A NJ Fair's Crazy Life
Warren County Farmer's Fair
Agricultural fairs today are family-friendly events with animals, exhibits of hobbies and interests, food, entertainment, and even carnival rides. But, like all things, the fair of today has roots in the past and changed over time. What follows is an edited reprint of a blog posted in August of 2018.
While researching the history of fairs in New Jersey, I came upon an interesting story about the evolution of the Warren County Farmers’ Fair. When I looked for more information on it, my search came up empty or presented only a brief, sanitized version of its history.
The one story I had found came from the Skylands Visitor article “Warren County Farmers’ Fair,” written by Frank Dale and full of intriguing details. This blog presents the short version. However, if you’d like to read Dale’s history, go to http://www.njskylands.com/fmwcfair
The First Warren County Farmers’ Fair
In 1859, a group named The Warren County Farmers’ Mechanics’ and Manufacturers’ Association organized a fair. One of the Association’s members, Abraham McMurtrie, donated 20 acres of his land on which to hold the event. The location was just south of Belvidere, NJ. (Belvidere is the model for Blaineton, my fictional town in the Saint Maggie series.)
The fairgrounds for the Warren County fair had buildings, a grandstand, and a half-mile horse racetrack.
A racetrack? Seems kind of an odd thing to have at an agricultural fair. At least, it did to me.
But the truth is horse races brought in a great deal of cash, and that cash would cover expenses far better than a pie-eating contest.
So, the fair opened up. Despite being beset by rainy, cold October weather, it managed to attract 6,000 visitors over four days. It was a success and it certainly made nearby hotels and taverns happy, for they were packed with out-of-town tourists.
However, a second fair, held 1860, did not do as well. And the following year the nation was split by the Civil War. Fair attendance tanked in 1861, and the event was postponed until after the end of the war.
Once it reopened, things looked good. When the 1870 depression hit, the one thing that kept the fair afloat were the horse races and betting. With the betting and races came drinking and unruly behavior. The drinking and unruly behavior led to complaints and reduced revenue. And, after the 1882 fair, the complaints and revenue were followed by its cancellation.
At this point, Frank Dale writes, “the land returned to the McMurtrie family who plowed under the racetrack and planted corn.” It looked like the fair was dead and gone.
The Farmer’s Picnic
But a good idea does not die. In 1890 a “Farmers’ Picnic” was held in the park opposite the Belvidere courthouse. It was a hit and went on to be held on a yearly basis.
As opposed to a fair, which usually lasts for a few days to a full week, the Farmers’ Picnic was a one-day event. Although brief, it was popular, so popular that special trains were run to bring in the visitors. Politicians showed up to glad-hand voters, speechify, and presumably kiss babies. Even Woodrow Wilson, who was running for Governor of New Jersey, made an appearance.
The Farmers’ Picnic was popular. Everyone loved it. They loved it so much that in 1935 “when the National Bank of Blairstown was robbed by a band of desperadoes, nobody notices; most of Blairstown was at the Farmers' Picnic.” (Dale.)
That was the time when things got rowdy again. Getting blind drunk and engaging in naughty behavior once again reared their ugly heads. Partiers merrily took to tearing up the lawns of the churches and well-to-do homes surrounding the county park.
The sentence for such bad behavior was exactly the same as it was in the 1800s. In 1937, the fair was killed.
One More Time with Feeling (But without Alcohol and Rowdies)
Some years before the well-deserved death of the Farmers’ Picnic, an exhibit started at Butlers Park (in Washington Township) next to the Musconetcong River. It was sponsored by the Farm Bureau and the county Board of Agriculture. Once the Farmers’ Picnic bit the dust, the Butlers Park event started to grow. However, it held on to its agricultural roots, and added to this some wholesome 4-H exhibits and activities.
In 1949, the fair was relocated to a more expansive piece of land in Harmony Township in order to accommodate growing crowds. Two years later, in 1951, another piece of land was purchased and to this day is the home of the Warren County Farmer’s Fair.
What can we learn from this story? Well, one thing is that our rural nineteenth- and early- twentieth century forebears were not the uptight, holier-than-thou types we believe they were. They knew how to take a good thing and ruin it every bit as well as we do. Perhaps even better.
Frankly, I enjoyed this little history of the Warren County Farmer’s Fair precisely because of its ups and downs and its final emergence as a happy, family-friendly agricultural fair. Let’s face it, growing up is not easy, even for an agricultural fair.
This year, the Warren County Farmer’s Fair is postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, one event from the fair will continue. It is something which takes social distancing to new heights: the popular three-day Hot Air Balloon Festival. It is scheduled to float gently up into the air from July 31 through August 2.
Note: I love watching hot air balloons. I was walking my dog early one morning a couple of weeks ago and heard the familiar sound of a hot air balloon. After a few minutes, one lonely balloon floated serenely over the treetops and then disappeared when it changed course.
Even though our contemporary agricultural fairs are cancelled this year, there is always hope that they will be back next year. And if they are, I’m sure my church will be at the Somerset County 4-H Fair and hawking sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by and try one. They’re the best in the world.
Stay safe and be well, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder