Take Me To The Fair By Susan Marlow

“Oh, it’s fair time, fair time, fair time. The excitement is all over town . . .”

Fairs have been around for a long time. They date as far back as the days of Rome. So it stands to reason that the American colonies would want to continue the tradition of showing off livestock, agricultural products, and trade wares in the New World. Life was grim, and any excuse for a good time was welcome indeed.  The first American fair was held in York, Pennsylvania, in 1765, eleven years before our nation was founded. The York Fair spread out over the town’s commons, and folks considered those two days as “the liveliest days of the whole year.”

Fast forward about a hundred years. By now, many American states had some kind of exposition, from a few cows and horses on display to full-blown extravaganzas! The California State Fair is a good example of how a little exposition in 1854 to enhance the state’s reputation as the ideal place for farming and industry became one of the largest fairs around (Minnesota and Texas being the largest in attendance).

San Francisco hosted that first fair, but the next year, the fair organizers decided “fair’s fair” (no pun intended) and travel was hard. The fair went on the road for the next four years so more people could enjoy it. Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, and Marysville hosted the fair to thousands of visitors (15,000 a day) until those in charge decided to permanently locate the fair in Sacramento.

So, what did our great-grandparents enjoy about the fair? For one thing, the state fair was the #1 entertainment of the whole year. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but there weren’t a lot of diversions in the 1800s. Work, work, work, and boredom in between. The highlight of the work week was riding into town to attend church (if you were a God-fearing individual) or spending your pay at the saloon (if you were the wild type). Looking forward to the yearly fair added a sense of excitement and anticipation that could carry your family through the long, back-breaking days of mundane work.

Folks liked to eye the produce at the fair, like a 3-foot-long, 10-pound carrot, a 72-pound beet, or 2-inch-long peanuts. The farmers shook their heads at the “new-fangled” inventions on display, like a post-hole digger or a new well driller. The men hung around exhibits of pumps, plows, and gopher traps, while the ladies oohed and ahhed over a demonstration of “The Light Running Domestic Sewing Machine.”

The ladies also enjoyed watching the judging of everything from butter to biscuits and from stockings to sweaters. Most hoped to win a ribbon. The best “six jars” of jelly won a blue ribbon and a premium of $5.00; the best needlework, $3.00. For the men, the best two-year-old bull won $50. Even a chicken was worth entering in the fair. The best chicken won a $5.00 premium. Children got into the act as well, entering their best pin cushions, embroidered hankies, and patchwork quilts.

And those races! What would a California state fair be without a horse race—especially one worth a purse of $5,000 in 1874, with a brand-new grandstand up and ready to seat 7,000 people?

Instead of rides, the 1880s fair midway offered attractions no 21st century fair-goer is likely to see: the thrill show (i.e. sideshow). Besides the usual sword-swallower, fire-eater, and the strong man lifting a pony, there were also the ever-popular freaks of nature, like a (live) two-headed calf, human deformities, and bizarre animals no one in America could imagine. One year, near the turn of the 20th century, the California State Fair even staged a train wreck of two locomotives crashing head-on into a jumble of twisted, steaming steel! I’m sure that would be considered a real “thrill” back then.

An interesting aspect of one world’s fair was the practice of giving away prizes. On “Exhibitor Day” at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, exhibitors gave away items in a raffle-like contest. Fair-goers’ ticket numbers were drawn at random. If you carried that ticket, you won a prize. A pony was given away, as were other prizes from exhibitors. The most unusual was the prize given away by the children’s home. A month-old baby boy name Ernest was offered. Although the winning ticket was drawn, nobody claimed this human “prize.”

We’ve come a long way since then. Now, it’s rides and games and rock bands and rodeos. But one thing has remained the same: fair food. Is there anything like it in the whole world?


Andi’s Fair Surprise is a peek into the 1874 California State Fair through the eyes of six-year-old Andi. If she can’t take her new foal to the fair, she doesn’t even want to go. After all, what fun is a fair if Taffy can’t win a blue ribbon? But the fair turns out to be so exciting that Andi is glad she came . . . until her big brother tells her she can’t keep the prize she won fair and square!

