The New York State Fair, at its best, is a well-oiled machine, but we rarely see the people who keep it that way. They're not the headliners at Chevy Court or the politicians shaking hands. They're the masters of their domains, managing the beloved buildings, villages and animal barns at the fairgrounds. We'll highlight these folks every day this week until the fair opens.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's hot in the Wool Center, but there they sit for hours, picking apart snarled tufts of wool, discarding pieces of dry feces and plant matter.
Superintendent Linda Miller coordinates about a dozen volunteers to unfurl, clean, rinse, dye, dry and pick wool. Joining them are the spinners, weavers, carders and wood turners who pick up shifts each day of the New York State Fair.
"We are trying to open everybody's eyes to the wonderful properties of natural animal fibers," said Miller, 58. "People don't realize how much sheep provide for us."
She waxes on about sheep products people use every day, from sheep meat and cheese to sheep bones, which are ground up for heat-resistant asphalt.
NYS Fair Wool Center
The tattoo on Linda Miller's leg. Linda Miller is the manager of the Wool Center at the NYS Fairgrounds.
"Lanolin (an oily secretion from sheep glands) goes into cosmetics and pharmaceuticals," Miller said. "You can't even play baseball without sheep, because wool yarn wraps the core of every modern baseball."
People don’t realize how much sheep provide for us.
"The year my dad died, we got sheep," Miller said. "Mom won out."
Every day, the Wool Center offers demonstrations and fleece competitions, with wool donated by farms around the state. Miller dyes the wool with everything from natural dyes to Kool-Aid.
"We try to keep it active here so people want to keep coming back," Miller said. "Kids love watching the spinning wheels. They just love moving parts."
What Miller would love is a new building. The Wool Center, dedicated in 1974, is a 40-by-40-foot wooden shack. It floods whenever it rains, and waste from nearby animal barns runs in one side of the building and out the other.
"We're in here with shovels trying to keep the stuff from coming through the building," Miller said.
Fair officials have granted permission to build a 40-by-100-foot Wool Center behind the sheep barn, but it's up to the small staff and volunteers to raise money for it.
Thanks to Miller's annual raffles and campaigns, the group has collected $30,000 since 2008. They still need about $100,000.
Miller can't fit more than a handful of volunteers and fairgoers inside the Wool Center at a time. Families spill out onto the grass to watch the spinners and dyers.
"A lot more people want to come in, but we don't have the room," Miller said. "And it would be nice without all the flooding."