Member, Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture
Beverly Gruber has been involved in agriculture her entire life, and active in fairs since her 4-H days. She has served as an officer in both the state and international fair associations and in 1995 she earned Certified Fair Executive status. In 2004, while serving as president of the Pennsylvania association, she wrote the book, Pennsylvania, A Fine State of Fairs, which chronicles fairs in Pennsylvania.
The tradition of the county fair is very basic. Fairs began nearly two centuries ago as a way of showcasing livestock and crops. From the beginning, fairs provided a place for farm families to socialize; to exhibit their livestock, produce and handiwork; and to observe the newest tools and machinery that might improve their lives.
The public perceives fairs as occasion to celebrate our agrarian traditions and to showcase our values as a nation—values like family, hard work, and inventiveness. Fairs give the feeling of community—that feeling of good old country living.
In the United States fairs were born of agriculture, and farm life was the fair’s focus; but that is changing since less than 2% of the U.S. population still lives on a farm. It has now become the job of a fair to educate our non-farm population to the importance of agriculture. To many, fairs may be the only opportunity for a “see and feel” experience, not only for the young child but for the parents as well. Fairs are planned with the family in mind and entertainment usually runs the gamut from a “Wanna Be a Farmer” tent for the five year old to a polka band for Grandpa and Granny.
So how did I get interested in fairs and why are they my passion?
Why I Love Fairs
Living on a 144-acre dairy farm in the early fifties, vacation was not even a concept I understood. Those fifty Jersey cows needed milked twice a day. Vacations were impossible.
From the time I was five years old our “big trip” of the year was to the Mahoning County Fair in Canfield, Ohio, about eighty miles away. We would do the morning milking an hour early, pack a picnic lunch and head to the fair. We would spend the day looking at all the home economics and fruit exhibits, the antique threshing equipment, the beautiful animals, and the unbelievable pumpkin building. If I was “good” I would get to ride the merry-go-round and could have a “foot long” hot dog before we started home at 4:00.
As I got older and we had hired help, we started attending the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Then when I was ten I joined 4-H and could enter projects at fairs and the Farm Show. I still have the 10th place ribbon I won for my broomstick skirt at the Farm Show. I was hooked. Fairs were my passion.
I spent the next ten years involved in 4-H. With a show string of cattle my sister and I went to six county fairs each summer and made enough money to put us both through college. Competing in the show ring taught me the work ethic I have today, as well as the thrill of winning and the agony of losing—a lesson everyone should encounter.
To this day when I walk into a cattle barn at a fair, I’m 15 years old again. The fragrance causes most people to wrinkle their noses, but to me that scent of hay, cattle, grain, etc. keeps me feeling young and inspired. I will never be “old” as long as there are fairs to attend.
Now, for a bit of history on the fair.
Where and when the first fair was held is not known, however, evidence points to the existence of fairs as early as 500 B.C. In Scripture, Ezekiel’s account of the destruction of Tyre, supposedly written about 588 BC, describes that city as an important market and fair center.
Fairs were commercial in character from the beginning. Merchants from distant countries would come together, bringing native wares to trade with one another, and even though it is not clearly explained in Ezekiel or in other biblical references, it is reasonable to assume that “fair” was the name given to the place at which early trading between foreign merchants was conducted.
During the early Christian era, the church took an active part in sponsoring fairs on feast days, and as a result, fairs came to be a source of revenue for the church. Possibly, our modern church bazaars possess some rudiments of these religious fairs.
In 1765, less than 300 years after Columbus finished his work in the New World, the first American fair was presented in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Many small fairs were held during the early 1700’s in French Canada while under French rule.
Elkanah Watson, a New England patriot and farmer, earned the title, “Father of US agricultural fairs” by producing a small exhibit of sheep under an old elm tree in the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. This was the first known exhibit of farm animals in the U.S. The year was 1807. He believed that the fine textured fleece of the exhibited sheep, when manufactured into cloth, would successfully compete with the best wool imported from England.
In 1810 Watson staged a larger and more ambitious project, a Berkshire cattle show. The event was successful beyond all his expectations; entries included 386 sheep, 109 oxen, 9 cows, 7 foals, 3 heifers, 2 calves and 1 boar.
