When we go to agricultural fairs today, they are family-friendly events with animals, exhibitions of hobbies and interests, food, entertainment, and even carnival rides. But like all things, the fair of today evolved. Some might even say it’s been Disneyfied.
As I researched the history of fairs in New Jersey, I came upon an interesting tale about the evolution of the Warren County Farmers’ Fair. I looked for more information, but my search came up empty or presented a brief, sanitized version of the fair’s history.
What I am offering today comes from the Skylands Visitor article “Warren County Farmers’ Fair” written by Frank Dale. I’m giving you the short version, if you’d like to read Dale’s history, please go to http://www.njskylands.com/fmwcfair. It's a fascinating read.
The First Warren County Farmers’ Fair
A group named The Warren County Farmers’ Mechanics’ and Manufacturers’ Association organized a fair in 1859. One of the Association’s members, Abraham McMurtrie, gave 20 acres of his land on which they could hold the event. It was located just south of Belvidere, NJ. (Belvidere serves as the model for Blaineton, my fictional town in Saint Maggie. I like the synchronicity)
The fairgrounds had buildings, a grandstand, and a half-mile horse race track. Why the race track? Because horse races brought in a great deal of cash, cash which would cover expenses far better than pie-eating contests.
Despite rainy, cold October weather, the first fair attracted 6,000 visitors over four days, something which also benefited nearby hotels and taverns.
The second fair (1860) did not do as well. The following year the nation was split by the Civil War, which put a damper on all things fun. After the war, the fair returned. Five years later it felt the sting of the 1870 depression.
However, its one big draw kept it going: the horse races and the betting that accompanied it. Oh, and with the betting and races came drinking and unruly behavior. It was these things, over and above the nation's economic conditions, that led to complaints and reduced revenue. Predictably, after the 1882 fair, the event was killed. As Frank Dale writes, “the land returned to the McMurtrie family who plowed under the race track 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 county park opposite the Belvidere courthouse. It was a hit and thus came back year after year. The one-day event was so popular that special trains were run to bring visitors, and politicians showed up to glad-hand voters and speechify. Even Woodrow Wilson made an appearance when he was running for Governor of New Jersey. The Farmers’ Picnic drew so many people 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.)
Moreover, “demon rum” and naughty behavior once again reared their ugly heads as revelers merrily took to tearing up the lawns of the well-to-do homes and churches around Belvidere's county park.
By 1937. the sentence for such craziness was the same as it was in the 1800s: the fair was killed.
One more time with feeling (but this time without the alcohol and rowdies)
Some years before the well-deserved death of the Farmers’ Picnic, an exhibit started at Butlers Park (Washington Township) next to the Musconetcong River. It was sponsored by the Farm Bureau and the county Board of Agriculture. Once the Farmers’ Picnic was gone, the Butlers Park event really started to grow. However, it did one thing the other fairs did not: it held on to its agricultural roots and added wholesome 4-H exhibits and activities to its program. The event was relocated in 1949 to a more expansive piece of land in Harmony Township to accommodate the growing crowds. And two years later, in 1951, another piece of land was purchased, which became the home of what is now the Warren County Fair. The current fair is now much like any other agricultural fair in New Jersey: wholesome, family fun that puts us in touch with our state's agricultural past.
I know what you're thinking: New Jersey has agriculture? Yes. The entire state is not what you might see as you travel along the NJ Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway, especially on the northern part of those roads. And all of us certainly are not what you see on TV shows like the Jersey Shore or the Sopranos. Travel west or travel south and you'll find woods and streams and farms. Our state even has a Farmland Preservation program so we don't get completely paved over.
However, if the story of the Warren County Fair is any indication, our rural nineteenth- and early- twentieth century forebears were not the uptight, holier-than-thou individuals we like to think they were. They knew how to take a good thing and ruin it as well as we do. Perhaps even better.
I enjoyed this little history of the Warrant County Fair precisely because of its ups and downs. Because growing up is not easy. Even for a fair.