Image: The show tent for cows, goats, sheep at the Somerset County 4-H Fair.
Since I wrote about the Somerset County 4-H Fair yesterday, I got to thinking about fairs. I wondered about their history. I asked, “When did they start in New Jersey?” So, ready, set, let’s go – to fair history!
There probably were fairs as soon as there were human beings. I worked as an adjunct professor for a while and taught a world history class. Get this, we had to cover world history in one semester. That’s right. One semester. Who thought that one up? It was a real romp, believe me.
But one of the things that really made an impact with me as I taught the course was the human desire to trade with other humans. I was surprised to learn about the amount of sharing and trading not only of goods, but of ideas, philosophy, religion, and technology that occurred in the ancient world.
As for North America, the first fair was held there in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia. And it’s still being held today! Apparently, the good folk in Canada, got a jump on this fair thing. 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 to be held in the United States, was founded by a chap named Elkanah Watson, “a New England patriot and farmer.” He started a Cattle Show in Pittsfield, MA in September of 1811 that included animal exhibitions and competitions that involved prize money. Watson went on to organize the Berkshire Agricultural Society and promoted the idea of fairs in other communities. Soon other locales were holding fairs of their own. (International Association of Fairs and Expositions.)
I’m excited about the above information because some of my cousins grew up in Pittsfield and I can’t wait to tell my Aunt Mary that she’s living in the home of the first fair in the USA! But I digress.
Eventually fairs spread from Massachusetts into the other states and became commonplace throughout the nation by the end of the 19th century.
“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.” Well put, International Association of Fairs and Expositions!
In New Jersey, a royal charter was granted by King George II in 1745 permitting the colonists to have a fair at which they could buy and sell livestock and other goods. The fair was held in Trenton Township in April and October until the charter was surrendered in 1750. Fairs then were banned by the State Legislature in 1797, but were permitted after the State Agricultural Society pursued a reversal of the ban.
In 1888, the Inter-State Fair Association was organized by local businessmen. They purchased over 100 acres where they held fairs that featured “various breeds of horses, cattle and other livestock, agricultural products and farming equipment, culinary arts and needlework.” The location is now a sculpture park. (Grounds for Sculpture)
There was another New Jersey State Fair held in Garden Park in Cherry Hill. However, in 1999, 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 diffuse and unorganized to you, don’t feel bad. It feels that way to me. I’m getting the impression that there was no one “official” state fair – but I could be wrong, and I’m okay with that. After all, I researched all this on the spur of the moment.
But if my “dude, where’s my state fair” problem sounds weird, that’s nothing compared to the crazy history of the Warren County Fair, which we’ll look at tomorrow. As you will recall, Warren County is home to the fictional town of Blaineton, which is home to Maggie Blaine Smith. So, in a very odd way, we end up back in the Saint Maggie series. Hope this doesn’t give me any ideas…
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.
(Yes, I had to go to Wikipedia for this one. Sorry…)