top of page

County Fairs - A Rich History

Jul 31, 2017

It’s County Fair season! Fairs have long been a tradition throughout the United States, the first fairs were primarily agricultural, but they have grown to include music, rides, and of course, fried food!

It’s County Fair season! Fairs have long been a tradition throughout the United States, the first fairs were primarily agricultural, but they have grown to include music, rides, and of course, fried food! The Center for Agricultural History and Rural Studies at Iowa State University notes, that by the early 1800s, “the fairs gave rural families an opportunity to see firsthand the latest agricultural techniques, equipment, crops and livestock.” The early 19th century also saw the development of agricultural organizations, the driving force of local fairs.

In January 1818, the Daily Hampshire Gazette carried an account of the formation of the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden Agricultural Society in Massachusetts. They had united “to promote agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science” through an annual three-county fair.

Their fair was to include carnivals, games, horse racing, horse demonstrations, crafts, and premiums for agricultural and domestic products. Today that three-county fair is recognized as one of the oldest in America.

All together more than 3,200 fairs are held in the United States and Canada every year. Taken collectively the crowds are significant. The top 59 fairs in this country attract more than 44 million people annually, a figure said to rival the number of fans at all major league baseball games combined.


Agricultural shows are an important part of cultural life in small country towns, and a popular event in larger towns and cities. Shows range from small events in small country towns usually lasting two days, through medium-sized events of three days, to large shows, which may run for up to two weeks and combine elements of an amusement park with those of an agricultural show. Larger shows often include live entertainment and fireworks in the main arena.

The Role of Agriculture in County Fairs

The nation’s first fairs were all about agriculture. They were organized to introduce farmers to new animal breeds and other agricultural innovations.


Elkanah Watson, a New England farmer, earned the title, "Father of U.S. agricultural fairs" by organizing the Berkshire Agricultural Society, and creating an event (known then as a cattle show) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in September 1811. It was more than just an exhibit of animals – it was a competition, with prize money ($70) paid for the best exhibits of oxen, cattle, swine and sheep.


Watson worked diligently for many years helping communities organize their own agricultural societies and their respective shows. By 1819 most counties in New England had organized their own agricultural societies and the movement was spreading to other states. The nineteenth century closed with almost every state and province having one or more agricultural fair or exhibition.


The core elements of those agricultural society events of the early 1800s - those early fairs – are at the heart of the agricultural fair in North America today, featuring competition for the best agricultural and domestic products of the county and/or community (or region or state), and an annual celebration for the community to come together, to share, to learn.


Fairs provided industrial exhibits, demonstrations and competition aimed at the advancement of livestock, horticulture and agriculture with special emphasis placed on educational activities such as 4-H, FFA and similar youth development programs. While enjoying these pursuits, fair visitors are also able to see, hear, touch, smell and taste the richness and variety of what the world had to offer.


Economic Impact of County FairsIn addition to being important cultural and community events, county fairs are also economic drivers. The Dutchess County Fair is New York State’s second largest fair. According to a 2103 study conducted by Camoin Associates, a Saratoga-based economic development consulting firm, the Dutchess County Fair had nearly 350,000 people in attendance in 2013, provided 525 jobs and nearly $1.4 million in tax revenue for the county. Ulster and Columbia county fairs, while not as large, still provide an important income stream and source of employment for their counties, with about 100 jobs and nearly $150,000 in tax revenue earned from each of their fairs.

Fairs create jobs, support rural economic development and local commerce and provide opportunities for youth and adult education. Fairs and other fairgrounds activities play a vital role in fundraising for many nonprofit civic and charitable organizations.

Make sure to visit a county fair near you this summer!

Upcoming in the region:

Ulster County Fair: August 1-6

Dutchess County Fair: August 22-27

Columbia County Fair: August 30- September 4

Visit to learn more!

bottom of page