Whenever we stroll onto the dusty grounds of a county fair or walk through the entrance to a harvest festival, we’re following generations of fairgoers who ambled in ahead of us. Every torn ticket and click of a turnstile connects us to the centuries-old tradition of going to a fair.
It’s easy to take for granted today’s fairs and festivals because they’re so deeply ingrained into our history and culture. But each one, no matter its size or stature, has its roots firmly planted in the past. The most distinctive aspect of today’s fairs is how little they’ve changed over the years.
The same features that attract folks to fairs today can be traced to fairs in Europe, dating to the Middle Ages. From the beginning, fairs drew crowds for specific purposes. Some gatherings were religious in nature; other fairs revolved around trade and commerce. Because people enjoyed the social aspect of these annual get togethers, fairs grew into opportunities to shop for specialty goods or to be amused by exotic entertainment.
In Colonial America, regular market days and annual fairs were vital to the prosperity of every village and town. As early as 1686 local governments set aside specific days of the week as market days with three-day fairs celebrated every May and October. Those early markets and fairs encouraged struggling farmers to improve agricultural production as a way to support their families and communities.
Market days and livestock exhibitions, sponsored by area agricultural societies, were common in Britain by the time American farmers borrowed the idea. In the late 1700s, America was striving for independence and self-sufficiency, and agricultural societies promoted new farming methods. The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, formed in 1785, included notable members like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.
Thomas Jefferson was also a passionate plantsman who spent much of his time searching for new production crops at his Monticello estate. On his terraced gardens he experimented with sugar maple trees, grapes, corn and many kinds of legumes. As an avid gardener and friendly competitor, he held annual contests to see which of his neighbors could grow the first English pea each season.
The beginning of more formal agricultural competitions began in the nation’s capital in the early 1800s. During those events, premiums as high as $100 were awarded to the best livestock sold including sheep, goats, cows and steers. The premiums were a powerful incentive for farmers and livestock breeders to work even harder.
One successful farmer saw livestock sales as a business opportunity. In 1807 Elkanah Watson showed two of his Merino sheep to the public in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to interest other farmers in raising this valuable breed. His small exhibition wasn’t entirely altruistic; he hoped more fine Merino wool would eventually end up at his woolen mills.
Watson’s livestock shows became so popular he expanded them into annual agricultural fairs and competitions. Each year the exhibitions grew in the kinds of contests, numbers of competitors and amount of premiums. To attract larger crowds, he added special events like speeches, parades and plowing matches. His entrepreneurial spirit eventually earned him an enduring nickname: “father of the agricultural fair.”
The Golden Age of the Agricultural Fair
The popularity of fairs in the early 1800s had more ups and downs than a roller coaster on the midway. Even though attendance at fairs was up, when state financial aid ended, many agricultural societies and their fairs went down.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when agricultural societies started to regain steam. This time they started out as state or county organizations with the sole purpose of holding fairs. New interest in fairs translated into renewed interest in high-quality agriculture, too. Plant breeders experimented with methods to improve crop yields, grow tastier vegetables and find plants with better disease resistance.
California horticulturist Luther Burbank made plant breeding his life’s work starting in 1873. He eventually produced more than 800 new plants, including the ‘Russet Burbank’ potato, the ‘Santa Rosa’ plum and the ‘Royal’ walnut. Surely many of his new fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains found their way to agricultural exhibitions at fairs.
These improved agricultural products led to bigger premiums at fairs and expositions. Newspaper advertising and a larger railroad system also persuaded rural residents to travel long distances to see newfangled farming equipment, learn the latest trends in the domestic arts and compete for the agricultural ideal in crop and vegetable contests. But it was harness racing that drew the biggest crowds.
Of all the fairs staged in America before 1893, The World’s Columbian Exposition was “the grandest fair the world had ever seen.” Better known as the Chicago World’s Fair, this celebration commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World.
The exposition lasted six months and it was a once-in-a-lifetime event for more than 25 million visitors. It’s reported that people mortgaged their homes to raise money to travel to Chicago and spend a week or two touring the many “palatial” buildings and viewing millions of exhibits from around the globe.
Guidebooks described every aspect in great detail. The Horticultural Building had a center pavilion with a glass dome tall enough to house full-size palm and bamboo trees. Architects designed the Agricultural Building especially for American farmers, with nearly 19 acres of floor space. An assembly room could hold 1500 people for meetings of the Congress of Farmers, Farmers’ Alliances and other rural organizations.
Other features included modern farm implements, machinery and a fully operational agricultural station. “The entire structure has been so planned as to give the farmers and live-stock men generally all they could ask in the way of accommodations at the World’s Fair,” gushed one guidebook author.
Alongside labor-saving farm inventions and a 1700-pound chocolate statue of Christopher Columbus stood the Ferris wheel. This brand-new engineering marvel was the largest attraction at the fair and more than a million people paid 50 cents each to take a ride. The Ferris wheel was the most iconic attraction on the midway in 1893 — and at every American fair since.
