Our fair, with its inspiring and sometimes comedic history, is distinguished in Ohio preservation circles because it:
Unveiling the Ohio Historic Marker awarded to the Great Geauga County Fair by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.
1. is one of only 10 historic sites in our state chosen for an Ohio Historic Marker for its importance to our agricultural development by the Ohio Bicentennial Commission.
2. has 2 buildings, the Domestic Arts Hall (1889) and the Flower Hall (1890), listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Domestic Arts Hall (1889) at the Great Geauga County Fair. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places
3. includes a fair office housed in an old interurban train station, skillfully adapted for reuse after it was moved from across the street to the current fairgrounds.
- The Burton Interurban train station that became the Great Geauga County Fair Office.
4. is organized by what is likely Geauga County’s oldest, existing organization – now called the Geauga Agricultural Society
Fairgoers are so used to watching the livestock, eating pie at the Grange, slurping down Tex’s lemonade, riding the rides, and seeing the shows that it is easy to forget that this is a time-honored institution with a rich heritage and a very important, longstanding mission.
The first recognized “modern” county fair was held in 1810 on the square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was the brainchild of Elkanah Watson and the Berkshire Agricultural Society. Watson clearly intended that his agricultural fair and cattle show would:
1. promote agricultural improvements and pride in farming
2. provide a holiday of the harvest, celebrating the variety of agriculture
3. include pleasure and profit (material AND intellectual) for all ages, every class, and both sexes.
Something for everyone, as a publicist would coin for a fair slogan decades later.
It was this tradition of agricultural education and celebration for all that our early New England pioneers packed into their cultural baggage and then transplanted in their new communities in what was then known as Connecticut’s Western Reserve and became northeastern Ohio.
Lewis Hunt of Massachusetts was one such pioneer who settled in Huntsburg (yep, named after his father Eben), Geauga County, Ohio, in 1817. He was liberally educated, well travelled in England and Europe, and well connected in Massachusetts’ horticultural community. Even as he planted his apple trees and travelled the county selling his produce, he spread the word to his friends and customers about Elkanah Watson’s new county fair.
In a heroic effort to establish the Geauga Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, prominent citizens from all over Geauga County travelled by horseback and wagon to CHARDON on FEBRUARY 10, 1823, (CAN YOU IMAGINE RIDING HORSES AND DRIVING WAGONS TO THE SNOW CAPITAL OF OHIO IN FEBRUARY???? WHAT DETERMINATION!) for an organizational meeting.
The resulting first Geauga Cattle Fair and Show was held on Oct. 23, 1823, in Chardon. Railpens were constructed on the square to hold the livestock and the smaller productions were on exhibition in the small Courthouse, located on what is now Water Street.
Thirteen premiums were awarded – 6 to women in the “feminine arts” and 7 to men for livestock. They were:
$10 for best bull
$8 for best heifer
$6 each for buck, best ewe, and best piece of woolen cloth
$5 each for second best bull and best piece of bleached linen
$4 each for best table linen and best grass bonnet
$3 each for second best buck, second best ewe, and second best piece of woolen cloth
$2 for second best straw bonnet
From 1840 through 1854 the location of the fair alternated between the communities of Chardon and Burton until a spirited competition for a permanent fairgrounds developed between those two villages and the township of Claridon, with each offering acreage and support.
Burton won and the permanent fairgrounds that we know and love today was established initially on eleven acres leased from H.H. Ford where it grew in size and influence. By 1863 the Geauga County Fair boasted 285 premiums awarded in 48 classes, many housed in small exhibition buildings that have not survived. This, in spite of the contention by the reporter for the Jeffersonian Democrat, that the 1863 fair was not “as good as usual, [but] was as good as could be expected, under the circumstances.”
1863? Fair not as good as usual? Under what circumstances?
You might be surprised to learn that in a listing of three reasons why the fair was NOT as good as usual, a recent drought and the movement of the date of the fair from the end of the harvest in October to early September managed to outrank the Civil War, which we happened to be in the midst of fighting. Our Fair has ALWAYS been a priority to Geaugans.
The fair, however, continued to grow, requiring more acreage, more track for horse races, and more buildings. The Domestic Arts Hall was erected in 1889 with the Flower Hall following in 1890. Both are still in use today.
In 1913, a reporter from the Geauga Republican claimed that the 82nd annual fair was “the same old Fair in some of the same old ways that we have always known, of course, but, bless your soul, it will always be the same in those ways, for some things never change to a casual observer. There will always be the livestock, sheep, swine, grain, fruit, and vegetables, exhibits of fancy work and culinary products, side attractions, catch-penny devices, etc., and the special events. That’s why we go and it wouldn’t be a County Fair without the exhibit and attractions mentioned. It is the same old time-honored institution we have always known.”
Those words ring true even today, in 2013. The Great Geauga County Fair remains an educational and celebratory institution with a big, beautiful, bronze Ohio Historical Marker and an architectural heritage to remind us of its past and continuing importance in Ohio agriculture.
At the 4-H Horse barn at the East Show Ring at the Great Geauga County Fair
— Bari Oyler Stith, Ph.D., is Director of the Historic Preservation program at Ursuline College and proud to be a Geaugan.
Geauga Republican, 27 August 1850. Microfilm. Geauga Public Library. Chardon, Ohio.
Geauga Republican, 17 September 1913. Microfilm. Geauga Public Library. Chardon, Ohio.
History of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. New York: J.B. Beers and Company, 1885.
Jeffersonian Democrat, 3 July 1863. Microfilm. Geauga Public Library. Chardon, Ohio.
Jones, Robert Leslie. History of Agriculture in Ohio to 1880. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1983.
Neely, Wayne Caldwell. The Agricultural Fair. New York: Columbia University Press, 1935.
Painesville Telegraph, editions: 19 February 1823, 24 April 1823; 13 August 1823; 15 October 1823; 8 April 1824, 29 January 1825; 16 January 1826; 26 January 1827. Microfilm. Morley Library. Painesville, Ohio.
“Report of the Geauga County Agricultural Society” presented by Seabury Ford to the Ohio House of Representatives, 1838, doc. #85. Western Reserve Historical Society. Cleveland, Ohio.
Wells, J.C. “The Old Agricultural Society: A History of the Geauga County Fair.” 1898. Typescript. Burton Library. Burton, Ohio.