Early American fairs in both Canada and the US shifted quietly, but decisively away from the European festival model into the systematic development of agriculture and animal husbandry while offering education, local resource and local industry promotion and entertainment. Competition became the cornerstone of fair programming; youth development provided a social theme.”
Pennsylvania Enters the Picture
According to the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission, “In 1765 America’s oldest agricultural fair started when the Penn family permitted York County farmers to exhibit their produce. The charter signed by Thomas Penn, son of Pennsylvania founder William Penn granted York the privilege of ‘forever hereafter’ holding two fairs a year, one in spring and one in the fall. Although temporarily discontinued after 1815, the York Fair was revived in 1853 and has been held annually at the York Fairgrounds ever since.”
The purpose of these early fairs was commerce and trade, according to S. W. Fletcher, and by 1800 recreation and education were the added emphasis.
S. W. Fletcher gives us quite a bit of insight in his book, Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life (1840-1940). Agriculture was the primary occupation of most individuals in Pennsylvania entering into the 19th century. By 1840, due to the improvements in the transportation system (better roads), farmers began to meet in groups to discuss matters of common interest and ways to improve production. Joint actions began to supplement individual action. Organizations began to form and the collective voice began to be heard.
PSPA Gets Involved
Way back in 1785 in Philadelphia, a group called The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture had been formed. They held annual exhibitions between 1840-1850. These were, in effect, state fairs that drew crowds from many parts of Pennsylvania and from neighboring states.
This society lobbied for many years, trying to get the General Assembly of Pennsylvania to establish a state society for the promotion of agriculture. This finally happened in 1851. The State Agriculture Society was established and county auxiliaries were formed. This State Ag Society held many exhibitions around the state. Forty six fairs were held between 1851-1897. At many of these events, the State Society would come in, build the buildings, and then turn them over to the county society. The first exhibition was held in Harrisburg on October 29-31, 1851 and was held thereafter for many years.
Government Funding Through the Years
In 1895 the State Society’s influence was waning and the State Legislature cut all funding to the Society. The last State Agricultural Society Fair was held in 1897. By 1905 the State Society had folded.
Between 1905 and 1911 county fairs were still being held, but no collective voice was present. Each fair had to stand on its own. By 1912, a county fair association was formed and a yearly convention was held. Through the efforts of this state association, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture sometimes partially paid premiums for entries at fairs starting in 1921.
Of the 50 fairs that were held in Pennsylvania in 1921, records show the three largest fairs and their attendance were Allentown – 185,000; York – 167,887; and Reading – 159,247.
In 1935 attempts were made to get paramutual racing in Pennsylvania. There was little support and funding for fairs was at the whim of the legislature. In 1958 the fairs and the horse racing interests put their efforts together and finally in 1959 the bill was passed and fairs could count on having at least a small stipend they could depend on. This continued until about 1986 when the fair fund monies were moved to a line item on the Governor’s budget.
Allocation has varied over the years depending again on the whims of the legislature. For 2012, a $2 million appropriation was budgeted for 4-H, FFA and 108 county fairs. Fairs have gone after sponsorships and corporate donations to break even. Most of our 108 fairs in the state are run by volunteers. A few exceptions exist. Just to give you a perspective, in 2012 approximately six million people attended fairs.
Key Elements of Fairs: Agriculture and Competitive Exhibits
Many different components make up a fair, but the main one is agriculture and competitive exhibits. This is the one thing that keeps fairs unique. We are the showplaces of agriculture at each fair in every community. In what areas do we offer competition at fairs? This varies, but basically we have competition and educational exhibits in farm animals, farm products, home crafts, and miscellaneous items such as antiques.
Key Elements of Fairs: Grange Involvement
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Grange here. The order of Patrons of Husbandry better known as the Grange has been foremost among agricultural organizations in Pennsylvania since its inception in the late 1860’s. By 1876 there were over 626 subordinate granges in the state. Most of these granges participated in the fairs of the day and many of them were the sponsoring organization.
Hookstown, Centre County, Harmony, Dawson, Mt. Nebo, Middletown, and Big Knob are just a few of the fairs which were originally sponsored or are still sponsored by Granges.
Grange Displays are a wonderful addition to most competitive exhibit buildings. They truly tell the agriculture story in a very positive way.