Everything old is new again
Who doesn’t have a favorite memory of going to a fair? Whether it’s the fragrance of onions sizzling on a grill, the fast-paced action of a livestock auction, exciting bull riding at the rodeo, or the heart-pounding moments on a death-defying carnival ride, there’s something for everyone at a fair.
Accounts of some of the earliest fairs describe booths decorated with streamers and filled with assorted trinkets. It didn’t take long for confections, carnivals and other amusements to become essential elements of every fair. Even so, the livestock and agricultural exhibits remained the main reason to hold a fair.
American fairs haven’t changed much over time. In spite of all the technological advances made since the 1800s, and the small amount of today’s population directly engaged in agriculture, millions of people flock to agricultural fairs and festivals every year.
Thanks to collectors of antique farm equipment, we can admire the same shiny red tractors that were on display at fairs in the 1940s when they were brand new. Because of thoughtful seed savers, gardeners can still grow the same heirloom vegetables shown at early exhibitions. Some fairs even have special vegetable contests for heirloom varieties, recognizing the generations of growers who saved vegetable seeds and passed them along.
Festivals are the kissing cousins to county and state fairs. What sets festivals apart from a traditional fair is they typically have a specific focus, like Renaissance festivals, arts festivals and especially harvest festivals. Pumpkin festivals are dedicated to celebrating everything about the orange globes, from their size and shape to how far they can be flung with a trebuchet.
New agricultural festivals and expositions continue to celebrate the evolution of American agriculture. Farmers, gardeners, food enthusiasts and urban homesteaders all turn to modern festivals for education and inspiration.
The radical new hemp festivals hearken back to a time in America when hemp was expected to become the largest agricultural industry in the country. The National Heirloom Exposition refers to itself as “The World’s Pure Food Fair” to honor the same authentic foods grown 100 years ago. Smaller, unique festivals that extol the virtues of a single vegetable, like radishes, introduce farmers’ market patrons to the beauty and tastes of little-known varieties.
Fairs and festivals may change with the times, but they’ll always be an important way to honor and preserve a rural lifestyle. Folks may look forward to tasting the latest deep-fried-something on a stick, but going to the fair is a tradition that will forever keep us connected to our country’s rich agricultural heritage.
Grow big or go home
Some of the biggest vines that tie gardeners to horticultural contents of the past are giant vegetable competitions. In Britain giant onions and leeks take center stage, but in America pumpkins and cabbages are the most popular giants to grow.
Farmers tried for more than 150 years to grow a pumpkin that would weigh as much as a small elephant. It finally happened in 2012 when a Rhode Island grower broke the 2000-pound giant pumpkin barrier.
It seems a 245-pound ‘Mammoth’ squash in 1850’s England started the giant pumpkin quest rolling. Ever since then growers have gone to extraordinary lengths to grow the biggest pumpkin the world has ever seen.
In 1893 Canadian grower William Warnock changed the sport forever when he exhibited a 365-pound pumpkin at the Chicago World’s Fair. He kept growing weightier pumpkins each year until his best effort reached 403 pounds.
It took another 70 years before someone topped that record. In 1980 an amateur seed breeder in Nova Scotia grew a pumpkin that weighed 459 pounds. Howard Dill’s ‘Atlantic Giant’ seeds or Atlantic crosses continue to set giant pumpkin records around the globe.
Today’s competitive growers may have modern technology as an ally, but they still have to do the hard work. They search for genetically-superior seeds, tend them for months and then use heavy equipment to get their giants to a competition. Fame and thousands of dollars in prize money are the reward.
Pumpkin weigh-offs, especially those sanctioned by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, are especially popular harvest events. Crowds gather to watch the weighing, hoping to see a world-champion in the making. Some pumpkin events end on a high note when giant pumpkins are raised 100 feet in the air and then dropped to the ground.
Growers in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley use their long daylight hours in summer to see who can grow the largest cabbage. Each August they transport their brassica behemoths to Palmer for one of the premier events at the Alaska State Fair.
This tradition of showing giant cabbages began humbly enough in 1941 when the manager of the Alaska Railroad sponsored the $25 prize for a 23-pound cabbage. Now the contest is a media event that delights spectators as far away as Australia. In 2012 a 138.25-pound cabbage set a world record garnering a $2000 grand prize.
Early farmers and gardeners may have imagined the day they could grow a 100-pound cabbage or a 2000-pound pumpkin, but today’s growers made those dreams come true. Times may change from yesteryear’s fairs, but just as giant vegetables continue to grow so will the numbers of fairgoers who gather together to marvel at the new agricultural ideal.
Jodi Torpey is an award-winning vegetable gardener, master gardener and author of the new book “Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening” (Storey Publishing, December). Read more of Jodi’s writing at Western Gardeners.