State and county fairs are a summertime tradition with roots in our agricultural heritage

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

By Peter Mires

My old professor, geographer Fred Kniffen (1900-1993), loved the state fair. Who doesn't? The cacophonous midway, corn dogs, funnel cake and big-name entertainment have considerable appeal. But Dr. Kniffen saw the state fair as a celebration of an American tradition: agriculture.

A century ago, when Fred Kniffen was a growing up in Michigan and developing an interest in geography, the U.S. population was 60 percent rural, and 38 percent made a living from farming. Today, four out of five Americans live in cities and only 2 percent are farmers. State fairs reminded him of his youth, but he didn't dwell on the much-publicized demise of the family farm. As a scholar, he examined state fairs as part of the cultural landscape and wrote about their origin, diffusion, form and function.

According to Kniffen, the roots of the American agricultural state fair can be traced to European market fairs, not unlike those celebrated by popular Renaissance festivals where people congregated after the harvest to buy and sell all manner of produce. Market fairs also attracted a variety of vendors as well as the ubiquitous traveling shows, acrobats, fortunetellers and thieves. Market fairs -- "To market, to market, to buy a fat pig" -- were common in colonial America but disappeared after the American Revolution.

Increased industrialization and urbanization created the need for greater commercialization of agriculture, and by the early 19th century regional agricultural societies were advocating methods of scientific farming. The first educational agricultural fair was sponsored by the Berkshire Agricultural Society and held in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1811. The idea spread throughout New England and beyond.

Form follows function, and by the mid-19th century fairs were both educational and entertaining. The educational component included showcasing diverse agricultural products and domestic arts, livestock judging, organizational booths, lectures, exhibits and, increasingly, the latest machinery and equipment. The entertainment component most often meant a midway and a racetrack. Fair buildings included few permanent structures, although today most fairgrounds have an architectural core and expand accordingly. This is obviously true of the midway, with its myriad rides, concessions, and other attractions.

Not surprisingly, the Iowa State Fair, one of the country's oldest and most popular fairs, was portrayed in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical "State Fair" (1945). It is also featured in Patricia Shultz's best-seller, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." Not all states have a state fair, however. Connecticut, for example, continues a tradition of agricultural fairs at the local level.

In my home state of Delaware, the first state fair was held July 27 to 30, 1920. Its layout, typical of most state fairs, consists of a racetrack, grandstand, and assortment of livestock barns on the original 30-acre fairgrounds. The Delaware State Fair now attracts more than 300,000 visitors every July.

As a sign of the times, the Delaware Legislature in 1996 approved the installation of slot machines at the fairgrounds. Midway Slots, recently renamed Harrington Raceway & Casino, was born. It now operates year-round and generates considerable revenue for state coffers. Although the gaming industry (one of my favorite euphemisms) further erodes the raison d'etre of the American agricultural fair, that is, its educational function, perhaps this is just the next phase in the evolution of what we call the state fair.

Like Dr. Kniffen, with whom I shared many a fond memory on the subject, I too let the state fair take me back to halcyon days. My grandfather was a large-animal veterinarian, and I used to show horses. I even managed to win a modest collection of ribbons. Now when my wife and I go to the Delaware State Fair we spend most of our time in the barns admiring the animals. I guess we prefer the occasional whinny to the staccato of paying slots, the smell of manure to that of money. We walk past the children with 4-H and FFA insignia and are reassured that another generation will feel as we do about the state fair.

Dr. Peter Mires teaches geography at the University of Delaware and is a member of the American Geographical Society's Writers Circle. E-mail:

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