May grange members serve on fair boards across the state and hundreds work as volunteers at the county fairs. Today we only have 234 granges so participation in fairs dwindles.
Key Elements of Fairs: Youth Involvement
Participating in these competitive exhibits are youth. Youth have always been a part of fairs, whether it is 4-H, FFA or other school or youth participation. We need to continue this involvement, but the task becomes harder all the time, primarily due to sports events. It is the job of all of us to brainstorm and come up with new youth areas of involvement.
Key Elements of Fairs: 4-H and FFA
4-H was founded 100 years ago in response to the needs, throughout the country to extend educational opportunities to rural youth in the area of agriculture and home economics. They fostered the concept of “learning by doing.” The first use of the term “4-H” appeared in a federal document in 1918.
The Vocational Agriculture program is a part of the high school curriculum. This program began in 1929. The social arm of this movement is the Future Farmers of America or FFA. Like 4-H they too have been involved in fairs since their inception.
Fairs encourage both of these youth groups to continue to be involved. It is the hope of all fairs in Pennsylvania that both of these groups remain strong.
As a result of the Youth Involvement in fairs, livestock sales have become a very special event at many, many fairs. The first sales were held in the 1940’s. Today there are approximately 50 sales held across the state during fair week.
Competition will always remain the “heart of the show” but underlies the need for urban involvement. Food contests, for example, are something anyone can enter. An example of this was at the Philadelphia County Fair held in Fairmount Park in 1995. A $1,000 prize was offered for the best Sweet Potato Pie. A record of 128 primarily ladies made pies and brought them to Memorial Hall. A team of eight judges chose the winner. This record number of entries for one contest has yet to be broken.
Key Elements of Fairs: Entertainment
When fairs were first born in America, entertainment was often considered frivolous. As county fairs became the social event of the rural year, entertainment began to be performed. From the beginning of fairs to 1850 the foremost attraction at fairs was the plowing match. It was a great sporting event. The winner had bragging rights for the next year. The purpose was not only to discover the most efficient plow, but also the most efficient plowman.
By 1850 band concerts, horse racing, political speeches and corn husking matches were popular. This was followed in 1870 by catch penny side shows, a midway with a merry-go-round, game of chance and many many side shows. Also very popular were hot air balloon ascensions.
In 1906 airplanes were featured at many fairs and by 1917 “stunt flying” was the “in event.” These daredevils always were looking for a gimmick and even women performed fancy flying.
Key Elements of Fairs: Horse Racing
Nearly every fair had a track and betting on the horses took place at many fairs. It was the horse races that drew the biggest crowds to fairs. People were captivated by the speed and excitement of horse racing. The track with its large grandstand became the heart of the fair. The sport was becoming the country’s national pastime. This was trotting’s golden age.
Dan Patch came along in 1905. Here was a horse so charismatic that crowds up to 100,000 crammed fair grounds to see him. A world’s champion, he toured America in a white railroad car. Children were named for him. Laundry sloshed in Dan Patch washing machines. Men could work up a juicy cud with Dan Patch Plug Tobacco. Couples danced the Dan Patch Two-Step. By this time the term “harness racing” was in general use along with a new word: Standardbred. Trotters and pacers finally had an identity. At Allentown in 1905, Dan Patch drew a crowd of 80,000 people.
In 1924 it was declared illegal, as well as immoral, for the Fair Associations to arrange for or permit any gambling device at the Agricultural Fairs of Pennsylvania, State funds were to be withheld. This curtailed races at many fairs, but in 1977 there were still 22 county fairs that had races during fair week.
In 2012-13, fifteen fairs still offer harness racing in Pennsylvania. All have a one-half mile track.
Key Elements of Fairs: Girly Shows
Another entertainment special at fairs up until about 1965 was the “hootchie – coochie” shows along the midway. Every carnival large or small had at least one girlie shoe to bring in the boys, and it did increase attendance. These girlie shows died off in the mid sixties when the mini-skirt and tight clothing became normal attire that could be observed on any street corner.