There are free coloring pages and learning activities to download at www.andiandtaffy.com. We’re giving away Andi’s Fair Surprise to one lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment and share your favorite childhood Fair Memory.

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15 thoughts on “Take Me To The Fair By Susan Marlow”

  1. What a sweet post! You’re right, in small towns everything revolves around the county fair. All my best childhood memories include July fair time. I even met my husband at the fair when I was seventeen. 🙂

    Your book is adorable. I went to Amazon and browsed through the pages. How I wish my girls were little again. But it would make the start of the perfect collection for my new dear little niece.

  2. Your book sounds delightful, Susan. And I had no idea fairs were such a big thing in those days.
    Keep thinking of poor little Ernest, the baby nobody wanted. You have to wonder what happened to him.
    Thank for being our guest today.

  3. Great Post. When I went to the fair I thought the most amazing thing was the horses. I loved to get on the Merry go Around and ride them

    Thanks for this post it brought back memories I would love to read one of your books

    Walk in harmony,

  4. Susan, a big welcome back to P&P. We love having you visit.

    And what an interesting post. I didn’t know fair have around for so long. Wow! I like going to the county fair. It’s always a treat. And it seems the air buzzes with excitement. You’re right, that food is out of this world. But it’s so fattening. I try not to overdo but I still have to have my fried pies, fried cheese sticks, and corn on the cobb. Yummy!

    Your new book looks wonderful. Hope you sell a bunch.

  5. Good idea for a book for children.
    I remember the fairs I went to and always enjoyed the clowns and how they were dressed. I also got to ride a pony.

  6. Never went to a Fair when I was small. But, a few years ago we traveled three hours to the Kern County Fair in Bakersfield. Saw George Strait and had a great time.
    And Fair food is really different.

  7. I remember going to the county fairs when I was a child and this post brought back memories. One time I even got to go to the State fair and I thought that was just awesome. The bigger fairs had a lot more things to see.

  8. Wonderful post and photos which were memorable. My favorite fair and experience was at our local Bread & Honey Festival which was filled with warmth, love, and all the bread and honey you could consume.

  9. We went to the California State Fair the two years we were stationed in Sacramento. Was great fun, but not the agricultural type fair we were used to.
    I was in 4-H as a teen and spent many great weeks at our county fair in Northern New York. Slept in the exhibit barns a few nights and worked the dairy bar. It was great knowing most of the people there. It was kind of a week long party for all of us. Also went to the Eastern States Exposition during the same time period.

    Colorado’s State Fair was a good old fashioned fair with a rodeo. It was hot, but fun.

    Here in TN the regional fair is a mix of commercial, entertainment, and agricultural.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  10. Love a fair!! Did not attend many as a child but my favorite was the year our high school band performed at the Nebraska State Fair!

  11. It’s not exactly my favorite memory, but I’ve never forgotten the year I ate right before going on the tilt-a-whirl and I actually turned green. I’ve never been so sick in my life. It’s one of those childhood memories that sticks with me.

  12. Enjoyed reading all of your memories (even the “sick” memory. Definitely not a favorite. LOL)
    Sorry to chime in so late, as I was immersed in a homeschool convention in Spokane (WA), a five-hour trip for us, and just now have been able to check everything out over here.

    I remember attending the Western WA state fair every year as a kid (Puyallup Fair), because not only did we get a free fair ticket, but the school district gave us all a half-day off to go visit the fair. And THAT is my best memory! LOL

    I remember also as a teen that my husband (not at the time yet!) hated rides that went upside down, like the rock-o-plane, and I loved them. Why he put up with me getting him on those rides is a mystery (and true love, no doubt).

    Another great memory is of the King County Fair, when my hubby was in charge of the FFA chicken Bar-b-que (supervising his students) and the kids and I could get in free and get free chicken too . . . the best chicken in the WEST!

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