Monday, October 10, 2016

Origins of the Crawford County Fair

Ohio race horses helped bring about the county fair
With the excitement of the Crawford County Fair fully behind us, it’s worth taking a belated look at the origins of the what arguably is the county’s largest and most popular annual event. This year’s fair, themed as a “Harvest of History,” celebrated its 71st year of operation but in actuality, the county’s fair—or fairs as it turns out—trace back much farther than this, and not without a little drama along the way either.

For the Love of Horse Racing

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

In 1852 the Crawford County Agricultural Society, established in Conneautville, organized the county’s first fair. For its location, the Society selected a spot on the borough’s south side between Prospect and Mill Streets (today RT 198 and RT 18) known as Lowry’s Grove. Here barns and concession stands were constructed on the high ground where visitors could either watch races taking place at the track built on the lower ground or enjoy a picnic along the banks of nearby Wormald’s Pond.
   
The site of Crawford County's first fair south of Conneautville can be seen in the lower corner in this 1865 map
The dates of subsequent fairs varied between mid-September and mid-October, but they all featured premiums paid to winners in a variety of categories. Women’s entries included quilts, needlework, millinery, rugs, dressmaking (to include drawers and chemises!), cheese, butter, and houseplants. Men could win for cabinet making, implement making and design, hide tanning, milling, plowing, team driving (horse, ox, and mule), leather products, and livestock of which, horses for carriages, riding, and field work took prominence.
    
The Home Show building at the Conneautville Fair
The fair’s success and popularity naturally lead to its continued growth. For the 1857 season, 430 head of cattle and 510 horses were recorded for entry in various related categories, and in the years to follow thousands would attend the three-day spectacle. In 1887 the property lease expired, and the Agricultural Society moved all the buildings to a location in Spring Township north of Conneautville where the event continued without fail for over a decade. However, in 1898, the Agricultural Society announced it would be going out of business, and responsibility for the fair would be transferred to a Stock Company who maintained continuity of the event with an exhibition in 1899. It would be Conneautville’s last until 1931. Heavily in debt, the owners sold the fair’s property to the Shenango Valley Holiness Association, who would use the grounds and its buildings for a camp retreat.       

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
Meanwhile the Conneautville fair, often billed as “the best county fair in the state” continued to thrive, but by no means was it lone agrarian event in Crawford County. At the time the of last year of operation for the Meadville fair, the French Creek Valley Agriculture Society* in Cochranton and the Oil Creek Agriculture Society in Titusville had established successful fairs of their own. By decade’s end, the Central Agriculture Society in Cambridge Springs and Exposition Park at Conneaut Lake had joined the list.

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.
In fact, the mere issue of county representation at the State Convention of Agricultural Societies became a source of friction when in 1880, representatives of the Crawford County Ag. Society (Conneautville), The French Creek Valley Ag. Society (Cochranton), and Oil Creek Ag. Society (Titusville) all claimed membership to the state’s society. After a day of deliberation, the state society announced only one society, that of Conneautville, would represent Crawford County. As a reconciliatory gesture, the county’s duly selected representative motioned that the men of Titusville and Cochranton be admitted since they had journeyed so far to attend. The motion was, however, overruled by the state board, and the men sent home.

The fair in Cambridge Springs was held near the Grant St. Bridge
The next year proved equally controversial. In November 1881, the Crawford County Central Agricultural Association (Meadville) brought a lawsuit against the county commissioners for failure to award them the $100 bounty. Given that 1881 marked the last year for fairs in Meadville, speculation leads one to believe the bounty, which at the time was given at the discretion of the county commissioners office, was of dire importance in keeping the fair operational for another year. The case went to the Supreme Court, but to no avail.

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
After 13 years the fair would return to Meadville and in a big way at that as the city was selected to host the State Fair of Pennsylvania. It should be mentioned that the decision by state officials was influenced in part by Meadville’s offer to pay a $1,000 subsidy which, given the anticipated revenue likely to be generated, made for a sound financial decision on the city’s part. Over the course of September 3rd through the 8th, an estimated 40, 000 people paid admission to observe bicycle races, home show and stock exhibits, baseball games, midway shows, and balloon ascensions by Professor Alec Thurston.

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.

Sources

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 Author

Ron 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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