In the spring of 1917, 122 of the nation’s foremost manufacturers presented their products at the Industrial and Export conference in Exposition Park. And, in the fall of that same year, the very first Eastern States Exposition was opened to the public. A total of 138,000 people gathered at what would become an enduring tradition: the annual September event now known as The Big E, “New England’s Autumn Tradition.” To this day, that tradition has been interrupted only by two World Wars.
Joshua Brooks wanted the Exposition to be a truly regional event. He believed that to achieve this, each of the six New England states should construct a building that could display both its character and its products. The Avenue of the States was born.
Massachusetts contributed a replica of the Boston State House in 1919. This was followed by buildings from Maine and then Vermont. In the 1930’s, both New Hampshire and Connecticut contributed their structures and in 1958, Rhode Island finished its building. An interesting fact about this famous Avenue is that each state owns its building and the land the structure is built upon. Thus, visitors to the Exposition can literally stroll through all six New England States. And, as they travel, they can sample both the architectural style and the traditional foods and wares that exemplify each state.
Another unique feature of Eastern States Exposition is Storrowton Village Museum, an Early American village of the 1700s and 1800s. In 1926, Boston philanthropist and Exposition trustee Helen Osborne Storrow began her search for an early New England building to house her Home Department at the Exposition.
“No longer is the home department the poor little Cinderella of the Exposition, housed in temporary buildings,” wrote an elated Mrs. Storrow in 1930. This ambitious and generous woman eventually donated nine buildings – each an original structure from the various New England states – that all date between 1767 and 1850. Storrowton is open to visitors year-round as a historical museum and is the site of special events and educational “Living History” programs for school children.
The Exposition of today features a cavalcade of trade and consumer shows and events, agricultural activities and competitions, horse shows and entertainment in addition to The Big E. During the year, the Exposition hosts over 100 such events including the Western Massachusetts Home Show, antiques and collectibles shows, food shows, a boat show, a sportsman’s show, EASTEC – the largest machine tool trade show in the East and many, many more. A majority of these events take place in the 123,000 square foot Better Living Center. Some utilize the entire 355,000 square feet of rental space available on the grounds.
Part of the original motivation for creating the Exposition was to encourage the productive development of young people. This emphasis on youthful accomplishment is reflected in the many activities and facilities available on the grounds. Many major youth organizations are represented during The Big E. FFA, 4-H and the Boy and Girl Scouts are among the groups who participate with their livestock, agricultural exhibits and displays. In the New England Center, people will find a wide array of exhibits and demonstrations by these young people. The Mallary Agricultural Complex houses all production livestock including dairy cattle, steer and dairy calves which the 4-H girls and boys show during the Fair. The hundreds of young people participating in The Big E sleep and take meals in the Horace A. Moses building. This significant building is nationally known as the birthplace of the nation-wide Junior Achievement program, which was conceived and originated by Mr. Moses in the early 1900’s.
During The Big E, more than 25 breeds of cattle, sheep, goats and hogs are on display in livestock events. Breeders from all over the country and from other nations enter their animals in this, the largest livestock show in the East. The title, “Eastern States Exposition Grand Champion,” is the coveted prize at stake.
In addition to the livestock shows, New England traditions such as pulling contests and cow milking can be experienced at The Big E. The preservation of the New England states’ agricultural land is also encouraged through live exhibits and “hands on” demonstrations of farming techniques and innovations. The Avenue of Agriculture showcases animals and informative exhibits on agriculture and its uses in daily life.
One of the oldest and most prestigious in the country, the Eastern States Exposition Horse Show is an eagerly-anticipated event. Additional equine events include the 4-H Horse Show and the Draft Horse Show.
Many of the nation’s finest craftspeople and artisans exhibit their work in Craft Common on the back green of Storrowton Village and along Hampden Avenue. On the Village green, visitors will find 19th century craft demonstrators as well as family entertainment on the gazebo. Traditional Early American crafts and chores are demonstrated within the historic buildings that comprise the Village.
When frivolity is in order, fairgoers can step onto the Magic Midway – the world’s largest traveling midway – featuring the 115 foot high Giant Wheel, and the Drop of Fear, rides, games and many other attractions. Especially for children, The Big E offers kiddie rides, a petting zoo, barnyard friends and camel and elephant rides. As evening approaches, the whole fair celebrates with the Grande Parade, and as of 2000, the spectacular Mardi Gras Parade featuring six authentic, custom built floats direct from New Orleans.
The Big E also features free entertainment such as a circus, exhilarating band concerts, demonstrations by celebrity chefs and top-name talent. Memorable shows have included such stars as Reba McEntire, Clint Black, George Jones, The Judds, Willie Nelson, Destiny’s Child and Jessica Simpson.
Restaurant facilities, offering everything from a snack to a meal – and featuring foods from different regions and nations, are found throughout the grounds. The Exposition also maintains its own security, fire and first-aid facilities for the safety and convenience of its Fair visitors.
Eastern States Exposition is organized as an educational institution under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its governing body is a volunteer Board of Trustees consisting of representatives from each of the six New England States. These New England Trustees are distinguished civic, business and agricultural leaders.
Due to this kind of generosity and commitment shown by the people of New England – who have made The Big E one of their own traditions – Eastern States Exposition is entirely self-supporting. It relies solely on the revenues it obtains through year-round building rentals and Big E gate admission to finance its complete operation. The Exposition receives no government subsidies of any kind nor any revenues generated by year-round events.
Begun with the dream of keeping business, industry and agriculture alive and thriving in New England, Eastern States Exposition has more than fulfilled the initial hopes of its creators. It remains a site for celebration, a central showplace for the creative, industrial and agricultural resources of the Northeast and a reflection of the best of the region’s people.