|Ohio race horses helped bring about the county fair|
The fair’s story begins in the 1820’s with horse racing, and one horse in particular—Zib. Zib was a particularly fast steed with a penchant for winning handily. Its owner, a Mr. Chambers, would hire the town tailor, Elipalet Betts, a onetime successful jockey on the east coast racing circuit, to ride Zib. The combination of Betts’s experience and Zeb’s speed made them virtually unbeatable, and over a considerable period the pair racked up a streak of wins (and purses) before a controversial defeat in Brookville to a horse named Robin. Even so, Zib’s popularity (spurred on, no doubt, by the steady winnings of betters) had solidified the permanence of the sport’s popularity in the area.
In time wagons and sulkies were hitched to racers, giving birth to the harness racing, and Crawford County’s trotters (not to be confused with pacers) dominated the regional scene until the earl 1850’s when the horses of eastern Ohio seemed to take over. This did not sit well with local owners, who agreed the answer was to improve the quality of their breeds. To this end several initiatives were suggested including the formation of an agricultural exposition for owners to show off their stock for judging.
The County’s First Fair
|The site of Crawford County's first fair south of Conneautville can be seen in the lower corner in this 1865 map|
|The Home Show building at the Conneautville Fair|
The County’s Second Fair
While the horse breeders and owners agreed on the idea of a fair, those from Meadville were not exactly thrilled with the Crawford County Agricultural Society’s initiative in establishing the first fair. That the men of Conneautville had gone so far as to represent themselves as the county’s official agricultural organization, chaffed at the dignity (and pocketbooks) of the county seat’s prominent citizens all the more. This did not, however, preclude their participation, tepid though it may have been, in the annual event.
Then in 1856, the Crawford County Agricultural Association was formed in Meadville. Among its top priorities—the organization of its own fair. Initially, members of the fair committee intended to select a spot east of the Theological School at the head of Arch Street for the location, but later settled on Meadville Island, an area at the foot of Chestnut Street across what was then a large tributary of French Creek that flowed roughly parallel to Water Street.
The 16 acres of land, all enclosed with a board fence, was large enough to accommodate numerous concessions, stables, and exhibition buildings, along with a racing track. Over the course of October 7th through the 9th, several thousand people, it was reported, crossed the bridge from Chestnut Street to take in the fair’s exhibits, livestock, and horse racing.
|The Railroad occupied the spot of the Meadville fair by 1865, but it can still be seen at the end of Chestnut St.|
The fair proved to be a huge success and continued on Meadville Island for the next seven years. When the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad’s purchased Meadvillle Island to construct their railyard in, the fair relocated to Kerrtown in 1863 along a flat parcel of land between what is today, PENDOT and Ainsworth Pet Nutrition. However, as patronage declined in the five years that followed, it became apparent how much location factored into the equation, and the fair was again moved, this time to 40 acres in Vallonia (today Fifth Ward).
Vallonia proved to be no better at attracting crowds, and the fair disbanded after 1871. Future fairs were a hit or miss proposition. In 1873 the Farmers’ and Stock Breeders’ Association organized the event until it fell apart again 3 years later. The Crawford County Central Agricultural Association tried to revive the fair in 1879, but their efforts were only able to keep it alive for two years. After this fairs in Vallonia lapsed entirely, and it is doubtful fairs would have been held there in the future were it not for the popularity of the horse racing track which continued until the American Viscoes Company bought the area for a plant in 1929.
Friction Among County Fairs
|Some fairs like the one in Titusville continued into the 1910's|
This growth in the number of fairs was not restricted to just the Crawford County region. By 1883 Pennsylvania had 106 registered fairs across the state, not including the State Agriculture Society which had been formed in January of 1851. The State’s Society had the power to obtain annual statements from county agricultural societies which it recognized and which were, by that recognition, eligible for financial aid from county funds in the form of the Bounty System.
In simple terms, the state’s Bounty System allowed each county to pay out a one hundred-dollar grant to registered agriculture societies within that county. This proved problematic, however, for counties with more than one registered society, Crawford being among them.
|The Conneaut Lake Fair at Expo Park was held near Camperland.|
|The fair in Cambridge Springs was held near the Grant St. Bridge|
The contentious nature of these issues eventually lead to a change in how the state bounty would be awarded. When representatives met at the State Convention of Agricultural Societies in 1883, a motion was put forth proposing that the oldest agricultural society in each county would be the lone recipient of the bounty. A heated debate ensued, one side arguing for the proposal, the other demanding the bounty be pro-rated evenly among all the societies within that county. After voting, the resolution passed 29 to 27 without amendment, and once again, the Ag. Society in Conneautville found themselves beneficiaries due to their initiative in 1852.
The 1894 State Fair in Meadville
|Fair goers at Conneaut Lake view the stock barns|
Reports conflict concerning the financial success of the fair. Rain, it was reported, kept attendance lower than expected and caused the cancellation of several events. According to The Pittsburg Press, “Meadville merchants want no more state fairs here,” but then brief also noted that a movement was already under way to establish a permanent fair association. This came in the form of the Meadville Fair and Exposition Company which staged its fair in 1898 and kept up the annual event until 1902. In 1906 the fair moved to Conneaut Lake where it continued until 1916, and after a seven-year absence, the fair picked up again, running from 1918 to 1932.
When the Great Depression struck, interest in fairs understandably declined given the harsh economic circumstances. In early 40’s, though, rural county fairs across the commonwealth staged something of a comeback. Sixteen years after its last fair, Crawford County would re-establish the event for good in late September of 1946, and as with the county's very first fair, horse racing was featured prominently on the schedule of events.
*In 1894 the French Creek Valley Ag. Association became the Cochranton Agriculture Society.
The Pittsburgh Daily Post – 1892
The Pittsburgh Dispatch – 1890
The Pittsburgh Press – 1894
The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial – 1863, 1873
Reading Times - 1880, 1883
Shenango Valley News – 1886, 1889, 1894, 1895
The Kane Republican – 1946
The Kane Weekly Blade – 1881
The New Castle News – 1894
The Record Argus – 1876
The Titusville Herald – 1871
Mattera, Tyler – Images of America: Around Conneautville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, 2011
“Meadville… Its Past and Present” Sesqui-Centennial Edition of The Tribune-Republican, May 12, 1938“The Crawford County Agricultural Society,” Conneaut Valley Area Historical Society Newsletter, Issue 19, Vol. 10, Winter 1998/99, P1.
About the AuthorRon Mattocks was born and raised in Guys Mills, Pennsylvania. Following high school he joined the Army to see the world (which he did) before a career as a construction executive in Texas. Eventually Ron switched to Internet marketing, consulting for companies such as GMC, ConAgra, Mattel, and others. During this time he also published the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can't Afford Vodka and began writing regularly for the Huffington Post, Disney's Babble, and the TODAY Show. On a summer visit to Conneaut Lake Park, Ron became suddenly fascinated with the park's origins, a fascination that lead to his current book project, and later would evolve into a passion for the county's extensive history. Today Ron is the VP of Digital Strategy Development with an agency in Indiana where he lives with his three sons. He graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas with a degree in English Literature, and is a member of both the Crawford County and Conneaut Lake Area Historical Societies.
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