By Patricia F. Scott
A fair may be defined in many ways; an exhibition of products, of agriculture, animals and all things related, a gathering of the public for entertainment – the list goes on and on. Fairs have been held since the Middle ages and were usually chartered and were privileged by princes and magistrates. It was the custom for the public proclamation of the commencement and duration of the event. In those early times the items which were sold were of great value and variety than what we are accustomed to in this twenty-first century. The assortment would include fabrics and jewelry brought in from distant ports and markets. With this assortment, the fair served as a device for commercial contact.
Early documentation of fair records show that the Orient, Greece and Rome all were the scenes of these events. Mecca was the site of the greatest fairs of the East and during the annual pilgrimages there was a close relationship between religion and fairs. This association would continue through the centuries and well into the twentieth century. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the fairs held in Leipiz, Frankfort and Lyons retained the tradition and essential markets of the medieval fairs. Great Britain celebrated, basically, with weekly market days of the country town and would have agricultural meeting days or trysts (Scotland). The Scottish fairs were distinguished by the marvelous exhibitions of horses and celebrating the age-old custom of “horse trading.”
In the United States, the county fair has developed into an annual exposition of agriculture, horticulture, stock, manufactured goods, domestic arts, and showcases of technology of the times. Many of these fairs are incorporated with official charters, one such is the Chenango County Agricultural Society, which this year will celebrate 160 years of continuous fairs in Chenango County and is one of the oldest fairs, not only in New York state but also the United States.
An early article that appeared in “The Plough Boy” from September 25, 1819, written by Thurlow Weed, details the events of this first fair. The first Agricultural Fair held in Chenango County by the Chenango County Agricultural Society was held on the September 22 and 23 and it was written the fair would be “proud days for Chenango.” The weather was extremely pleasant and the first day was spent entering and classifying animals, manufacturers and other productions. All entries were classed in the forenoon and the Society sat down to a home spun dinner at 2 p.m. after which the viewing committee commenced their judging duties which compiled the balance of the first day. The second day, under the direction of Col. Pike, Marshall of the day parade, moved through the principal street, around the public square to the Presbyterian Meetinghouse in the following order: A plough, drawn by the first best gelding horse and held by the Chairman of the Committee on Tillage, the American Standard with appropriate emblems, the president of the society and the clergy. Exercises were held in the church, which was commenced by a national air from the music. Present of the institution, Uri Tracy gave a plain, intelligent and truly useful address. Premiums were then proclaimed by the president and presented by the marshall. These premiums were awarded to manufactures, which included the following: $5 for the best piece of fulled cloth, $6 for the best piece of woman’s pressed flannel, $3 for the best piece of table linen, $5 for the best cheese, $4 for the best fanning mill (a tool used in agriculture). $10 was awarded for the best stud horse in the county, $5 for the best breeding mare, $5 for the best gelding, $10 for the best yoke of oxen and $8 for the best milk cow. Another prize of $5 was awarded for the best pair of three-year old steers (oxen), $5 for the best three-year old heifer, $5 for the best bull calf, $5 for the best ram and $4 for the best hog. Bear in mind after reading these monetary premiums that these amounts were more generous for the time period.
After the premium awarding, thanks was given to the Throne of Grace, the procession again formed and returned to Mr. Steere’s and partook yet a second “Holiday Dinner.” A total of one hundred sixteen animals were offered for exhibition and many more were driven in for exhibition. The vegetable production, and this is an indication of the quality of Chenango County’s agricultural efforts, saw three mammoth squashes exhibited – two weighing in at 70 and 72 pounds that were grown in New Berlin. Ruta Bagas (Swedish turnips) grown in Smyrna weighed nine to ten pounds each. A watermelon, which we assume was grown in Norwich as the gentleman exhibiting lived in the village, weighed in at 24 and 1/4 pounds. Due to the success of this first exhibition, the friends of the society were strengthened, the wavering confirmed, the skeptic converted and the enemies, if any, abashed and confounded.
