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There were fairs in the 18C British American colonies & the new republic long before Elkanah Watson, a New England farmer, earned the title, "Father of US agricultural fairs" by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1807, Watson held 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 featuring a procession of "three or four thousand animals," a band, displays of local industries, & artisans.
Watson also tried to entice women's attendance by offering premiums on domestic products & by holding an annual ball. Watson created more than just an exhibit of animals, he offered a competition, with prize money for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine & sheep.
Currier and Ives print
Elkanah Watson worked diligently for many years helping communities organize their own agricultural societies & their local fairs. By 1819, most counties in New England had organized their own agricultural societies & the movement was spreading into the other states. Most early 19C local American fairs were the place local agricultural society members discussed crops, livestock, & land use. Most of these annual events awarded premiums (prizes) for the best (not the biggest) specimens of crops & animals. Initially, the main purpose was to educate farmers.
Local fairs drew isolated farm families to towns, county seats, & state capitals to socialize with friends; learn about improved seed varieties & livestock breeds; & marvel at new equipment. Fairs were usually held in the early autumn, after crops had been gathered. During the 1820-30s, local agricultural exhibitions floundered as private donations fell short of the money required for premiums, fair grounds, judges, transportation, publicity, & entertainment.
In the 1840s, manufacturers began using fairs to exhibit new plows, planters, & reapers, hoping to sell their new products & to promote more efficient cultivation & better crops. Agricultural fairs promoted human progress, science, education, & the agrarian ideal, while serving as a capitalistic marketplace for new farm methods & equipment.
Gradually, county fair associations developed, usually consisting of local businessmen who raised money for premiums; sited the event on land purchased or leased for the purpose; & advertised. Contestants' entry fees & general gate admissions paid most of the expenses. Beginning in the 1840s, state legislatures across the country formed agricultural boards & allocated funds to agricultural societies, which in turn allowed for larger, more regular exhibitions.
In 1841, the 1st state fair took place in Syracuse, New York. Sponsored by the New York Agricultural Society, the 3-day event attracted more than 15,000 people. The 19C closed with almost every state & province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition. The core elements of those early agricultural society events are still at the heart of the American agricultural fair today.
Merchants, who benefited from the influx of visitors, supported the fair with displays on the grounds & often closed for a time to allow employees to attend. Since 19C fairs were held in September & October, schools often closed briefly during the festivities. In the Mid-West, railroads often offered excursion rates to fairgoers & freight reductions to exhibitors for transporting produce & livestock to the fair. Local civic groups operated refreshment stands & occasionally prepared exhibits of their own. Townships & granges also sometimes prepared agricultural exhibits. The sewing & quilting groups at local churches might enter handiwork in the domestic displays.
By the last half of the 19C, many fairs provided tracks for a one-half-mile harness racing, trotting, & pacing competitions. In harness racing, horses pull lightweight sulkies, a single seat cart with two wire wheels, & compete on a one-mile circular dirt track. The driver carries a light whip, for which use is restricted by frequency & severity. The horses are either trotters or pacers. Trotters move together their opposite front & hind legs. Pacers, the faster & more popular of the two, move together their front & hind legs on the same side.
Horse racing proved to be one of the most popular & controversial activities, especially women's horse racing. At the 1854 Iowa State Fair, prizes for women's horse racing included a gold watch, a premium of $165, or a scholarship to study at a nearby seminary for 3 terms. Yet critics decried the immorality of the sport & the immodesty of female riders. By the late 1860s, many fair boards & legislatures across the country limited, or even banned, women's equestrian events.
During the Civil War, the military often used the fields of state fairgrounds to train soldiers, forcing agricultural societies to either relocate or cancel annual events. Following the Civil War, fairs enjoyed a renewed popularity, as many states increased funding to construct permanent fairgrounds, complete with buildings & a midway. After 1870, political speeches, carnival games & vaudevillian performances became part of the fair-going experience. Bicycle races, balloon ascensions, & eventually automobile races & airplane demonstrations became common features.
1895 Detroit, Mich. Calvert Litho. Co
Over the course of the 19C, fairs incorporated a wide range of educational, recreational, competitive, & social activities into their programs. The typical 20C fair usually combined both educational & entertainment options. Educational offerings included the traditional livestock & crop exhibits & competitions; arts, crafts, & homemaking competitions; & youth & vocational activities. General entertainment included midways, rides, food, shows, & special events, much like today.