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I haven’t been posting twice a week because my vocation as an assistant pastor was demanding extra time lately. Long story short, I was updating the church’s website this past week and adding two new pages, most of which required writing new copy. I have spent a lot of time with my laptop, and my eyes needed a rest. Staring into a computer screen overtime does a job on my poor old eyes. As a result, the Squeaking Blog needed was produced only once last week.
To save a little time (not to mention my eyes), the following is taken from a blog I wrote about county fairs back in 2018. The backstory to that blog is that up (until this August), our church had a booth every year at the Somerset County Fair, where we sold the best sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches in the world. (I’m not kidding. They’re sooo good!) As I participated that year, I started wondering about the history behind New Jersey’s county fairs.
I know what you’re thinking. The words “New Jersey” and “agricultural fairs” do not belong together. True, we have an insanely dense population, which is why the coronavirus spread so readily in March and April until we got our act together. True, we have famous and insanely congested roads like the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. And of course we have the Jersey Shore, not to mention Bruce Springsteen.
No one talks about New Jersey’s farms. But we still have them. For the most part, they are found in the western and southern parts of the state. Many of these have shifted to selling organic fruits, vegetables, and meat.
And we still have 4-H clubs. And we still have churches, synagogues, temples, and other organizations that show up in the food tents and create homemade, yummy stuff to eat for reasonable prices.
So, knowing all of this, I had to wonder where county fairs came from.
Most likely fairs or markets were created as soon as human beings realized that they could trade stuff with each other.
Back when I was working as an adjunct professor, I taught a world history class. It was the entire history of the world all crammed into one semester. (Years later, I’m still wondering what genius thought that one up.) The class was a real romp that at times left my students, and me, breathless.
One of the things that really made an impact with me was the human desire to trade with other humans. For some reason I was surprised to learn how frequently our ancient ancestors shared and traded goods, ideas, philosophy, religion, and technology.
On the American continent, Native American tribes obviously traded, too. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I am sadly deficient in this part of their history, something I hope to rectify and write about in next Friday’s blog.
As for the European settlers, their first fair in North America occurred in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia. And it’s still being held today! The International Association of Fairs and Expositions notes:
“In upper Canada, as Ontario was known in early Confederation, a fair was held in 1792, sponsored by the Niagara Agricultural Society. As with Windsor, the Niagara Fair remains in operation today. In addition, many small fairs were held during the early 1700's in French Canada while under French rule.”
The first fair held in the newly formed United States was founded by a chap named Elkanah Watson, “a New England patriot and farmer.” He started a Cattle Show in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September of 1811. It included animal displays and competitions and offered prize money to the best exhibits. Watson went on to organize the Berkshire Agricultural Society and to promote fair idea to other communities. Soon other locales were holding fairs of their own. (International Association of Fairs and Expositions.)
Eventually fairs spread from Massachusetts to other states and by the end of the 19th century were commonplace throughout the nation
“Today, about 2,000 fairs are held in North America each year. They provide industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H, FFA and similar youth development programs. While enjoying these high-minded pursuits, fair visitors are also able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the richness and variety of what the world has to offer.” (International Association of Fairs and Expositions!)
In New Jersey, a royal charter was granted in 1745 by King George II. It permitted colonists to hold a fair to buy and sell livestock and other goods. The fair was held in Trenton Township in April and October and continued to do so until 1750, when the charter was surrendered.
In 1797, fairs actually were banned by New Jersey’s State Legislature. Fortunately, the State Agricultural Society successfully pursued a reversal of the ban.
In 1888, a group of businessmen organized the Inter-State Fair Association. They purchased over 100 acres to hold fairs featuring “various breeds of horses, cattle and other livestock, agricultural products and farming equipment, culinary arts and needlework.” While the fair no longer meets, the grounds have been preserved and now serve as a sculpture park. (Grounds for Sculpture)
Another New Jersey State Fair was held at Garden Park in Cherry Hill. In 1999, though, the rights to the name “New Jersey State Fair” were purchased by the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. (New Jersey State History Committee)
If New Jersey’s “state fair” information seems odd to you, you’re right. I got the impression that there never was an “official” state fair. Of course, I could be wrong, and I’m okay with that because I researched all this on the spur of the moment and there may be information out there that I didn’t find.
If this “dude, where’s my state fair” problem sounds weird, that’s nothing compared to the crazy history of the Warren County Fair. Warren County. of course, is home to the fictional town of Blaineton, which is home to my character Maggie Blaine Smith. So, in an odd way, the story of state and county fairs takes us back to the Saint Maggie series.
The story of the Warren County Fair will be reprinted on Monday.
Until then stay safe, friends!
Janet R. Stafford
Grounds for Sculpture, “History of State Fairgrounds.”
International Association of Fairs & Expositions, “History of Fairs.”
New Jersey State Fair History Committee (2007) A Fair to Remember: A Documentary on the History of the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show. New Jersey State Fair/Sussex County Farm and Horse Show: August, New Jersey.
(I had to go to Wikipedia for this one. Sorry…)
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder