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Family Connections Span the Years at Annual Grange Fair

by on August 25, 2014 6:30 AM

Politics has the Kennedy family. New York society had the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers.

The Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair has the Gates family.

If you haven't experienced the Grange Fair, you should check it out. Started in 1874 as a picnic in honor of The Grange, an agriculture advocacy organization, today the Fair is a 10+ day extravaganza.

Held at Grange Park in Centre Hall, just a few miles down Route 45 east from State College, the event includes a mid-way, farming and agricultural exhibits, tractor pulls, fudge dipped bacon, livestock sales, shows at the grand stand, Dairy Princesses and camping.

Oh, the camping. For almost two weeks in late August every year, Grange Park becomes a mini city of 1,300 recreational vehicles and 950 tents. People move in and stay for the duration.

The Gates family claims the unofficial record for holding the most real estate at Grange Fair.

I met the family on Saturday night at the camper of Esther (Gates) and Ray Bauman. Daughter Anna Mae Frantz works for my dentist who also happens to be my father-in-law.

I was in the office for a teeth cleaning a few weeks ago and asked Anna Mae about her plans for this year's fair. I knew that she takes off from work during Fair week and like others, occasionally comes in to work while staying out in Centre Hall. When she mentioned that eight of her 10 siblings and her mother and step-father all camp at the Fair, I was amazed.

Throughout my life, I have been the occasional fair goer although never as an overnight guest. My Dad's family had a reunion at Grange Park every year and my grandmother loved coming from Altoona to stay with us and visit the fair to reconnect with friends from her youth. The story of tent spots being passed down from generation to generation and of pages long waiting lists for RV or tent spots is part of Centre County lore.

When you add the numbers of RVs and tents inhabited by just this branch of the Gates family, it totals 10 campers and two tents.

Their story is one of family.

Esther Bauman is the diminutive matriarch of the crew, several of whom came to the tent while we were there. She talked about dropping off her kids at the Grange Fair when they were teenagers to hang out with their friends for the day. Those Grange Fair visits evolved into overnight stays after older brother Jim Gates and his wife got their RV spot. Jim's wife, Jane, had been tenting at the Fair since age 7. They married in 1974 and got their spot soon after. When the Grange expanded the RV park in 1985, four more Gates siblings jumped in.

Esther was by herself at the family farm in Milesburg after her youngest daughter married and her husband passed away within several months in 1984. She met Ray through the in-laws of one of her children. Ray has six adult children of his own and proudly showed me a picture of the whole blended family. Originally from Lock Haven, Ray says he had never heard of the Grange Fair before he started going with Esther. They married in 1988 and have been camping at the Fair for the past 26 years.

From Jersey Shore to Runville, for 50 weeks of the year, the 10 Gates children live within the "local" radius of the family farm in Milesburg. For two weeks out of the year, eight of the siblings and families live within the radius of their mother's camper at Grange Fair.

As was evident on Saturday night as sons Jim and David Gates and daughter Beverly Miller, and some of their kids and grandkids stopped by, the whole family is drawn to "Mom and Ray's" camper as the central gathering place. They get together there in the evenings for cards, board games and the homemade goodies for which Esther is famous. Ray laughs and says that at times they've had up to 10 people around the table in the camper playing cards.

Anna Mae's camper is two doors away.

The details of the move-in are interesting. Fair residents can move in on the Sunday prior to the Thursday start of the Fair but can't set up outside awning areas until Tuesday to allow vehicle access for some of the latecomers. The camper sites have electric and water hook ups which make them an option for fans during PSU football season as well.

The family brings their Grange Fair gear, some packed away just for Grange Fair purposes. They prepare for rain, heat and humidity, more rain and, as we saw on Saturday night, the occasional cold August night. Jim and his wife Jane says that people save for Grange Fair just like any other vacation. Eating for a week at the concession stands can get pricey so most bring in the groceries they need for the week (there is a mini grocery on site for things like milk and bread) and cook meals at their sites.

Esther says her favorite part of the fair is the people. In addition to sharing time with family, Grange Fair is about friendship. "We like to get away from being so busy," says Esther. They check out the exhibits, attend the shows and share time with friends, many of whom they don't see in the months in between. Ray and Esther don't bring a TV although Ray says that the year they brought the twin grandkids, they relented. Terry Gates gets to the Fair early on move-in day so he can back in his truck and get the premier position from which to watch the tractor pulls from the platform he built for his truck bed.

In addition to Esther and Ray, Jim, Terry, David and Anna Mae, the Gates family Grange Fair contingent includes Don Gates, Helen Watkins and Wanda Welker. Siblings Bob Gates and Carol Moore are the last hold outs on overnight accommodations in Centre Hall. Grandchildren are getting their own spots to continue the legacy of the Gates family.

The Grange Fair continues through Thursday, August 28, 2014. Daily admission is $6 per person and $6 per vehicle. You can learn more about the Fair and check out the schedule of activities by clicking HERE.

After meeting with the Gates family, we walked through the rows of RVs and through the tent village in the direction of the mid-way to find a diet-busting, once-a-year, funnel cake. I was taken by the number of people and the sense of family in each of the small gatherings. The Grange Fair takes us back to a time of slower-paced, in-person connections with friends – and family.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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