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New York State Fair.                 more selected entries

FOUNDING AND EARLY YEARS

In February 1832 the New York State Agricultural Society was founded in Albany by a group of farmers, legislators, and others to promote agricultural improvement and local fairs. In spring 1841, with the promise of an annual state subsidy, the society planned the nation's first state fair, subsequently held on 29-30 Sept 1841 in Syracuse. There an assembled 10,000-15,000 people heard speeches by notables and viewed animal exhibits, a plowing contest, and samples of manufactured goods for the farm and home. The second New York State Fair, held in Albany in 1842, ushered in an era of growth and travel for the institution. During the 1840s the fair's directors increased attendance and revenues by adding horse racing and other forms of entertainment. From 1842 to 1889 the fair traveled among 11 different cities—Albany, Auburn, Buffalo, Elmira, New York City, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Utica, and Watertown—before permanently settling in Onondaga Co in 1890.

THE PERMANENT SITE AND STATE CONTROL

In February 1889 Syracuse Land Co donated to the Agricultural Society a 100-acre (40 ha) tract of land in Geddes (Onondaga Co) crossed by railways that facilitated exhibit transport. This parcel has served as the fair's permanent home since September 1890. By the end of the 1890s, burdened with debt from constructing permanent buildings on the site, the Agricultural Society turned to state government for relief. New York State purchased the grounds in 1899 and took over management of the fair the next year, creating the 11-member State Fair Commission appointed by the governor. The first structure in a $2 million long-term building plan was erected in 1908, with subsequent buildings completed at intervals over the next two decades. Its building plan begun, the fair promoted revenue-enhancing attractions like automobile racing and stunt flying, dangerous endeavors that frequently resulted in performer and spectator casualties. Less hazardous and more instructive were popular Grange and Labor Day speeches and farm camps for boys and girls. The camps of the 1910s were forerunners of 4-H gatherings and competitions later managed by Cornell Cooperative Extension. During World War I the fair shared its grounds with an army training center and supply base. New York's governors appointed faithful members of their own parties to run the fair, even after administration of the event shifted to the Department of Agriculture and Markets in 1927. The opening of an Iroquois village exhibit and an agricultural museum in 1928 addressed a growing and nostalgic public interest in local history; both displays have continued to thrive into the 21st century.

MID-20TH CENTURY

Revenue and attendance problems of the depression era brought modifications. The fair grew from six to eight days and by 1933 included activities on Sunday, with Sabbatarians appeased by an interfaith ceremony that became a tradition lasting into the 1970s. In 1934 the state created the Industrial Exhibit Authority, which supervised construction of new buildings for both farm and corporate exhibits. Exhibiting manufacturers paid fees that helped offset the cost of these improvements, originally undertaken with federal and state monies. In 1938 the fair acquired a new name—New York State Agricultural and Industrial Exposition—reflecting closer ties to industry, while an extended 14-day schedule featuring popular entertainment acts such as swing dance bands increased attendance.

No fair was held from 1942 through the fall of 1948, as the fairgrounds again became a military base (1942-46). Deterioration of the physical plant and a November 1943 flood of industrial waste from nearby Solvay Process Co raised questions about the fair's future. One postwar plan proposed a $52 million fairground at Syracuse Army Air Base (Onondaga Co), while a second advocated keeping the fair in Geddes and linking the site with a newly cleansed Onondaga Lake. The Geddes plan prevailed, though the fairgrounds were not extended to the lake, which remained heavily polluted. A truncated fair took place in 1948, with a six-day, full-scale exposition returning in 1949 to large crowds. The event grew in the 1950s, expanding to nine days and gaining an attendance of over 500,000 by decade's end. New parking lots added to the fair's acreage and held the multitude of cars that arrived via the growing highway system. Many exhibits emphasized atomic energy, civilian and national defense, and plentiful consumer goods. Fair publicists of the 1950s and 1960s touted James E. Strates Shows' midway and nationally known entertainers, both of which attracted nonagricultural families and teenagers. A short-lived (1962-66) name change to New York State Exposition reflected the diminished focus on agriculture.

LATER 20TH CENTURY

Financial pressures caused by state budget problems, stagnating attendance, and the increasing cost of entertainment prompted changes. Starting in 1976 the fair charged a separate admission for grandstand acts, while the state subsidy cut in 1977 led to a 10-day fair, sale of name franchises to corporations, and rental of the buildings off-season. State aid for operating expenses ended in 1990, although capital improvement costs were underwritten up to 2000. New political currents were also evident. In the 1970s women's programs added discussions of the Equal Rights Amendment to traditional child welfare talks, cooking demonstrations, and lectures on home economics. In the 1980s and 1990s fair officials countered criticism of a slim minority presence by increased attention to multicultural representation and participation through gospel festivals and a Pan-African village display. The event also added sign language interpreters and made its grounds accessible to people with disabilities.

The New York State Fair—so named once again in 1967—entered the 21st century with an annual budget in excess of $10 million, attracting over 1 million visitors to Geddes on the western edge of Syracuse during its 12-day run in late August and early September 2001. Visitors to the fairground's 375 acres (152 ha) view exhibits and competitions in such categories as livestock, dairy products, produce, baked goods, and artwork, altogether carrying prizes or premiums worth thousands of dollars. These attractions and others, including health displays, the midway, stock-car races, a miniature state park, and pop concerts, make the fair a civic ritual and seasonal marker that also entertains and unites diverse New Yorkers while recalling the agricultural past.

Hedrick, Ulysses Prentiss. A History of Agriculture in the State of New York (New York: Hill & Wang, 1966)

Marti, Donald B. Historical Directory of American Agricultural Fairs (New York: Greenwood, 1986)

Chad Wheaton


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