Homes on the Grange: Tenting at the Centre County Grange Fair

Sep 3, 2014

Let's talk tenting. 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.

In a shady, quieter part of the fairgrounds is 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.

"People started to bring tents to stay overnight so they could go home in the daylight when it was safe," says LeDon Young, a Grange Fair committee member. "Horses don't come with headlights, you know."

Young'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 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 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.

"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," says Bowes. "They would be sleeping on the tables and on the floor. Every space that there was, they would - they would sleep."

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.

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

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

"In real life, I'm an attorney," says Young. "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."

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.