August in Western New York means it’s time for county fairs. They are a long-established tradition in New York State that began as early as 1793. Generations of Western New Yorkers have participated in this icon of rural life for over 175 years.
History of the County Fair in New York
The history of American agricultural fairs is traced back to Elkanah Watson, who hailed from Massachusetts and was the founder of the Berkshire Agricultural Society. His concept was successful in Massachusetts and exported to the Genesee Valley by Charles Williamson, a land agent for the British Pulteney Association. This association was a group of British land speculators who purchased 1,000,000 acres of land in Western New York in 1790 from the 6,000,000-acre Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
Williamson, who was employed to encourage settlement of the Genesee Valley and sell the vast acreage, decided that a fair would expedite matters. In 1793, he organized the Williamsburg Fair and Genesee Races in what is now Groveland, NY. The fair featured horse racing, a popular sport that offered a winning purse of 50 pounds. There were also foot races and shooting matches. In addition, livestock was offered for sale—cattle, horses, and sheep. Williamson held another successful fair in Bath, NY, three years later, which ran for almost a month. Diverse entertainment was offered to spectators, who traveled in from all directions for some fun. Plays performed by a troupe of actors, along with a variety of contests, kept people coming back. Williamson had a famous mare, Virginia Nell, who raced for a large purse of 1,000 pounds. There likely were many wagers on the races. While the fair cost over $100,000 in today’s coin, Williamson shrewdly turned a profit for his bosses. Land sold, and the population of the Genesee Valley grew.
In 1819, New York State formed an Agricultural Society to promote best farming practices to improve crop production and the husbandry of livestock. They handed out $10,000 to local agricultural societies for premiums at fairs and expanded their support in 1841 by giving premium money to county agricultural societies. 1841 is significant because it was the year Wyoming County was officially organized as a separate county set off from Genesee County.
Wyoming County Fair
In 1843, the Wyoming County Agricultural Society was formed, and in 1844, Warsaw hosted the first fair on September 30 and October 1. The Society’s single objective was to promote agriculture in the county. The fair celebrated agrarian achievements of growing the largest pumpkin, the best apples, or wheat. It provided a venue for farmers to examine new equipment, superior breeds of cattle and sheep, better varieties of grain, vegetables, and fruit. Of course, some fun was in order and horse racing and other contests were consistently popular with everyone. For example, in 1845, there was a plowing contest to see who could plow a ¼ acre the fastest, which was 75 minutes that year.
By 1849, attendance was estimated at over 5,000 people for the two-day county fair. Warsaw remained the main venue for the fair until 1940, but the fair moved to other locations, including Perry Center, Wethersfield, Varysburg, Perry, Letchworth State Park, and Attica. Throughout the 19th century, departments were added to include homemade goods—preserves, cloth, butter, cheese, woodworking, and farm implements. In 1902, a Wild West show was part of the entertainment, and in 1911, the midway had electric lights, and numerous entertainment companies were booked to thrill fairgoers. This was when the association hired the Daredevil Tony Casterline and his flying machine to thrill the crowds. Casterline, the inventor of the “Loop to Loop” and “Loop the Gap” aerial maneuvers, fired up the Curtis aeroplane to show off his skills. However, because of soft ground, he could not gain enough loft to clear the telegraph wires on the west side of Liberty Street in Warsaw. Entangled in the wires, the airplane lost its propeller, and the craft’s framework was significantly damaged. Fortunately, the pilot escaped with minor injuries. The fair was extended by a day so Casterline could make repairs and consequently a successful flight to the amazement of all. Unfortunately, expensive entertainment diverted the purpose of the fair and began to eat away at its resources.
By 1927, the fair association was in real financial trouble and couldn’t pay its bills. The 4-H clubs held an exhibition and did so a few times until the fair association was solvent around 1935. Between 1931 and 1933, Perry hosted the event without much success, but the Great Depression was likely a factor. Times were exceedingly tough for everyone. There was no fair in 1934, and its future was bleak. In 1935, Perry Center was the host, and it appeared that the fair was on sound financial footing once again with good crowds. The committee refocused on agriculture, and eliminated the midway. In 1936, the fair was held at CCC Camp 76, near St. Helena in Letchworth State Park. The fair was advertised to have more than adequate space for exhibits and that the beauty of the park would draw more than Wyoming County residents. Newspaper reports heralded it a great success, but this was the only year it was held in the park.
In 1940, the fair moved to Pike. With the restrictions and shortages of many goods during World War II, the fair wasn’t held between 1943 and 1945. The reason was the shortage of gasoline and tires. Everyone was conserving during those hard, uncertain years of the War. Metal, gasoline, rubber, and even cooking fats were in demand to support the war effort. Wyoming County did its part and sacrificed much for victory. After the War, Pike seemed to be the perfect location, and in 1950, the fair association purchased ten acres for permanent fairgrounds north of Main Street.
The Pike Volunteer Fire Department graded the land for a cattle and horse show area, and they constructed bleachers to accommodate 500. Concession stands on Main Street were moved at this time, and lights were installed on the midway. After the Wyoming County Fair Association incorporated in 1951 construction began on a pole barn for livestock. The People’s Hall was completed in 1954 and more parking added in 1959. Unfortunately, in 1955 the livestock barn burned, but its replacement was constructed in 1956.
Much of the fair schedule we know today was set in 1958. Some of the highlights of fair week are the Grand Parade and Fair Queen competition on Monday, Firemen’s Parade on Tuesday, 4-H horse and livestock shows on Wednesday, the chicken barbeque and talent show on Thursday, the open-class beef show Friday. Tractor pulls draw the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights.
That’s one of the beautiful things about “Pike Fair.” You can count on it being the same year after year. Comfortable and familiar, like a well-loved pair of slippers. There have been improvements, new buildings, and exhibits over the years, but the fair still charges no admission and parking is reasonably priced. An array of farm equipment for sale greets you on Main Street; the Historical House demonstrates 19th-century farm equipment and cooking skills. The aromas of cotton candy, popcorn, and grilled meat waft down the midway. The Ferris wheel turns high above the grounds; the merry-go-round cheerfully spins, its music combines with the sounds of noisy game booths. Parents and kids eagerly examine the school exhibits looking for a blue ribbon on an entry. Flowers, quilts, jams, photography, embroidery, and other home arts are on display, waiting for judging. The livestock barns are full of cattle, horses, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats—the odors are familiar, as are the sounds. Neighbors meet, and folks catch up on life when they spot a friend they haven’t seen in years. The county fair still promotes community, competition, and education. It’s a weeklong celebration of agriculture, fun, food, and laughter. You can’t beat it. Elkanah Watson sure had a great idea.