FUN AT THE FAIR - A LOOK AT A GREAT SUMMER TRADITION
With Independence Day over and the heart of the summer in full swing, we thought it would be fun to discuss one piece of rural American heritage that we’re all sure to love: the Fair.
Fairs can be found locally or at the state level, and around the world. They have created a positive impact on families for centuries, and modern American fairs are truly a majestic and unique aspect of our culture.
There is no great debate or moral discussion over this proud tradition; when at a fair, everyone is enjoying themselves. Yet, it is still important to look at the history of fairs, and see how and why they came about.
Think back to some cherished childhood memories, or maybe not so long ago, and remember what it was like to be running around surrounded by all of the excitement of the state or county fair. Imagine the amazing smells, fun rides, competitions, and concerts. What was a favorite food, ride, or competition? Although they happen nearly year round, most fairs take place in the summer and fall, so maybe the memory includes the summer stars as seen from an amusement ride with the girl you had spent the day courting or the giant pumpkin competition that made you immediately think of Cinderella. What is likely to be remembered most of all though, is the centerpiece of every fair that everybody can surely get behind – food. Succulent taste, interesting combinations, and fried everything is sure to be found.
Originally no more than a few families showing their livestock, baked goods, and homemade crafts to their neighbors, fairs have grown drastically to become the multi-million visitor/multi-million dollar marvels they are today. Instead of just livestock shows (although they certainly are still a major part), they have everything from (A to Z) Amusement rides to mini Zoos, and everything in between.
Some would say that American fairs came from Europe in the 1700s, where they were “delivered to the colonial docks of Boston and Halifax with a predisposed mission to serve agriculture and animal husbandry.” Others link fairs back further in the timeline of human history, to 500BC scripture in the book of Ezekiel. Either way, agricultural was just as prevalent in the origins of fairs as it is today.
They have always been mainly a commercial venture. Merchants would get together to show the domestic and foreign goods or spices that they had acquired of the year. Farmers would showcase, sell and trade their year’s harvest. There would be trading, competition, entertainment, and fun, just like the fairs of today. Substantial evidence can certainly be found that suggests what seemed to be primitive marketplaces could be the origins of the colossal fairs we have today.
The first fair in North America was held in 1765 at Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada. Many fairs were held in Canada while under the French rule, and remnants of that can be seen in their many fairs today. In ‘upper Canada,’ present day Ontario, the Niagara Agriculture Society hosted a fair in 1792. Both of these Canadian fairs are still in operation today, talk about tradition!
In the United States, modern fairs have been organized since 1841, the first state fair hosted in Syracuse, New York. Although they have evolved with humans to include concerts and amusement rides, food and agriculture has always been the main focus. In fact, the idea of the modern state fair is credited to Elkanah Watson, a New England farmer who started this venture after taking his sheep to the public square to showcase their quality on multiple occasions. He organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September of 1811 to evolve his simple showcase into a competition, known at the time simply as a ‘Cattle Show.’ The original prize money was given to the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine and sheep – it totaled $70 dollars.
Watson then spent many years traveling within America, helping other cities and towns set up their own agricultural societies so that they could host their own fairs or cattle shows across the states. By the end of the 1800s, almost every state and province in America had one or more agricultural fairs or exhibitions. He certainly earned his nickname, “The Father of U.S. Agricultural Fairs.” Without Elkanah Watson, it’s hard to imagine local fairs becoming as prevalent as they are today.
Today, some of the agriculture-based competitions include recipe judging and baking competitions, produce and animal size, and even butter sculptures. In Alaska, the state fair is popular for its oversized produce, boasting a 138 lb. cabbage, 65 lb. cantaloupe, and 35 lb. broccoli in 2014 as some of their many competition winners. Iowa is famous for its giant butter cow, while Wisconsin and Indiana state fairs are famous for mammoth cheese carvings.
But along with the amazing foods (in size and taste) that can be found at the fair, innovative products like the hot tub and dental x-ray machines have also been debuted. Many more interesting things like these are sure to be found at the fair as the years go on and creativity grows!
Most fairs have everything from amusement rides for kids to brewery competitions for adults, so it is guaranteed to be fun for the whole family. In California, attendees get a free mug and 10 samples from local microbreweries at their state fair. On top of all the amazing things there, it all comes at an affordable price, and is just around the corner.
Although there are over 3,200 state or local fairs held in America each year, some of the top fairs that will be held in the coming months can be found in California, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Texas. Millions of people will travel hundreds of miles to attend, it is simply an experience that cannot be missed. The Texas state fair alone hosts over 2.5 million people, Minnesota’s hosts 1.7 million, and both Iowa and Wisconsin bring in over a million each. Hundreds of thousands attend the others as well; but no matter where it’s at, the state or local fair is sure to be amazing.
Depending on which we’re discussing, the competitions and activities available will be curtailed to the geographical location it’s in. Horse races, chainsaw artists, or parades can all be found depending on the setting. The different types of pie competitions vary based on the state's most famous fruit or filling, and the vendors are sure to provide a different variety of tasty snacks.
A fair is a celebration of America, the state, businesses, tradition, but most importantly agriculture. Since the first fair, they have been an amazing opportunity to display the agricultural wonders of America, and we could not ask for a better way to showcase what we do and, most importantly, have fun.
Fairs have a long history, sure to get longer. They have and will continue to whether all economic conditions, trials, and challenges that they face. They aren’t going anywhere. The place that fairs have in America and the hearts of Americans and people all over the world is permanent. Pat Andrews, owner of a Minnesota fairground business, said:
“I think the fair is the fair…They are going to come no matter what.”We could not agree more. The fair is a mini-vacation. It’s a place to escape from boring day jobs and school, but individuals don’t have to travel too far to find it. Chances are a state or a local city will host one right down the road.
We encourage this traditional celebration of agriculture and know that millions of individuals across the country do as well. So, we would like to know some of your best fair memories and experiences! Share with us in the comment section why you choose to revisit your favorite fair year after year, and why you think more people should take advantages of the opportunity for local fun that the fairs provide.