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TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Fair Skies--But No Snow Cones--At The State Fair


Couples and families filled the streets at the Wyoming State Fair. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

DOUGLAS, Wyo.--It was decided. Amanda Henrie’s children would not have to give up the Wyoming State Fair this year, but they were not – absolutely not – getting the snow cones they begged for.

“The small snow cones cost $3 each!” Henrie said.

“This lemonade,” she said, holding up a large cup, “cost $5 and we can refill it all day for $3.”

“It’s this or tap water,” she told her children, ages 3, 4 and 7.

For some families, the recession has been devastating, uprooting lives and changing routines. But for many, its impact has been less dramatic. It has not changed what they do, just how they do it. They still keep the appointment at the spa, they just don't get the facial. They go to the fair, they just don't buy snow cones.

Michael and I had heard that attendance at state fairs was up this summer and so we decided to stop at the one in Wyoming on our way to Montana. When we arrived, the parking lot was close to full and the streets were starting to fill up. We spoke to one family who had driven more than 100 miles to get there, lured by the promise of cheap entertainment – kiddie rides shaped like flying saucers, live bands playing on stage and stands that sold everything from Mexican wrestling masks to cowboy hats. At the latter a sign offered: "Get your hat cleaned and reshaped while you wait."


Mexican wrestling masks were for sale at the Wyoming State Fair. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“There are a lot of things people still do,” said Anthony Stabile, a barker whose job is to lure passersby into the games. “They still have to eat and burn off steam.”

A family passed by the “Lay up” game – think basketball if the hoop were close to the ground and the ball had to be thrown underhand – and Stabile shouted, “Want to try it, guys? Come on!”

The family kept walking.

“It used to be a lot of fun,” Stabile said. “It’s getting a little stressful now.”

He is part of a crew of 14 men who work state fairs across the country, stopping in places such as Florida, Texas and Colorado. There have been healthy crowds at each this summer, Stabile said, but he’s noticed that people are spending less.

“Still, it’s not [bad] enough to put the locks on the truck and say we’re out of business,” he said.

“Come try it, guys!” Stabile barked at another family. “It’s easy!”


Anthony Stabile works the state fair circuit and said he has seen good crowds, but also noticed people spending less. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Henrie said her family had to scale down its spending after her husband’s hours were cut at his coal mining job. The couple lives on a ranch and has considered selling off some of their equipment but don’t think they’ll find any buyers. Stabile has also considered whether she can afford to continue being a stay-at-home mom.

“It’s pretty bad when you open up your refrigerator and you see nothing,” she said. She added that she's tried to save wherever possible. “We now buy in bulk. And my kids are not happy with having rib patties four days a week.”

Still, she was not going to sacrifice the fair this year. Her family would go every day that week, she said, they just wouldn't spend much.

On the afternoon we met her, she had spent $5 for the entrance fee (no charge for children) and $5 for a lemonade. She took her children to a barn where they could play for free for hours. Seven-year-old Ryley liked the sheep best. Shelby, 4, gravitated toward the goats and Gunner, 3, was all about the steers. They didn't even ask to go to the rides on the other side of the fair.

“The only night we went to the carnival was when it was $15 wristband night," Henrie said.


Three-year-old Gunner Henrie tries to get his cowboy hat back. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 21, 2009; 2:20 PM ET
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