History Page 3
In the early years of the Great Depression, Farm Show attendance rose slightly, but declined to less than a quarter of a million by 1935. Participation, on the other hand, increased, with a total of ten thousand exhibits entered in that year's show. At the same time, the new facilities began to see wider use during the off-season, as other groups and events occupied parts of the building for brief periods. In a little more than a year after its opening, events as varied as a Holstein show, a Boy Scout meeting, an evangelistic campaign, an automobile show and a funeral directors' convention all booked space in the new complex. In December 1934, the Post Office used the structure for mail storage during the Christmas rush. Two years later, forty-three inches of water filled the building during severe flooding that paralyzed much of Pennsylvania. Despite the flooding, the building was pressed into duty as a temporary shelter for two hundred evacuees from the rising waters.
An undeniable spirit of optimism surfaced with the end of the Great Depression. Farm Show officials began planning for construction of the Coliseum stricken from the original blueprints in 19 Facing east onto Cameron Street, the $1.2 million dollar building would have a floor area of one hundred and twenty by two hundred and forty feet and contain more than seventy-six hundred seats for spectators. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held on opening day of the 1938 Farm Show. An enthusiastic Hansel1 French, Secretary of Agriculture, jubilantly exclaimed that Harrisburg would become "the agricultural capital of the world." On August 1, a cornerstone was laid, and the New Arena (today called the Large Arena) opened several months before the 1939 show.
The addition of the Large Arena brought several immediate changes: exhibit space expansion eased some of the overcrowding on the floor of the main building; new attractions, including a horse pulling contest and a livestock parade, could be accommodated; and during the off-season, the Large Arena attracted groups, conventions and meetings that would not have otherwise used the main building.
Although the local press praised the new facilities, the Harrisburg Telegraph took the opportunity to call for changing the date of the Farm Show. With "the long record of miserable third-week-in-January weather, should not a slightly later date be considered for Farm Show - which also bumps head-on into the inauguration of a new Governor at four-year intervals?" This was neither the first nor the only suggestion for changing the dates of the Farm Show. Throughout the years many suggestions have been made for avoiding what has become well known in central Pennsylvania as "Farm Show weather." Some agricultural organizations and journals have favored changing it to November, on the theory that animals groomed for showing at the string of summer and fall county fairs would already be in good condition to compete at the statewide event. However, many farmers still harvest their crops in late autumn and prefer to keep the show in mid-winter.
The Large Arena saw use during only four Farm Shows before World War II suspended all agricultural use of the complex. Scarcely more than a month after the 1942 Farm Show ended, the commission leased the Main Exhibition Building for the training of aircraft mechanics to repair military planes. The 1943 show was canceled, but the commission wanted to maintain some semblance of tradition and coordinated a series of meetings. Agricultural organizations conducted their usual gatherings in Harrisburg during what would have been Farm Show week, using an old routine - meeting in various rooms, halls and auditoriums around the capital.
In early 1944, the mechanics' school was phased out and replaced by an Army Air Corps aircraft engine repair shop. When it was fully operational as part of a large aircraft overhaul center at Olmsted Field in nearby Middletown the shop employed sixteen hundred to twenty-three hundred workers. With four assembly lines, the shop could turn out a reconditioned engine for a fighter, bomber or transport plane every ten minutes! Hostilities ended too late in 1945 to allow time to convert the facilities back to peacetime use, and the commission began planning for a triumphant return in 1947.
The postwar years quickly became the golden era of Pennsylvania's Farm Show, with burgeoning attendance, worldwide fame and unprecedented media attention. Hundreds of agricultural experts and students traveled from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to see the show firsthand. Officials traveled from other states to consider starting similar shows.
Since there are no paid admissions, no turnstiles and no one to check the dozens of entrances and exits, no one actually knows how many people attended any of the Farm Shows. The first show after the war, in 1947, attracted an estimated "record 545,000 people, and the numbers rose steadily throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But with no means by which to accurately measure attendance figures, latter-day Agriculture Department officials - in the interest of credibility - stopped issuing estimates after the figure reached 750,000 visitors in 1976. In fact, they strongly suspect that the estimates - particularly after the mid- 1930s, when the count jumped sharply from 240,000 to 400,000 - were exaggerated as a means of justifying the annual state appropriation that helps defray the extravaganza's expenses. Even so, the postwar popularity of the show was undeniably visible and traced in part to the farmers' need to replace war-weary farm machinery.
In 1951, the Farm Show commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the pioneering agricultural exposition held in Harrisburg in 1851. It also marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of the state show of 19l7, and the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Main Exhibition Building.
A young United States senator from California made an appearance in connection with the 1952 show, but his prominence in American political history would not be fully known for another two decades. Sen. Richard M. Nixon spoke to the Pennsylvania Cooperative Potato Growers' Association banquet at Zembo Temple, a few blocks west of the Farm Show complex. His uncle, E. L. Nixon of State College, was active in the potato growers' group and widely known for his knowledge of improving crop yields. Senator Nixon railed against the communist threat and urged farmers to become involved in politics. More important to the Keystone State's agriculturists, the potato growers announced that year that they had sold the one millionth Farm Show baked potato! Sales of baked potatoes were a tradition that had begun in 1923, when they sold for a nickel. A National Geographic writer and photographer visited Harrisburg in 1954, and the show was later highlighted as part of a lengthy report on state fairs.