The first fair, which was held on the Green and was considered very successful for the efforts of Col. Pike and other prominent citizens was climaxed by Mr. Steere who went to the voluntary expense of fitting up the pens and yards. Additionally he prepared an excellent dinner for the society each day, the requirement being the cost of $.30 per meal.
Apparently there were no further events sponsored by the society as research has failed to provide this information. Documented history states that the Chenango County Agricultural Society was organized (and we will assume this was actually a re-organization of the society) in 1846 and the first fair was held that fall on “West Green,” now West Side Park. The exhibitions of handicraft, fruits, vegetables and all perishable goods were exhibited in our prestigious courthouse and the livestock was tied to a fence, which ran around an enclosure (assuming this was the total perimeter of the “Green”, an area covering two acres. Bear in mind, with the widening of West Main Street and the establishment of West Park Place, that this was included in the original acreage. This event proved to be so successful that it was repeated again in 1847 (hence the 160th anniversary) and again in 1848. Conflict was in order with the event scheduled for 1849 when Oxford organized a strong bid to have the fair in their village and the event was eventually held there that year. Sherburne, not to be “passed by” felt their day had come and the next county fair was held there in 1850. However, neither village contained adequate facilities needed, nor were as well situated as Norwich and in 1851 the society made the decision that Norwich should be the site of the permanent location for all forthcoming annual exhibitions.
Reverting back to 1846, the actual members of the organization are not known, but it was assumed that most likely this early organization was composed of Jonathan Wells, a well known citizen of Norwich, August Ross, large farmer from “our great west hill”, Benadam Frink, farmer from up the creek (Canasawacta), Col. Ezra Hewitt, noted citizen who resided on the Newton farm, now Ridgeland Road/Newton Avenue), Hascall Ransford Jr. (living on North Broad Street approximately were the Hospital is located), Aaron B. Gates (big farmer near the old Half-Way House), Col. John Randall Jr. (living on South Broad Street), George L. Rider (whose home was located where the NBT Data Operations Center is now), Matthew G. Ransford, (well-to-do farmer “over the river”), N.B. Hale, (South Broad Street resident and responsible for the future development of Hale Street to the bridge), J.R. Wheeler, big farmer from Polkville) and several other citizens residing in Norwich who were interested in agriculture.
With the decision made that the permanent site should be Norwich, a larger and more desirable site was the order of the day. A five-acre plot was leased (the first move) from William Guernsey, paying a sum of twenty-five dollars per annum, beginning on West Main Street at the beginning of what is now Maple Street and including all the lands to the south of Hayes Street. Additionally, all the land which also included Locust Street made this entire area as long as it is wide. At the East-end a good size building was erected, approximately 100 feet long by 50 to 60 feet wide. This new “Floral Hall” was more like a large wooden box as it was built of hemlock, unplained and unpainted inside and out, but was “whitewashed.” As this new facility was “whitewashed,” it made a very imposing and impressive appearance and during the evening hours was lighted by oil lamps which were hung from the timbers. A pyramid of shelves were erected through the center of the building composing approximately two-thirds of the length and one third of the width of the building, which were used to place exhibits, all of equal satisfaction. According to legend, lore and facts, a racetrack was built in the vicinity of the lower end of Hayes and Locust Streets. This site would be used for the next fourteen years and as the fair grew in popularity, again a new site was the order of the day. This site, located at the east of what is now called Mitchell Street (then the outskirts of the village) was a lot of fourteen acres, known as “Riverside Park” which the Society leased for a term of five years at the annual rent of $100 (the second move). The “Floral Hall” was taken down and rebuilt to a larger size (approximately 105 by 40 feet), thus giving the society a much larger area for this annual event. This area proved ideal as it had already been enclosed by a high board fence and contained an excellent half-mile track. With the enlargement of the “Floral Hall”, this building was capable of being enlarged by the raising of the swing doors at the sides, thus providing free ventilation and greater facilities for ingress and egress.