Key Elements of Fairs: Automobiles
In the early 1920s a new type of entertainment was starting to show up at our fairs. The Horse Racing craze was dying down and a new noisy, smoky and dangerous competitor appeared, one that could go twice as fast. The racing automobile came on the scene. Big names in the business were, Barney Oldfield and Eddie Rickenbacker. “Lucky Teeter” and his Hell Drivers were the big attraction at the 1941 Allentown Fair and at many fairs across the state. Other names that will be remembered are: Jack Kochman, Danny Fleenor and Joie Chitwood.
Demolition Derbys came on the scene big time in the 1950s with George Marshman leading the charge. They continue to be a real crowd pleaser today. As we entered the 90s other dirt events that drew crowds are, tractor pulls, truck pulls, 4 x 4 pulls, Garden Tractor pulls.
New to the scene in recent years has been the motor-cross four wheeler and go-cart races that go through an obstacle course consisting of jumps, mud pits and ramps.
Key Elements of Fairs: Horse Pulls
Horse pulls became very popular at fairs in the 1920s. The sled originally was weighted down with bags of lime which could later be used by the fair board maintenance department. Later cement blocks were used and some fairs rented the dynamometer, a device calibrated to measure power. Many, especially western Pennsylvania Fairs still have horse pulls today.
Key Elements of Fairs: Horseshoe Pitching
Horseshoe pitching, or “barnyard golf” was a favorite sport in the early 30s. Nearly every county had organized contests, usually held at fairs. The state finals were held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
Key Elements of Fairs: Music
About 1923 a new type of grandstand act came on the scene. It was a vaudevillian style production. Producers were the Felix Reich Agency and George A. Hamid, just to name a few. These were real stage productions, not only did they sing and dance, they had show girls and lots of pageantry. This type entertainment continued until the late fifties. About that time the “big name” entertainers started to be booked for fair week. Television helped to draw attention to the big names and people wanted to see the stars in person.
In 1956 the Allentown Fair booked Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian Orchestra. The Grandstand was dubbed “Home of the Stars.” History was made, the Allentown Fair lays claim to being the first fair in the nation to feature big name talent in its Grandstand. This proved to be so successful that Harness Racing was cancelled in 1961 and “big name” entertainment continues to this day. This phenomenon caught on across the state. Clearfield, Bloomsburg, York and Reading all brought in the stars of stage and screen. Very, very popular was the favorites from the Lawrence Welk group such as Larry Hooper, the Lennon Sisters and Myron Florin. Hundreds of stars have appeared at fairs over the years. The Osmonds, Alabama, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks just to name a few. Smaller musical acts were featured on “free stages” at many since the 70’s. This practice continues today. Many even very small fairs, try to have a couple free stages where the fairgoer can sit down and enjoy the entertainment as they walk around the fair. It is usually included in with gate admission.
Key Elements of Fairs: Agri-Entertainment
Agri-entertainment started to show up at fairs in the late 1980s. With fewer and fewer farmers, the kids of America thought that milk came from a grocery store and potato chips grew on trees.
“Farmer For A Day” displays were being set up on many fairgrounds and non-farm kids and their parents were being educated. Not only could you milk a cow, but you could also learn about grain and its by-products, pick apples from a tree and gather eggs from the hen house. This type of interactive activity made young children a part of the fair and a reason to remember the fair.
Entertainment types go on and on and only imagination can determine where we will be going in the future. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to entertainment, but one thing is for sure, whatever the public demands, fairs will figure out a way to provide it.
Key Elements of Fairs: Amusement Companies
Amusement rides at fairs started out with the simple merry-go-round. It has always been referred to as “the First Ride.” This ride appeared at Pennsylvania fairs in the late 1800’s. The merry-go-round, over the years has perhaps became the symbol of childhood pleasure.
A Pennsylvania native, George Washington Ferris, Jr., an engineer, bridge builder and owner of an iron and steel testing company in Pittsburgh was the inspiration behind the creation of the most awesome carnival ride, the Ferris wheel. He built this engineering marvel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the Chicago World’s Fair). The wheel toward 265 feet over the fairground its 125-foot wheel turning on a 56-ton axle that was the largest piece of steel ever forged. Thirty-six glass enclosed gondolas, the size of streetcars, made leisurely 10-minute revolutions and carried more than 1,750,000 riders during the course of the fair.
The original Ferris wheel made another appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, but was then disassembled and sold to metal dealers. Ferris’s visionary design lives on at nearly every fair in Pennsylvania.
