Behind the scenes at York State Fair, hundreds of workers keep the show running

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

For Gladys Deitz, a self-described "carny," working at the York State Fair each year is like returning home to family.

"Once you become a carny, you're one for life," said Deitz, the first female lot captain — the person in charge of directing traffic at the fair's parking lot — in the fair's history.

Like her father, mother and her in-laws, she travels across the country to work state fairs. And she's not just directing traffic. After the fair ends on Sunday, she'll help tear it down, too.

A staff of some 400 people work behind the scenes to ensure everything goes smoothly at the fair, according to fair spokeswoman Montgomery Stambaugh. Roughly 100 more volunteers show up each day to work in the livestock arena and other parts of the fair.

This small army starts arriving three to four weeks before the start date, moving in heavy equipment and setting up rides. And many of them, including Deitz, will stick around for two more weeks after it's over to dismantle the same rides and pick up trash.

Behind the scenes of the York State Fair with Gladys Deitz, from York, on parking detail in York on July 27, 2022.

Some of the staff are locals, who go home each night. Others stay in RVs on the fairgrounds.

Adrienne Walker, 53, is one of the locals.

In her daily life, she's also a crossing guard for William Penn Senior High School in York City and other local schools.

She usually doesn't see her students while she works at the fair, but earlier this week, a high school graduate recognized her.  

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“I couldn’t believe he remembered me and he even gave me a hug,” she said, explaining because of COVID rules, she was only allowed to touch fists or elbows to greet the students.  

She was tickled. 

Walker said she loves working at the fair, even if she had to work through a heatwave and rain storms. On Thursday, she was directing traffic in Lot 6.

Behind the scenes of the York State Fair with Adrienne Walker, from York, on parking detail in York on July 27, 2022.

The fair armed Walker with a mustard-yellow cap, fluorescent orange safety vest and a bright orange flag — and she put them all to good use. Using the flag and her arms, she gesticulates to oncoming vehicles to get their attention.

"No she didn't," Walker muttered to herself, shaking her head, as one motorist ignored her directions to park closer to the entrance.

Deitz joined Walker when she saw her speaking to Dispatch journalists. She's always on watch for what's going on in her parking lot.

"I'm the lot captain," she said, plainly, when asked about her job.

Deitz noted that the fair crowd has been ebbing and flowing with some nights busier and some quieter.  

“We are out here rain or shine,” she said, pointing to the sun spots on her arms and adding, "The sun's eating us up."

Despite it all, Deitz said she comes out every year because it’s fun and she looks forward to it every year.

Walker said she's looking forward to riding the rides at the end of her shift Friday, which is the main event for her.

Across the fairgrounds, Florida resident Dallas Dan, 62, the owner of Thrill Arena, has been riding motorcycles for about 12 years. He works for fairs because he finds entertaining people very rewarding.  

The Thrill Arena travels up and down the East Coast to different carnivals, not just the York State Fair.  

“We’re on the road from about March until October,” Dan said, adding that the Thrill Arena visited the York State Fair in 2019.  

Behind the scenes of the York State Fair with Dallas Dan of the Whild Wheels Wall of Death, from Florida, in York on July 27, 2022.

They came back because of popular demand and hope to return next year.  

Dan said the traveling life could be hard work for some because they don’t know what it means to live on the road. To be involved, staff needs to be there Monday to help take down the arena, load it onto the trailer, follow them out to Washington County, New York, set it up, tear it down, then follow them out to another fair in Pennsylvania and repeat the process.  

“If you love living on the road, it's where you’re supposed to be,” he said, adding that he and his wife love the life.  

He noted the difference between 2019 and this year is that the fair was hotter, which was fine for him. He says south-central Pennsylvania is “way more pleasant” in the summertime than it is back at his home.  

It’s hard work setting up.  

“I say it’s like helping your friends move their house,” he said. “We move 30,000 pounds of material by hand.” 

To tear down, just reverse the process. He said it is easier to take down the attraction just because they don’t have to make sure the arena’s base is level.  

A short walk away, 60-year-old Mark Moody, York State Fair emergency medical services coordinator, was working outside the fair's emergency medical services building.

Behind the scenes of the York State Fair in York on July 27, 2022.

He has worked at the fair through other organizations for about 15 years until a few years ago when the fair got an emergency medical services department, which he directs. The department has about 40 providers, including paramedics and nurse practitioners.  

Moody, of York City, says he likes his job because he enjoys being out with people and it's fun to see those who come to the fair. On Thursday, he was zipping around the fairgrounds on a golf cart.

The weekend was particularly busy, he said, due to concertgoers coming down with heat sickness. But, with cooler weather, he thinks that won't be as big a problem.

“The crowds have been a little light; we’ve had a lot of hot weather,” he said.  

Behind the scenes of the York State Fair with Mark Moody, EMS Coordinator at the York Expo Center and York Fair in York on July 27, 2022.

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.

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