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Donuts -- A long tradition at the State Fair of West Virginia

Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:13:37 AM EST
Updated On: Aug 15 2013 05:59:25 PM EDT

State fairs are about fun, thrills and food. If you've been among the couple of hundred thousand folks who make the trip to the West Virginia State Fair in Fairlea each August, you may know a little something about our next story.

FAIRLEA, Wv. -

As soon as you enter the grounds of the State Fair of West Virginia your nostrils are assaulted with the smells of all kinds of things:  animals, cotton candy, fried foods…it’s all good and part of the fair experience. 

Once you walk toward the massive grandstand or on the perimeter of the midway, it’s the food smells that capture your stomach’s attention.  We all know that going to a state fair is literally an empty experience without filling your tummy.

There’s one stand, a permanent building really, that truly does stand out and above all the others.  For 61 consecutive years, the donut makers of Ben-Ellen donuts have been satisfying the sweet tooth’s of hundreds of thousands of fair-goers.  This all started in a converted chicken coop.  These days, it’s a well-oiled (fried) operation, which produces countless thousands of donuts during each, annual, nine- day run of the West Virginia fair. CLICK HERE to see more photos.

The current owner of the donut factory, right next to the grandstand, won’t say how many sugar-cinnamon coated confections his team creates and sells each year but watch for a few minutes and you can make a pretty good guess.  Talk to any of the many repeat customers and you hear story, after multi-generational story, about people who come to the fair, primarily to get Ben-Ellen Donuts.  Waiting at a window for a dozen, Lory Vanburen of Lewisburg, WV tells us, “We used to wait in lines that would be wrapped around all the way to the other side there.  Everybody loves them, has for years and they’re still going strong.”  She had her first donut here when she was seven.  Now with two of her own youngsters in tow, the tradition continues. “My kids love donuts. That’s the only thing this one will eat right here.  Tristen likes them too,” referring to her son and his toddler brother salivating in her arms.

 Unlike most chain donut vendors, night-time is the busy time. Post-concert or pre-ride the lines are often four deep and 50 feet long.  As the simple sign over the shop proclaims, “Where fresh donuts are worth the wait.”  Advertising is unnecessary unlike the early days when a relative of the original owners used to stand out front and yell, “Get your red, hot donuts.”

The secret to success here probably has much to do with longevity as anything. In addition to six decades of sales, a permanent location and the limited production run do too. Long-time donut seller Willa Shafer confirms this,  “I think because this is the only time of year you can get them and we’re the only one who does it and this is a permanent stand and they don’t go anywhere else during any time of the year. “ Lovers of donuts tend to be pretty set in their ways about who makes the best ones.  Dunkin, Krispy-Kreme, Ben-Ellen? Hands down, at least on these fairgrounds, there’s not much argument. Shafer’s theory is, “There’s just a unique taste about them.  I think the cinnamon/sugar is what really makes them. We have some who just want them plain, but they’re so much better with the cinnamon-sugar, just a very good tasting donut.”  She relates numerous stories of people buying many dozen donuts to freeze and enjoy for months to come.  Or the story of one lady, who bought several dozen, in memory of her grandmother, whom she used to attend the fair with.

 It’s always fun, to see a fun venture, making fun food, enjoy so much success. Ben(Bengt)-Ellen, by the way, are the first names of the founders. You only have until Saturday night, August 24, 2013 to get yours or you’ll have to wait another 12 months.