Amusement companies operating in Pennsylvania have a long and interesting history. We have fairs in the state that have used the same company for as long as thirty years and other fairs which hire a new company every three years. The 2012 Pennsylvania State Showmen’s Association website (www.pashowmen.com) lists 40 amusement companies and 26 of them are Pennsylvania based.
The safety of the amusement rider is of upmost importance. Ride Safety legislation was enacted in 1984. Pennsylvania is now credited with having the best ride inspection criteria in the US.
Along with rides came games. Amusement games became prominent at fairs in the late 1880’s. Game operators usually moved from fair to fair with the carnivals. One very popular game at fairs is BINGO, which now has a cousin called “I Got It!” You throw a tiny red ball into squares. The first person to get five balls in a row or diagonally wins the game. One time I won a set of carving knives that I still use today! I can easily spend a few dollars, sitting at the table playing “I Got It!” and it only takes a few minutes to spend it!
Key Elements of Fairs: Food
Prior to 1950 there were very few food stands at fairs. The food stands that were available were primarily church or community organization stands. They mainly sold sit down dinners.
Families who went to the fair went for the day. They usually took a well – filled picnic basket full of food and choose their parking spot based on the largest shade tree in the lot. At lunch time they came back to the car and ate lunch. That lunch usually was fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs and chocolate cake for dessert. The beverage of the day was lemonade in a gallon jug half full of ice.
The food concessionaires that were around had stick joints (canvas tents) with a counter on three sides. Some of the walk around products were foot-long hot dogs and ice cream sandwiches made with a square of ice cream and two wafers.
The stick joints have given way to expensive trailers costing $50,000.00 to $ 60,000.00. Most have lights, signage and air screens. Today the food products list is very long and extensive. Our ancestors would never believe that potatoes can be purchased in six different forms on the same fairground and that you pay for bottled water. A few of the smaller fairs only have non-profit community group booths.
Most fair surveys which have been done in the past ten years indicate that food is one of the top two reasons people attend fairs. Many fairs have signature foods. Here are some examples:
- Doughnuts – Kimberton, Pa. In 2003, 7,000 dozen doughnuts we made.
- Cream Puffs – Wisconsin
- Scones – Puyallup, Washington
- Chocolate Chip Cookies – Iowa
Key Elements of Fairs: Commercial Vendors
Fairs have been the proving grounds for many, many new products over the years. Both the McCormick reaper and Deere’s steel plow were introduced at fairs. Today it is not only agricultural products but everyday consumer-oriented items that are presented to the public.
The sale of vendor space provides substantial income for many of our fairs, and the vendors also make the fair more interesting to our attendees.
In conclusion, we need to stay true to our agriculture roots and find ways to keep agriculture in the forefront. Fairs are the way we achieve this. Today’s fair is a unique blend of celebrating the agricultural traditions of the past and introducing the technology of the future. Prize winning pies and quilts are proudly displayed along with the latest inventions. Whether people like to visit the animals at the petting zoo, see world class musicians or try the newest thrill ride, they’ll find it at the fair.
Companies worldwide are using fairs to promote their products and services because they know it is a cost-effective method to reach future customers. The vast diversity of activities at the fair attracts visitors from all walks of life. The young and old, the laborer and the CEO, the city-dweller and the farmer—they all gather at the fair.
In the words of our association president, Jim Tucker, “You can’t read this one in a book or find it on a city street. You have to lay eyes on it; you have to taste it, touch it, smell it, be there, if you’re going to get it. Fairs are the connection between dinner on the table and the hard-work ethic of farm production agriculture that keeps us fed. Fairs showcase that hard-work ethic with every kid striving for excellence in the show-ring, and every grandma vowing to out-do last year’s stack of ribbons for pie.
“Fairs are about the real world, where our food comes from, how to improve it, what it takes to sustain a planet’s nutritional needs. They are also a celebration of who we are, what we do, and where we live. Fairs are about families of every color and configuration, music for every age; rides for risk-takers; and those corn dogs, hot sausage sandwiches, and snow cones you can’t imagine resisting—all part of the ritual of the fair.”
Fairs are more crucial to the well being of their communities than ever before. So we need all of you to consider getting involved somehow, some way, with an agricultural fair.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.