American County Fairs emerged in the early 1800s as a way for farmers to strut everything from vegetables to livestock. These gatherings were also the place to learn about the latest techniques and technology. Many people got their first glimpse of modern marvels like electric lights and telephones at a local fair. Over time American County Fairs included features of traveling carnivals that lured growing crowds with sizzling hot Victorian Era sideshows, games, rides and attractions.
Never mind that only a small percentage of us work farms today. American County Fairs preserve a charming blend of nostalgia for our agrarian past, friendly competition and excitement for future technology.
#1 Visionary Businessman With Merino Sheep Smelled Opportunity
1807-1811: Visionary businessman and promoter, Elkanah Watson of Pittsfield Massachusetts held one of the first county fairs by combining a traditional market fair with sheep shearing demonstrations. He later included special deals on products to attract women to his event. By 1811, it evolved into the Berkshire County Fair with thousands of animals displayed. Watson shaped the tradition of American County Fairs.
#2 Sizzling Hot Sideshows Lured Crowds
1818: The agricultural society of Massachusetts organized a three-county fair to promote agricultural education and science. They decided to include carnivals, horse racing, crafts and discounts on various products to lure larger crowds.
#3 First State Fair Was Launched
1840s: Many county fairs were held in New York and New Jersey. The first state fair opened in Syracuse New York in 1841. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society, more than 15,000 people attended over three days.
#4 Kansas Territory Was A Hotbed For County Fairs
1854: The first fairs were held shortly after Kansas Territory was opened (in 1854.) Typically they were organized by county agricultural and mechanical societies to encourage better farming practices.
#5 County Fairs Also Strengthened Community Among Settlers
At least as important according to the Kansas Historical Society:
“…they helped create a sense of community in the newly settled land.” Fairs became a celebration of another year of progress and friendly competition to showcase successes.
#6 The Competition For Visitors Grew Fierce
Fair posters lured crowds with the promise of larger, better and more exciting sideshows than ever before.
The Junction City Union, 1879 highlights the spectacle of people coming from outlying communities to attend the fair.
“As there will be many strangers here during the fair week we must sport our best clothes before them and do everything possible to make a favorable impression.”
#7 Women’s Horse Racing Was Once A Favorite Sideshow
By the mid-1800s, sideshows were gaining speed as American County Fairs competed for visitors. Women’s horse racing was a big hit at the Iowa State Fair. Prizes included a gold watch and $165 cash prize. Sadly, the event was later declared “immodest” for women and it was banned.
#8 Grasshoppers Put A Damper On The Day
1865: The Bourbon County Fair had planned horse races but grasshoppers were “so thick n the track that they could have no races.”
#9 Bad Crops Meant Bad Fairs
1879: Fairs were not always successful, particularly on years with bad crops. On those years the secretaries of fair boards reported that harvests were too scant, weather was bad and exhibits were poor, hence the fair made no profit.
The Pawnee County fair board had filed such a report.
“Times too hard to make our Fair a success. Would have been an entire failure, if it had not been for the kindness of our Governor St. John. Through him we owe our success in his bringing the President of the United States out to our little fair. We had a good display of vegetables but brought in but few.”
The following year they did not hold a fair due to bad crops and because “President Hayes was not on exhibit this year.”
#10 American County Fairs Grew Bigger…
1880s-As American County Fairs matured nationwide, they were most often staged on the outskirts of towns. Everyone got into the game–from church groups, women’s societies and flower clubs to local vendors. State fairs grew bigger and better.
#11 Fairs Went Colossal…
1851- The best known ‘first World Expo’ was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom. It was called “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations“.
1876: The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876 was the first World Fair held in America. It celebrated the 100thanniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a manufacturing trade show extravaganza that allowed Yankee Ingenuity to shine. It changed the world’s perception of the upstart country and the rebels who founded it. The 10 million plus people who attended from May 10th to November 10th witnessed a wide range of newfangled products that included everything from bananas to telephones.
#12 …Then Fairs Topped Colossal
1889-May 6 to October 31: The Exposition Universelle was held in Paris France to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. As a centerpiece of that fair, Gustave Eiffel built his famous ironwork tower, the tallest man-made structure on earth in its day.
1893: Not willing to be outdone, a group of businessmen in Chicago organized the Columbian Exposition, an attempt to upstage the French fair. The 51st U.S. Congress declared that a fair would be held to honor the 400-year anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. The Chicago World’s Fair was to serve as a symbol of American ingenuity and America’s emerging dominance as an industrial power.
It was the world’s first look at products and innovations including a giant Ferris wheel, Aunt Jemima Pancake Syrup, shredded wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and ragtime music.
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