RV campers share tales from the New York State Fair

RVers share State Fair, camping tales

With as many as 120 RVs on a given day, the annual event provides fairgoers a home and unique perspective.
Published: September 9, 2022
Ruth Stanley in the bed of her car she revamped into a makeshift camper.
Ruth Stanley in the bed of her car that she revamped into a makeshift camper for this year's New York State Fair.

For most of its patrons, the New York State Fair is an action-packed day trip consumed with making it to as many of the attractions as possible. For many residents of the Pink Lot, however, the fair itself is a minor detail in a long weekend that holds a deep-seeded sentimentality.

On their walk from the parking lot to the entrance, everyday fairgoers pass an area populated by campers. RVs, lawn chairs, trucks and even the occasional fire pit act as evidence of a community of those making the most out of their end to summer.

One such family, the Smiths, have been attending the fair for roughly 30 years and camping there for five of them. Joe and Diane Smith (whose real last name they requested be undisclosed) began bringing their daughter Ashly when she was 13.

“I was working nights at the convenience store, and didn’t get out of work ‘til seven in the morning,” Diane said. “I’d go right from work to here.”

And the family tradition has continued for the past dozen years.

“My oldest grandson who’s 25, he was 13 when we brought him, and my granddaughter was about 13 when we brought her.”

This year, however, is special: It is Ashly and fiancé Ray’s 10-month-old son’s first time attending. They showed photos – one of Ashly when she was still pregnant, posing in front of a bacon truck; the other from this past weekend of her and her newborn son in front of the same truck one year later.

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(Left to right) Joe, Diane, Ashly and Ray pose outside of their family's RV camper.

The newest Smith has loved the fair so far, according to the rest of his family.

“He loves watching all the people,” Ashly described affectionately.

But Ray noted there is one exception.

“He wouldn’t touch the goats,” Ray said. “He reached for one and then changed his mind.”

“After coming every year, we know what’s here and where to go,” said Ashly who lives only 16 miles from the state fairgrounds.

A family campfire pit at the 2022 New York State Fair

The Smith fire pit is often shared among neighboring campers.

A camper’s New York State Fair beverage of choice: Schaefer beer.

Joe Smith's New York State Fair beverage of choice: Schaefer beer.

At this point, the family has seemingly mastered the art of fair camping. Diane estimated it takes them a total of 10 minutes to set up their site and break it down at the end of the week because and said the camper is stocked with everything they need.

Syracuse weather is not always predictable in late summer as the Smiths learned during their first out. Temperatures dropped below 50 degree and that weekend was spent back and forth between the too-hot furnace of their RV and the early-onset autumnal weather

The family invested in a campfire, which has even become an object of envy.

“One year we woke up and the neighbors stole it. Took the whole fire pit over to their campsite,” Ray remembers. “Then the next morning, we woke up and it was back where it was,” Ashly said.

After 30 years of attendance, five years of camping and three generations of attendees, Joe, the family’s quiet patriarch, had one crucial piece of advice:

“Bring enough beer.”

More than just fun

Some campers, however, are not just there for leisure. Will Deering, 15, has attended the New York State Fair for the past 11 years, and, for the recent few, he has been helping his family with the horses they bring for the drag show.

Donnell Belgians is a barn in Middlebury, Vermont, where the Deering family owns and trains horses.

“My great grandfather in 1998 bought draft horses – two Belgians – just to have fun with them,” Will said, “He started bringing them around to local fairs and eventually we got bigger and we decided we’d come out to fairs like here.”

The company has been passed down through two generations of Deerings and counting. Will, the next in line, says he’s been intent on inheriting the business from his father ever since his great grandfather passed away two years ago. The name “Donnell” is a combination of his great grandfather and great grandmother’s names: Russell and Donna Deering.

For now, Will assists his father in prepping the horse starting in the spring with feedings up to three times daily and keeping them active.

“From April until final show you gotta drive them just about every day to keep them in shape,” he said.

Because of the 4.5-hour drive from Vermont and requirements for where they must park their semi and trailer, the Deerings set up a campsite right across the street from the fair itself for the week.

This year, eight of them stayed in the camper, but it is more than enough room according to Will who suggested “there could be even more if we wanted.”

Will Deering outside his family’s RV sporting the family business uniform at the at the 2022 New York State Fair
Will Deering outside his family’s RV sporting the family business uniform.

60 years and counting

While Will and the Deering family may appear to be seasoned fairgoers, Ruth Stanley, 75, raises the bar, having attended the New York State Fair for more than six decades and camping for the last 20.

Raised in a family of avid campers, it all started with Stanley’s father. He, his brother, their cousin and their uncle each had their own RV and would go on camping trips together.

Over Labor Day weekend at the fairgrounds, Stanley, now the family matriarch, was in a group of 16 campers spread out between four RVs,

“Not counting my grandson coming [for the day] with the five great-grandchildren,” she said. “This type of thing on a holiday is my favorite. We get together – one’s from Lake George, one’s from Maine, one comes in from Ohio – so we meet as a family tradition.”

This year, Stanley herself was not in an RV. She opened the trunk of her car to reveal an entire residential setup complete with a bed, USB ports, clothing on hangers and even a transportable “potty chair” in case she ever needs to use the restroom at night, she said.

“Listen, you’re talking to an old professional here,” Stanley said. “I can camp with a bicycle and a tent.”

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Ruth Stanley knows how to camp in style – decorating her campsite with lace drapes and even a chandelier.

When Stanley’s husband Levi got sick, they sold their home and bought a 32-foot slide-out RV and split each year between New York and Florida, transporting him back and forth while he was on dialysis. “When my husband and I got tired I’d say ‘Listen, we don’t have to rush no more. The kids aren’t in school, we don’t only have two weeks. Get off at the next shopping center, pull in and take a nap ‘til the roads quiet down. Why do we care what time we get there?’”

Levi passed away five years ago, but not before the two of them were able to make the most of their nomadic lifestyle. Stanley said that after her husband’s kidney transplant, the doctors told them it would only give him around five years. “He lasted 20,” Stanley recalled proudly. And so they made the most of it,

“We were married 50 years, and I was the one who got him into camping,” she said. “At first he didn’t like it, but by the end he did.”

With years of experience, Stanley has developed a set-up that works for her. Blankets and rugs were laid in the car. A small, quiet generator powered everything from her phone charger (for Netflix) to air conditioning (on nights when she didn’t have the windows open to let the coolness inside).

Curtains, doilies and even a small chandelier were hung from the standing tent.

“They give you a bit of privacy, but yet you [can still] see,” she said.

Stanley said her next stop is a great niece’s 200-acre farm by Lake George and then she’ll move further down the road to another family member or friends’ places.

“I like the freedom of being out,” Stanley said. “If I was permanent, no one would come to me because everyone is all over the country and they all have to work. And they all want me to move in their yards, so I’ve got plenty of places to nest.”

Stanley’s satisfaction with her on-the-road life is built on a philosophy that money is a necessity but “can’t buy the feeling of being free.”

“Money doesn’t make you rich. Life makes you rich, and you gotta grab it and enjoy it.”