The Big E: The Creation of a New England Tradition

The Big E: The Creation of a New England Tradition

by David Cecchi

No matter what you call it – The Big E, Expo, the fair – the Eastern States Exposition has been a New England tradition for the past century.

Since 1916, the Exposition has been a showcase for the best of New England agriculture and a learning experience for the region’s youth. The Exposition has hosted boy and girl scouts, 4-H and FFA groups, and is the birthplace of Junior Achievement.

The story of this fair is fascinating – and ongoing.

While the Eastern States Exposition marked its centennial in 2016, the genesis of the “improvement” movement from which it sprang dates back to the first decades of the twentieth century. The “Boston 1915” and “Better Brattleboro” movements inspired Hartford, Vermont pastor John A. Scheuerle, to organize “Hartford, Forward!” to improve local rural conditions. His efforts caught the attention of Horace A. Moses, who was tackling similar issues in Woronoco, Massachusetts, the site of his Woronoco (later Strathmore) Paper Company mill. Moses, later a longtime member of the Exposition’s board of trustees, was instrumental in the founding of the Hampden County Improvement League in 1913, “for the encouragement and rendering more profitable the pursuit of agriculture and, generally to foster, encourage, and promote all things in the communities of Hampden County which tend to increase the productivity of the soil, or to advance or conserve the education, civic, and moral welfare of the communities.”

While the league set about its noble work, New England agriculture continued a decline that began in the middle of the 19th century — less productive farms, a reduction in cultivated acres, and an increase in population resulted in the importation of most of the region’s food supplies, a general increase in the cost of living, and a loss of over seven billion dollars in capital (in 2016 dollars) from the region.

Prominent local businessmen involved in the league’s efforts took particular note of the deplorable state of agriculture throughout the northeast, of whom one was Joshua Loring “J.L.” Brooks, founder of the Brooks Bank Note Company, and president of the Springfield Board of Trade, who felt strongly that “unless New England’s farmers are successful, her industries will suffer.”

Brook’s efforts to improve the state of the region’s agriculture provided a method of cooperative purchasing and fostered greater cooperation between agriculture and industry, resulting in what became known as the Eastern States Movement. Brooks conceived of a massive regional agricultural and industrial exhibition that would spread the gospel of this movement. When Brooks shared his idea with Theodore N. Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph Company, Vail declared, “This plan is not only sound, but it appears vital to the future of New England.” Chartered under Massachusetts law in 1914 as the Eastern States Agricultural and Industrial Exposition, organizers hoped to host an inaugural event in West Springfield, Massachusetts during the fall of 1916 that would permanently establish the Exposition as a prominent and important agricultural event.

The general manager of the National Dairy Association informed Springfield businessmen in January 1915 that the western Massachusetts location was under consideration for the 1916 National Dairy Show, but it was with only one week’s notice in December of that year that Exposition officials were notified of a final pitch opportunity in Chicago. More than two-dozen boosters spent the train ride west planning their presentation, and upon arrival learned they faced competition from numerous other municipalities.

The New England delegation’s enthusiastic presentation resulted in an hour and a half extension of their original hour-long meeting, followed by an added evening session, and another the next morning, which yielded the decision by dairy show organizers to move the show east of Chicago for the first time in its ten year existence.

The local group returned to Springfield aboard the Twentieth Century Limited with the exciting news on December 29, 1915, and the next day’s Springfield Daily Republican announced “The Dairy Show – Big Thing for City – And for All of New England.”

Exposition officials now faced the challenge of constructing the required facilities on their barren 175-acre fairgrounds with just 10 months until opening day. Work on the first structure – the Coliseum – proceeded at record-setting pace, and buildings and grounds were completed in time for the show, which ran from October 12-21, 1916.

The 1916 National Dairy Show was a huge success, attracting more than 45,000 visitors. Although the dairy show never returned to West Springfield, it set the course of the Exposition. The following year’s event was billed as the “Eastern States Exposition and Dairy Show,” later shortened to the “Eastern States Exposition,” and, in the 1960s, streamlined even further to “The Big E.” The fair has been held each Fall, despite floods and hurricanes – only the United States government would ever cause a break in the annual event, seizing the grounds and buildings for the war effort in 1918, and again in 1942-1946.

The Coliseum, Machinery Hall (now C Barn), the Women’s Building (now the New England Center), and the Cow Palace (replaced by the Young Building), have been joined over the years by other structures – the state buildings, the Industrial Arts Building (now the Better Living Center), the Hampden County Improvement League Building, the Junior Achievement Building (now the Horace A. Moses Memorial Building), Storrowton Village, the Grange Building, the Brooks Building, and the Mallary Agricultural Complex.

The Avenue of States was conceived by Brooks as a place where each New England state could promote the best of its industry and agriculture. Replicas of the states’ original statehouses have been constructed on land owned by each state, with Massachusetts the first to be erected, (1919), followed by Maine (1925), Vermont (1929), New Hampshire (1930), Connecticut (1938), and Rhode Island (1957).

The Exposition’s Home Department, under the direction of Helen Storrow, was housed in temporary cottages until the 1930 opening of the New England Colonial Village, consisting of several 18th and 19th century structures relocated from across New England around a town green on the Exposition grounds. The village was renamed Storrowton Village in honor of Mrs. Storrow in 1944.

The Exposition has also hosted the Eastern States Exposition Horse Show since 1916. The event has been designated a US Equestrian Federation Heritage Competition in recognition of its longevity and contributions to the development and promotion of the sport. In the 1920s, Rolls Royce, then being manufactured in Springfield, MA was a prominent advertiser in horse show programs.

The Exposition has grown from six days in 1919 to its current 17-day run, and does an outstanding job of evolving with the times while maintaining its finest traditions.
The Exposition has hosted horse racing, alpaca shows, Mardi Gras parades, vegetable displays, Bob Hope, automobile racing, ox pulls, fried Oreos, musical concerts, corn dogs, a giant slide, helicopter rides, miniature horses, acres of farm equipment, the Magic Midway, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, baked potatoes, the Baby Beef competition, the Mechanical Man, record-breaking giant pumpkins, cream-puffs, circuses, and much, much more.

The Exposition presently attracts more than a million fairgoers annually, and is one of the largest fairs in North America. The 2017 edition will run from September 15 through October 1.

David Cecchi is a graphic designer and principal of Cecco | The design office of David Cecchi, Agawam, MA. He is a longtime member of the board of directors of the Agawam Historical Association, and the author of four titles in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series: Agawam and Feeding Hills; Agawam and Feeding Hills Revisited; Riverside Park; and The Big E: Eastern States Exposition.

Books are available for purchase by contacting the author at cecco@davidcecchi.com, 413-786-3236, or at https://squareup.com/store/david-cecchi/.

The Big E: The Creation of a New England Tradition