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Historically speaking 

We look at three festivals that take attendees to different eras

click to enlarge The New York Steam Engine Association’s Pageant of Steam celebrates the machines of the 19th Century. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The New York Steam Engine Association’s Pageant of Steam celebrates the machines of the 19th Century.

A celebration of cool, obsolete machinery

Western New York State is rife with fertile farmland; it's given the region a rich agricultural history. And though farming is still a major part of life in rural areas, industrial cities grew in the late 19th century, offering new occupations in factories. So it stands to reason that this region also built machines to power the agricultural and manufacturing industries.

Remaining relics of that local history are celebrated annually at the Pageant of Steam, held each August in Canandaigua.

The pageant was founded in 1960 by the New York Steam Engine Association, which was "just a handful of guys who happened to own some obsolete steam engines," says Richard Finley, NYSEA vice president.

Today, the association has more than 1,700 members, and the four-day pageant is the largest showcase of steam-powered machinery in New York State. It features displays of vintage tractors, antique construction and industrial equipment, tractor pulls, and nightly live musical entertainment — this year by Ruby Shooz — as well as a massive craft and flea market.

Finley, who is a construction supervisor for C.P. Ward, has been a member of NYSEA for about 20 years. "I had a thing for antique tractors, and I was always fascinated with steam engines since I was a little kid," he says. He had to get his own tractor the hard way: I had to buy it and put a lot of money into it, but a lot of our members have inherited theirs."

The oldest machine Finley now owns is a 1917 steam engine that he operates during the pageant. And the association collectively owns a 1909 Lang and Button steam engine, which serves as the group's logo. Currently, NYSEA is restoring a pre-1900 AW Stevens steam engine that was built in Auburn.

In addition to displays of machines owned by NYSEA members, pageant goers can check out permanent exhibits in the stationary steam building, which features industrial and manufacturing machines such as a boiler, generators, ammonia compressors, and water pumps.

Food and beverages are available on site from vendors selling breakfast, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, and meals at the dinner kitchen.

The Pageant of Steam takes place Wednesday, August 10, through Saturday, August 13, at 3349 Gehan Road in Canandaigua.8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. Admission is $7 for adults and free to kids under age 12. For more information, call 315-677-3876, or visit

click to enlarge The Sterling Renaissance Festival. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The Sterling Renaissance Festival.

Interacting with the English Renaissance

The annual Sterling Renaissance Festival, held in July and August, is a truly immersive experience of another era. The fair's premise is that the people of a working village in the countryside of England are focused on entertaining Queen Elizabeth for the day. Each day is a replay of that scenario, with different themed weekends, from a "Pirate Invasion Weekend" to the "Highland Fling."

The festival was founded in 1976, but has been owned since 2008 by Doug Waterbury, whose company purchases unique entertainment businesses.

"Sterling is one of our favorites," Waterbury says. "It's very historic, one of the earlier festivals of its kind, and is recognized nationwide as the finest of its type, in terms of authenticity and high level of entertainment."

The Travel Channel even featured the festival as part of its US Fairs and Festivals Travel Guide series.

The fest's setting — a rural village in a mature forested property with gently rolling hills, away from the bustle of modern life — enhances the feeling of being transported to another time and place. It features various sets with Shakespearean-based stage performances, jousting tournaments, as well as wandering actors and musicians.

Sterling's cast of characters is like family, "many of whom have been involved in the professional entertainment at Sterling for decades," Waterbury says.

The fair's creative director is Gary Izzo, who is recognized world-wide for his artistry in the interactive entertainment genre, developed the street theatre program for Walt Disney World, Waterbury says. Izzo runs Sterling's auditions — sourcing professional actors from New York City to Memphis — and designs the fair's annual entertainment.

While many visitors come dressed in period garb, an enthusiastic group that organizers call "playtrons" — patrons who typically have season passes and play along when they attend — don not the look and the dialect, Waterbury says.

The fair's pathways are lined with shops selling the handmade wares of more than 100 fine artists, including blown glass vessels, jewelry, and games. Festival feasting selections include turkey legs that could double as a bludgeon, apple dumplings, and plenty of ale.

In preparation for this year's 40th anniversary season, festival organizers are working on expansions and improvements to the grounds, including a new streetscape.

"We're developing a new stage called the Bad Manner Inn," Waterbury says. This new structure will feature a pub on one side and a three-story stage on the other, with humorous, interactive theater that revolves around a family who runs a bakery, he says.

"Each year, we'll be adding at least one building to help build the streetscape out," Waterbury says. A walk-thru museum that will explore the growth of the faire from 1976 through today is also in development.

The Sterling Renaissance Festival takes place Saturdays and Sundays, July 2 through August 14, at 5385 Farden Road in Sterling. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Early-bird ticket prices are $23.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids aged 5 to 11 (Ages 4 and under are free). Group rates, weekend passes, and season passes are also available. For more information, call 800-879-4446, or visit

click to enlarge The Clifton Springs Sulphur Springs Festival celebrates the village’s Victorian origins. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The Clifton Springs Sulphur Springs Festival celebrates the village’s Victorian origins.

Stinky creek is celebrated origin of historic township

The Village of Clifton Springs celebrates its Victorian origins annually with the Sulphur Springs Festival, held for two days each June. Founded in 1849 by Henry Foster, a doctor, Clifton Springs became the site for Foster's "water cure," as the area's springs were thought to have therapeutic properties.

Yes, Sulphur smells like rotten eggs. I spent the latter half of my school-age years in this town, and have fond memories of exploring the natural minutiae along the waterway with my siblings. When anyone got to close to the bank, we taunted each other: "Stick a toe in the creek and you'll smell for a week!"

What is today called the Spa Apartments — an imposing, Richardson Romanesque brick building — served as Foster's sanitarium, which over the years drew thousands who sought rest and restored health. Legend has it that Elvis Presley even made a trip.

If this sounds like old-timey quackery, consider that there's been a revival of the health benefits obtained from the springs, and the modern Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic has a wing devoted to the treatment.

Downtown Clifton Springs includes a 7.5-acre area listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. The old sanitarium and Foster's cottage — now a museum — are central to the town's history, as are more than a dozen Victorian homes that remain in the village. During the festival, tours highlight Foster's cottage and the original Tiffany favrile glass mosaic of "The Last Supper" in the chapel of the Spa Apartments.

Some festival-goers help transport the town back in time by dressing up in hand-sewn costumes. The "Fashion through the Years" competition used to specifically feature Victorian get-ups, but has grown to embrace other eras in order to include more people, says Anne Mancilla, who has been a festival organizer for three years.

This year's festival kicks off with a Friday night beer and wine stroll — hosted throughout the village by different shopkeepers — culminating with Flint Creek Band playing from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the gazebo at Rotary Park.

Saturday's events include a music festival featuring bluegrass, folk, Celtic, and Americana music, children's entertainment, a wide variety of crafts and food vendors, and a parade at 6 p.m. Other features include a mix of old and new activities, with horse-drawn carriage rides, games of croquet, a tennis tournament, a 5K race, a vintage car show, a Festival's Got Talent competition, and this year, a mechanical bull ride, which would have scandalized the hell out of the town's original tenants.

This year's Sulphur Springs Festival takes place Friday, June 3, and Saturday, June 4, in the village of Clifton Springs. Admission is free. For a schedule of events, visit, or search for the fest on Facebook.

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