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Discover Mid-America— July 2009

County Fairs: A ‘midway’ of tradition and change

You many boast about the circus
And the animals so rare,
But for sport and real enjoyment
Give me the County Fair.
— from an advertising postcard, 1908

County fairs are far from worldly events, but historically they have served local communities for centuries in the United States

The concept of the local fair can be traced back to Biblical times when promotion of the town’s marketplace was incorporated into religious observances. During the Middle Ages such fairs came under the regulation of regional officials and churches became gradually less involved.

By the 1500s, fairs grew more and more commercial in many parts of Europe. Banks were frequently represented in the fairs to provide financial services for major transactions. Commercial exhibits and entertainment flourished at these sites. World Book encyclopedia researcher H. Lewis Miller notes, “The government of New Netherland authorized the first annual fair in America in 1641.”

Lithograph Fair poster, 1892, Carson, Nevada.

It was held at a location now known as New York City. By the middle of the 18th century, fairs were a common event throughout the American colonies. They were primarily agricultural in theme, and served as a showcase for regional farm products and livestock.

The Center for Agricultural History and Rural Studies at Iowa State University notes, by the early 1800s, “the fairs gave rural families an opportunity to see first hand the latest agricultural techniques, equipment, crops and livestock.”

The early 19th century also saw the development of agricultural organizations, the driving force of local fairs.

In January 1818, the Daily Hampshire Gazette carried an account of the formation of the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Agricultural Society in Massachusetts. They had united “to promote agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science” through an annual three-county fair.

Their fair was to include carnivals, games, horse racing, horse demonstrations, crafts, and premiums for agricultural and domestic products. Today their three-county fair is recognized as one of the oldest in America.

Small fairs dominated the early 19th century and were known as “mostly local or county-wide affairs.” According to Derek Nelson, author of The American State Fair, such events were “more serious and less entertaining.”

Some of the first state fairs were held in New Jersey and New York during the 1840s. In the years following the Civil War, fairs in general and state fairs in particular began further stressing entertainment.

“After the Civil War, the thrill shows, contests and pageants that would become such an integral part of our experience — appeared to enliven the event,” notes Nelson.

By the 1880s, county fairs had fallen into a nationwide pattern of being staged each year in fields on the outskirts of town. Besides farm produce, the fairs usually included competition involving homemade foods such as fruit and vegetables. Manufacturers meanwhile often exhibited agricultural machinery and other equipment.

Souvenier program Indiana State Fair published in 1947.

Fair were highly anticipated affairs, noted Center for Agricultural History and Rural Studies, with farm families adjusting their work schedules in order to attend the fair. “For many people, the fair would mark the first time they saw electric lights and airplanes, and it helped farm families adapt to changing mores and accepted forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville.”

Other amusements at the county fairs of the latter 19th century grew to include everything from games of chance to fireworks. Crowds were frequently drawn to permanent grandstands for sporting events like harness racing and horse-pulling contests. Horse-racing proved to be one of the most popular and controversial activities, especially women’s horseracing, according to the Center for Agricultural History and Rural Studies.

In 1908, the Jackson Brothers Combination of Constaine, Michigan advertised “free special attractions.” Including “most daring feats of horsemanship — performed with dash-assuring satisfaction unparalleled in racing events.”

County fairs were “a welcome distraction from the normally quit rural life,” observes author Mary Shafter in the book Rural America, A Pictorial Folk Memory.

“Children showed off their budding skills in animal care and husbandry; mothers participated in contests pitting their favorite food recipes against those of neighbors near and far; and fathers entered their favorite draft animals in friendly competition against their peers in weight-pulling contests.”

Tradition and change

In the Midwest, the county fair can be a steady reflection of the interests and values of the surrounding rural community. In other counties, one where the population resides in urban, suburban and rural settings, the county fair offers a community connection to the past while bridging into the present.

Lacy Marshall has been going to the Buffalo County Fair (July 29-Aug. 4) in Kearney, NE since she was eight years old. At 22, and a student at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, Marshall can’t seem to get enough of the county fair scene. She’s a summer intern at the fairgrounds this year.

Going to the county fair “was something your family did,” says Marshall. “I still look forward to it every year. There’s something new every year and it’s tradition.”

The county fair tradition in Kearney, a town of 2,500, sprang up in 1875, says Marshall, with an agricultural exhibit at a local furniture store. By 1884, the first full-fledge county fair was established in Buffalo County.

Today, the focus remains agricultural coupled with an entertainment aspect. “The demolition derby is big and the 4-H is always updating,” Marshall says, “with a focus on reduce, reuse and recycle.”

Kearney benefits from the increased business. Marshall says the fair easily draws from a 50-mile radius. Still, she says, the county fair “brings back the original to what Nebraska is all about, an historical feel.’

In Wyandotte County, KS, the county fair (July 28-Aug. 1) has seen its county fair focus change. Growth has exploded in the western part of the county where the fair was once located. A mixture of urban, suburban and rural, the former county fair site is now the home of the emerging Schlitterbahn Waterpark, located near the Kansas Speedway, T-Bones baseball facility and Village West shopping district.

