Homes On The Grange: The Storied Tents Of A Pa. Fair

The Grange Fair of central Pennsylvania harkens back to the days of the region's rural farming in the 19th century. Beyond the trappings of the typical fair, WPSU's Emily Reddy reports that families bring nearly a thousand tents to live in during the fair — many of which have been passed down through the generations.

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Now let's talk tempting. The Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania just ended. It all started with a picnic back in 1874. And now year after year, campers return - some going back generations. Emily Reddy from member station WPSU takes us there.

EMILY REDDY, BYLINE: Boys play ball in a shady, quieter part of the fairgrounds amidst something you won't see at other fairs - row after row of green canvas tents about the size of a one-car garage. The encampment dates back to the Grange gatherings that started in the area in 1874.

LEDON YOUNG: People started to bring tents to stay overnight so they could go home in the daylight when it was safe. Horses don't come with headlights, you know.

REDDY: LeDon Young is a Grange Fair committee member. She's not aware of any other fair in the world with a similar tent encampment. Organized tenting started in 1887 with 50 tents borrowed from the Pennsylvania National Guard. Now there are 1,000 tents. Most are full of futons, couches and tables - and people catching up.

LOIS BOWES: Do you remember Melba?

REDDY: Lois Bowes and her cousin Melba Strouse are both 76. They talk with a man visiting their tents who they haven't seen for 50 years.

BOWES: Alrighty. Hey, well we’ll see you later. Take care

REDDY: Bowes says her family has been coming to the fair her whole life. They were one of the first families from their community to have a tent.

BOWES: So we would have lots of neighbors and friends of the children would come, and I could remember is that every space was filled with people. To sleep over - they would be sleeping on the tables and on the floor. Every space that there was, they would - they would sleep.

REDDY: Bowes' father got his tent around 1909. Now fair organizer Young says, one of these tents has become the most valuable bit of real estate in Centre County.

So you know, if I - if I came to you today and I said you know, I want a tent.

YOUNG: (Laughter). Darleen Confer is the tent secretary and she no longer takes names. There were over 500 names on that list. And I would say every two, three, four years one tent becomes available.

REDDY: Tents are passed down in families and sometimes bitterly fought over in divorces.

YOUNG: In real life, I'm an attorney, and in Centre County they don't fight over the kids, they don't fight over the business, they fight over who gets Grange Fair site and who gets the Penn State football tickets.

REDDY: Some couples met at the Grange Fair, and the joke is a lot of babies will be born to carry on the tenting tradition in about nine months. For NPR News, I'm Emily Reddy in State College, Pennsylvania.

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