History Of The County Fair

By | July 26, 2021

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(Alex Camara/Europa Press via Getty Images)

As late summer rolls around, county fair season is in full swing. It's a tradition as popular in rural America as the country music concerts and elephant ears you can enjoy there, and it all started with one man.

The First County Fair

In medieval Europe, a "fair" was usually a religious gathering, but modern fairs are more about farming. The first U.S. county fair, which was held in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1807, was basically just a sheep shearing demonstration and contest. It was the brainchild of sheep farmer Elkanah Watson, who simply wanted to promote better farming practices. Bolstered by its success, Watson began developing agricultural fairs that included contests and activities for the whole family.

At the heart of county fairs, in Watson's day and today, are livestock shows, where judges inspect animals presented by local farmers for overall quality and award prizes to those with the best livestock. The friendly competition became wildly popular with the agricultural community of Massachusetts.

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Vegetables on display at the 1900 New York State Fair. (Ralph Finney/Wikimedia Commons)

The Evolution Of The County Fair

As word spread about the livestock shows and agricultural contests Watson hosted, other counties began to plan their own fairs. By the mid-1800s, county fairs were widespread across the eastern and midwestern states. Food vendors, baking contests, horse races, and games of chance were added to the rosters to entertain the hordes, and local merchants set up booths to sell their wares to the gathered crowds.

By 1841, Watson's county fairs had grown so popular that New York announced the United States's first state fair. The New York State Fair took place over two days in September in Syracuse, New York with the goal of furthering public education about agriculture and farming practices with livestock shows, lectures, and exhibits. The event was hugely popular, with an estimated attendance of between 10,000 and 15,000. Today, the New York State Fair is still a popular event, so much so that it now takes place over two weeks rather than two days.