told Carnivalwarehouse, that the deal was "not about money, it was about family."
The Erie County Agricultural Society extended its contract with the Strates Shows Inc. by 10 years - through 2026 - at a signing ceremony in April on its fairgrounds. On hand were three generations of Strates family members, E. James Strates, his son John Strates and grandson Nick Strates and representatives of the Erie County Fair. "We are pleased to have secured a long-term relationship with the Strates Shows," said Dennis R. Lang, CEO & Erie County Fair Manager. "For the past 91 years, the Strates Shows has provided Western New York with an exceptionally entertaining and safe family experience."
Lang echoed the sentiment expressed by Strates that the tightly knit relationship between the fair and carnival company was a close family. "Beyond just a contractual relationship, we truly regard the Strates as part of the Erie County Fair family. The 10 year contract means that the Strates Shows will be part of the Erie County Fair beyond their 100th anniversary with us," said Lang. "We look forward to a centennial celebration with Strates in 2024."
According to Robert Johnson, President of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the relationship between the Strates Shows and the Erie County Fair is the longest continuous run - by more than a decade - of any carnival midway in the United States. The next longest run would be 84 years between Reithoffer Shows and the Delaware County Fair in Walton, New York, he said.
"2024 seems like a long way away, but I'm sure that their 10 year contract, just renewed will continue to make Strates Shows the first carnival in the mobile amusement industry to have a 100 year contract," Johnson told Carnivalwarehouse.
He added, "I can't think of another carnival operator in the United States with a longer run than what the Erie County Fair has with Strates," said Johnson. "It's rare in modern business times to see such a strong relationship. It is a tribute to the Erie County Fair and the Strates family. The Strates Shows ongoing commitment to quality, safety and innovation, added to its close relationship with the Erie County Agricultural Society's management, makes for a great partnership. It's this type of partnership that we would like to see emulated at fairs across the county."
However, while Strates is a fourth generation carnival company, "I only knew about Reithoffer as they are a fifth generation carnival company," said Johnson. "These two (Strates and Reithoffer) shows are among the oldest in the U.S.. I do know that shows like Skerbeck Amusements in Michigan, also have long history of fair contracts as they are a sixth generation show, with roots back to the circus industry. While there may be 3-4 generation carnies, its very, very rare for this to occur with carnival companies. Some of the largest carnivals, like Royal American came to its demise after the third generation."
"Working with the family, the father and the sons has been a great tradition," said Lang. "They have integrity, honesty and true numbers. We have the facility, they have the entertainment. They have been building happy memories with our customers for decades and for decades to come."
1st Decade Length
In addition to the new contract ensuring the partners celebrate a historic anniversary in the fair industry, the new decade long contracts is the longest contract ever agreed upon by the two parties. While 10-year contracts are not unheard of in the industry, they are uncommon. Previous agreements between Erie County and Strates Shows were for 3-5 years. Lang, who is 68 years old, said while he has no immediate plans for retirement, he wanted to shore up the midway aspect of the fair in order for a smooth transition in years go come.
"I never wanted to make an arrangement that wasn't solid," said Lang. He said that he and Strates representatives had an in-depth conversation about the upcoming contract at the annual trade show and convention of the International Association of Fairs & Expositions in 2015 where they "kicked around" ideas about "longevity and extensions." It was Lang's intention that when he does step down his replacement, "will have one less thing to worry about. We both wanted a smooth management transition. It is important for the fair to have that stability for its biggest money maker."
Strates credited the fair for reinvesting in the grounds, facilities, and grandstand, pointing out that the Buffalo Raceway built a "racino" - the Hamburg Gaming Center - with some of the profits being diverted to the fair and agricultural programs. "They did what they said they were gong to do with the money, everything has been replaced and improved, the new grandstands are beautiful. They have done some of great landscaping in the last few years, they really have enhanced the fairgrounds."
He added, "it is really a great agricultural fair. Other fairs change. The agriculture business is slipping in some areas. Some fairs promise one thing and then you get there and they do another. But Erie County has a great community, a great agricultural community, who really support their fair. They get great perception."
Riding the Rails
To commemorate the extended relationship, Strates Shows and the Erie County Fair are inviting fairgoers to join in on the celebration. On August 18th will be "Strates Day at the Fair," when fairgoers to the Erie County Fair will be able to enjoy 90-minutes of free midway rides from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Unique among today's amusement operators, The Strates Shows is the only "railroad carnival" left in North America, transporting their rides by rail for their eight-month season. The "fair train," as it is commonly known in Western New York, currently is comprised of over 50 rail cars and its arrival at the depot in the Village of Hamburg is an annual celebration, and what many feel is a living piece of Americana.
The Strates Shows is a 93-year-old family owned business with headquarters in Orlando, Florida. Founded in 1923 by Greek immigrant James E. Strates as the Southern Tier Shows in Elmira, New York, the Strates Shows is considered one of America's premiere providers of carnival midways. After the death of James E. Strates in 1959, his only son, E. James Strates, took over as manager of the company and is still actively involved in its operation. Now in its 9th decade, Strates Shows is led by the 3rd generation of Strates family members including Susan, Jimmy, Sibyl, Jay and John. Nick Strates, who officially joined the show full-time during the 2015 season, is the 4th generation of the Strates family to continue the tradition. Over the decades, the Strates Shows has brought many innovations to the carnival industry.