In a world of change, Cumberland County fireman’s fairs are a reminder each summer that some things stay the same.
Some may be a bit bigger now or include more outside vendors, but most attendees are eating the same home-cooked ham and bean soup and fresh-cut fries or riding the same Ferris wheels and scramblers their parents did.
Adam Brotzman of Synder Amusements, which provided rides for the Carlisle Fire & Rescue Carnival, acknowledged that not much has changed since his days as a child in a carnival business family that would put him to sleep on the merry-go-round.
“At the end of the day, there’s only so many ways you can go in a circle,” he said.
That doesn’t stop fairs from drawing visitors by the thousands and providing needed funds for increasingly cash-strapped fire companies.
Here’s a look at some of Cumberland County’s biggest fireman’s fairs.
It didn’t take long for a food line to form on the evening of July 3 at the Carlisle Fire & Rescue Carnival on Carlisle Springs Road. A full hour before rides opened, guests crowded the fire station with plates of burgers, fries and, above all, the chicken-corn and ham-and-bean soups for which the fair is famous.
Raising money for the fire company is important — more on that below — but President Mike Snyder sees the fair as an opportunity to give back to the community.
“It’s the last (piece) of small-town America, pretty much,” said Brian Kline, chairman of the Lisburn Olde Time Festival, which runs Aug. 7-10 in Lisburn. “It’s kind of like a reunion-type thing. People don’t see each other except for the few days of the festival.”
Most of the carnivals are long-lasting traditions. Dennis Russell, president of Citizens Fire Company in Mount Holly Springs, remembers helping with games at the Mount Holly Springs Fireman’s Fair when he was a child in the 1950s and it took place at the old PNC Bank on the town square. At the time, all of the games were organized by the fire company members, games likes throwing a dime into a cup or throwing rings onto Pepsi cans, keno and bingo.
“Bingo’s never changed,” he said.
Most of the festivals are also known for some type of food:
- Chicken-corn soup and fresh-cut fries at the Lisburn Olde Time Festival
- Ice cream (and an ice cream-eating contest) at the Penn Township Fireman’s Fair
- Locally made pizza and bean soup at the Mount Holly Springs Fireman’s Fair
Most also include carnival games and rides and evening entertainment featuring local bands.
Penn Township’s fair (which runs Aug. 1-3) takes a somewhat different tack, reflecting western Cumberland County’s rural character with 4-H Club exhibits, a rabbit show and hay rides for kids. It can attract as many as 4,000 people in a given night, said John Wardle, president of the Penn Township Fire Company.
“Some people plan their vacations around it,” Wardle said.
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That’s not to say there haven’t been changes over time. When Kline began leading the Lisburn Olde Time Festival 34 years ago, the fair wasn’t growing, he said. Since that time, the festival has expanded from three to four nights, and increased its food offerings and attractions for all ages, he said. They’ve added a silent auction, arts and crafts vendors, amusement rides, a kids area, an antique tractor parade, and even, for 2019, a rock wall.
‘We’d have to close the doors’
When asked, several fire company leaders were reluctant to say precisely how much money they expect to raise from their annual carnivals. Wardle said he didn’t want to invite fundraising comparisons among different fire companies.
However, leaders said the fairs are important.
“If we didn’t run the carnival, we’d have to close the doors,” Kline said.
The Lisburn Community Fire Company relies on its Olde Time Festival to pay its annual day-to-day expenses, like electricity, maintenance and insurance, he said. That frees the company to use other revenue sources to pay for big-budget items like new firetrucks.
Wardle said Penn Township’s Fireman’s Fair represents more than a quarter of the company’s income and is critical to paying off new fire trucks. The company needs $12,000 per month to keep its doors open and has spent $1 million on apparatus in the last six years, Wardle said.
“I hate to say it, but it’s a business,” he said. “At the end of the year, you’ve raised a half a million dollars and it’s gone and you start all over again.”
Offering a somewhat different perspective, Snyder said Carlisle Fire & Rescue’s carnival is a smaller piece of the financial pie than weekly events like bingo and raffles. It’s also very dependent on the weather, such as the torrential downpours that occurred this year July 6, the last day of the fair.
While the Carlisle Fire & Rescue Carnival is only five days long, it takes far longer than that to put together, Snyder said. It also requires 75 volunteers the week of the carnival.
The carnival runs over five days, both because travelling carnival ride companies need a longer event to make it financially viable for them and because it decreases the risk that the event will be completely ruined by bad weather, Snyder said. The length of the carnival, though, adds to staff burnout.
Kline said there are about 12 people who plan the Lisburn Olde Time Festival, but it takes about 150 volunteers to run it. Like every organization, they are becoming concerned about their volunteer base, which is starting to skew older.
The need to dedicate significant time to fundraisers, on top of training requirements and actually running calls, can lead to burnout for some firefighters, said Wardle of Penn Township. As a result, a community member’s donation of time in the form of volunteering can mean as much as a donation of money.
Of course, the company needs to raise money, too, at this year’s fair.
“Come and support us so we can support you, because if we don’t have the income, then we can’t provide the services,” he said. “And that’s something I hope people start to understand about volunteer fire services — it’s not automatic.”