Wyandotte County has become a visitor destination, says Bridgette Jobe, director for the Kansas City, KS-Wyandotte County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Twenty years ago we were more rural.”

As officials look for the new site to hold the fair, this year’s Wyandotte County Fair will be held in Leavenworth County. Jobe won’t say what new locations are being looked at except that the new fairgrounds will be in the rural, western part of the county.

“The challenge is that we are becoming a visitor destination and the fair will become part of that,” says Jobe. “But we will keep to the basics of what a county fair is — a gathering place for the community that helps us remember our roots, where we came from.”

Wooden Nickel, Aug. 26-28, 1948, Door County Fair and Centennial Celebration.

Keeping it close to home is what motivated Johnson County, MO to finally establish its own county fair (July 6-12). Some fifteen years ago, a nonprofit organization was formed, fundraisers held and donations made; and eleven ago the first Johnson County Fair was held four miles west of Warrensburg.

The big factor in the fair’s creation, says Robert Gilmore, president of the Johnson County Fair Association, was the local 4-H. Lacking a county fair, the 4-H was going from town to town, show to show for its programs. “It was taking up the whole summer,” says Gilmore.

Now, at the facility on 66 acres with a half-dozen buildings and an arena, the 4-H and the rest of the county’s residents have a gathering place of community pride. “Keeps things close to home,” says Gilmore.

And Gilmore stresses it came about without city, county or state funding, and stayed that way. Like many county fair associations, money to help fund the facility comes from rentals and hosting events such as performers, rodeos and demolition derbies. Next on Gilmore’s funding list is an indoor arena for more exhibit space, riding events and trade shows.

Making sure the state’s county fairs have the support they need is the mission of the Association of Iowa Fairs. “We educate, offer legislative and technical support and lobby (the state legislature),” said Thomas Barnes, executive director, who is also secretary/manager of the Mighty Howard County Fair (June 23-28).

Barnes says that “60-70%” of the county fair organizations in Iowa have permanent facilities, which makes his organization’s job in lobbying for funding support crucial.

“The mission of fairs in Iowa is two-fold,” says Barnes. “To serve youth and promote the goals of 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) and to promote the community itself, and its cultural affairs and diversity.”

Barnes estimates the annual economic benefit to the state from county fairs at approximately $214 million.

County Fair collectibles

For decades memorabilia from world’s fairs has been considered quite collectible, while artifacts from state and county events had been overlooked.

Today once unheralded county fair collectibles, from ashtrays and plates to posters and premium books, remain one of the most fertile fields in collecting. For example, treasured fair memorabilia of this 1890s era might include a harness racing poster, premium list or simply a business envelope from the local county fair association.

Early in the 20 century, the postcard proved to be a great boon to county fairs everywhere. Often real photograph postcards featured the fairgrounds or the actual grandstands of a particular fair. It was a time when more and more counties had set aside land as a lasting site for such events.

Other postcards used the mail media for advertising, either for the fair itself or in rare cases, the amusement company.

County fairs were often generous in their distribution of medals and ribbons of various colors during the judging of everything from cattle to cherry pies. Usually the prizes were dated and identified by event location, making them worthwhile collectibles today. Promotional paper and cardboard fans were frequently distributed at fairs during the first few decades of the 20th century.

At the 1917 Walworth County Fair in Elkhorn, WI, those in attendance were given fans with a lovely Victorian-looking lady lithographed in full color on the front. On the reverse was the message, “The Great Walworth County Fair--September 17,18,19,20. L.A. Kimball, president.”

Sheet music of those days sometimes referred to the festive activities of the county fair. In 1917, the song “When’s He’s All Dolled Up, He’s the Best Dressed Rube in Town” featured an extensive county fair scene. Early in the 1920s such events were romanced even further when the best-selling children’s series, The Bobbsey Twins, devoted an entire adventure book to the cause, The Bobbsey Twins at the County Fair. The book by Laura Lee Hope was originally published in 1922, and later reprinted in the 1930s and in later years.

Premium booklet for county 4-H and agriculture fair, 1947.

During the 1930s, Life magazine brought national attention to the county fair with a major issue on the subject. The September 26, 1938 edition paid tribute to the “County Fair in America”, and further established the local fair as a summer or early fall event. By then some local fairs had grown enough to need numbered identification badges for individual workers. A good example was the oval metal and hard-plastic examples distributed for Cambria County Fair employees in Pennsylvania.

Eventually fair-goers could find any number of souvenirs to later remind them of their happy days at the county fair. There was the Napa County Fair ash tray, the McKlean County Fair booklet and program, the Bluffion Street Fair bank, the Rooks County Fair rodeo belt buckle, the Coles County Fair ceramic plate, the Sac Country Centennial Fair pin back button, and the Door County Fair wooden nickel, which was actually rectangular-shaped rather than round coin shaped.

All together more than 3,200 fairs are held in the United States and Canada every year. Taken collectively the crowds are significant. The top 59 fairs in this country attract more than 44 million people annually, a figure said to rival the number of fans at all major league baseball games combined.

In celebration of the anniversary of its historic charter, the Broward County Fair group in Florida observed: “Fairs are as much a part of American life as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie. They have withstood the test of time and continue to impact modern America.”

Robert Reed can be contacted at Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at

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