Agricultural Fairs During The
Beginning in the early 1800s, the first agricultural fairs gave rural families
an opportunity to see first hand the latest agricultural techniques,
equipment, crops, and livestock. Over the course of the nineteenth
century, fairs also incorporated a wide range of educational, recreational,
competitive, and social activities into their programs. Within a few short
generations, county and state fairs became a quintessential American
Agricultural fairs celebrated human progress, science, education, and the
agrarian ideal. Before there were state and county fairs, however, most
agricultural fairs were held by private individuals and organizations, or
agricultural societies. In 1807, Elkanah Watson of Pittsfield,
Massachusetts held one of the first agricultural fairs by holding sheep
shearing demonstrations in conjunction with traditional market fairs. By
the fall of 1811, Watson's sheep shearing had evolved into the Berkshire
County Fair, a major production, featuring a procession of "three or four
thousand animals," a band, displays of local industries, and artisans.
Watson also took careful steps to attract women by offering premiums on
domestic products and by holding an annual ball.
Agricultural societies eagerly adopted Watson's model for agricultural
fairs, but often faced financial difficulties. During the 1820s and 1830's
local agricultural exhibitions floundered because private donations fell
short of the money required for premiums, fair grounds, judges,
transportation, publicity, and entertainment. Beginning 1840, however,
state legislatures across the country formed agricultural boards and
allocated funds to agricultural societies, which in turn allowed for larger,
more regular exhibitions. In 1841, the first state fair took place in
Syracuse, New York. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society,
the three-day event attracted more than 15,000 people.
Fairs quickly became highly anticipated events across the country. Many
farm families adjusted their work schedules as far as a month in advance
of the big events in order to earn a few work-free days at 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 popular entertainment, such as vaudeville. Delia
Marcella Locke, for example, was a California fair-goer in the 1850s and
1860s who saw sewing and washing machines, a printing press, and
stereoscopic pictures for the first time at her local county fair.
Horseracing proved to be one of the most popular and controversial
activities, especially women's horseracing. At the 1854 Iowa State Fair,
prizes for women's horseracing included a gold watch, a premium of $165,
or a scholarship to study at a nearby seminary for three terms. Yet
critics decried the immorality of the sport and the immodesty of female
riders. By the late 1860s, fair boards and legislatures across the country
limited, or even banned, women's equestrian events.
During the Civil War, the military used state fairgrounds in the Midwest to
train soldiers, forcing agricultural societies to either relocate or cancel
annual events. Following the Civil War, however, fairs enjoyed a renewed
popularity as states increased funding to construct permanent
fairgrounds, complete with buildings and a midway. After 1870, political
speeches, carnival games, vaudevillian performances, and enticing edibles
became part of the fair-going experience.
Since the early 1800s, fairs were about much more than education and
amusement; they helped guide rural people through an increasingly
modern world, whether it was introducing them to new equipment or
forms of entertainment. Even today, fairgoers celebrate agricultural
achievements and enjoy exhibitions, food, carnival rides, entertainment,
competitions, and well-known concert performers.
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