Let’s Go To The County Fair!

The ubiquitous county fair has a history far older than you might imagine.

By Deborah R. Huso

As harvest season rolls around, so do many county fairs. Having become fixtures of rural communities throughout North America, it’s quite difficult to imagine life without them—the 4-H livestock shows, the judging of best produce, pies and local crafts, the rides, the music. But as our culture becomes increasingly urbanized, will the county fair remain relevant?

The Midway was a component first introduced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and included a Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and even hot air balloon rides. Other fairs soon replicated the concept, and it is now a key feature of county fairs throughout North America.

The Midway was a component first introduced at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and included a Ferris wheel, belly dancers, and even hot air balloon rides. Other fairs soon replicated the concept, and it is now a key feature of county fairs throughout North America.

Likely so, if the fair in Sweetwater County, Wyo., offers any example. The largest county fair in the state, this weeklong Rock Springs summer event is 70 years old and draws some 70,000 people annually—in a state that has the lowest population of any in the U.S.

What’s the big draw? “It’s the music,” says the fair’s marketing and events manager Kandy Pendleton. Each summer, the fair hosts five major concerts, and the acts it draws are big.

But even the Sweetwater County Fair, despite its location in a region devoted mostly to mining, has deep agricultural roots, and the 4-H livestock show has been its center since the beginning. “The core is still the same,” says Pendleton. “It’s about getting together at the end of the season, but over time, it’s become more about entertainment and ag education.”

Where did these celebrations of the close of the harvest season begin? It’s not easy to trace. The first fairs were described in the Old Testament, dating back as far as 500 B.C. American and Canadian agricultural fairs likely have their most direct roots in 18th-century Europe. The very first North American fair occurred in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1765, and continues to operate today as the Hants County Exhibition.

In the U.S., many fairs developed under sponsorship of local agricultural societies. That was the case for the Erie County Fair, which began in Buffalo but now has its home in Hamburg, N.Y. It began in 1820, predating even the construction of the Erie Canal, and taking place only eight years after Buffalo burned to the ground during the War of 1812.

“It was a rather small fair, mainly a livestock show at that point,” says Marty Biniasz, manager of marketing and special events, as well as author of two books on the Erie County Fair. “There was a lot of corn and dairy. To this day, we’re one of the biggest dairy-producing areas in the state.” The Erie County Fair has evolved over the last two centuries to, as Biniasz says, “be all things for all people,” with education and entertainment playing an ever-increasing role. “Ninety-eight percent of the population has no connection to agriculture,” he remarks, “so our job is to tell the story of the 2%.”

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Kings of the County Fair Midway

Midways have been critical features of county and state fairs for decades, and in the old days, much of the midway entertainment traveled from locality to locality by rail, not truck. It’s true those days are nearly over, save for James E. Strates Shows, the only remaining operating railroad carnival in the U.S.

Every year, the Strates midway, consisting of 61 rail cars, travels 6,500 miles to 16 U.S. localities. The Strates Shows have winter quarters in Orlando, Fla., but every spring, the train launches an eight-month journey by rail to transport midway equipment to fairgrounds across the eastern seaboard and northeast.

Four generations of family members have been involved in operations of the Strates midway over the course of the last century. Greek immigrant James E. Strates founded the traveling midway in 1923, as the Southern Tier Shows in Elmira, N.Y. His only son E. James Strates is still actively involved the business, which is now led by a third generation of siblings, as it approaches its 100th anniversary.

According to Marty Biniasz, the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, N.Y., has maintained a partnership with James E. Strates Shows since 1924, and the arrival of the train in town has become a signature spectator event of the fair. “The train is a built-in promotion vehicle,” he remarks, and a true piece of Americana that rumbles into Hamburg every August. Today, trucks carry the Midway entertainment to the fairgrounds, but originally the hauling parties consisted of horses and elephants.

The relationship of the Strates family with the Erie County Fair is the longest running midway partnership in American history. “In 1924, when my father signed the first contract [with the Erie County Fair], little did we know or expect that nine decades later the relationship would still be flourishing and growing,” says E. James Strates, President of the Strates Shows.

“There is a bond between not only the show and the fair, but with independent operators, agricultural people, the local community and our many lifelong friends. It’s an unbroken tradition that few fairs and carnivals share.”