County Fairs

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One of the most highly anticipated events of summer for a farm family in the early 1900s was the local county fair. Traditionally in the Midwest, it was held after the grain harvest and before field corn was ready to pick in the fall. It was a time to see what was happening in the local agricultural community, visit together with neighbors and experience something new. Family members of all ages eagerly looked forward to the excitement of the fair.

The annual event often ran from several days to over a week, depending on the local custom. Trophies, ribbons and premiums were awarded in the many classes of competition. The joy of winning a ribbon at the fair lasted a lifetime.

Although the Model T Ford automobile was introduced in 1908, farming at the time continued to be done with horses. A team of horses and a wagon were the essential equivalent of the modern pickup truck for a farmer.

Lively conversations at the fair were about horses and their power. There were competitions for the best mare, best stallion and the finest teams of horses, along with prizes for the top foals and colts. For the judging, farmers showed their prime cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry. A growing number of fairs had special contests for livestock and produce raised by farm children.

There were also tents or wooden buildings that displayed agricultural products, along with home-canned fruits and vegetables. Rows of glass canning jars were filled with the bounty of gardens and orchards. The importance of preserving the family-raised food was reinforced by these competitions. There were also categories for the essential skills of baking, sewing, needlework and quilting. Competition was keen for the best pie or cake of the fair.

In front of the grandstand there were often draft horse pulling contests, horse races, musical entertainment and hot air balloon ascensions.

The fair also provided a window to the future and technology. Farm equipment salesmen brought their best and newest products to these events and demonstrated how they could save time and money. There were also exhibits and demonstrations of new products for the home, health and family. A typical farm of the time did not have electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, so new, laborsaving devices had great interest.

There was a midway on the fairgrounds with amusements and games, along with food tents. A farm family often spent the entire day at the fair and brought a picnic from home to enjoy at noon in the shade. Some years, the event was hot and dusty, while other times, the fairgrounds could be churned up with mud from days of rain. However, people enthusiastically returned to experience the yearly event and to celebrate the fruits of their labor. For many fairgoers, it was their only day of vacation.

Today’s fairs have a long farm heritage.