History Page 1
by Dan Cupper
This article originally appeared as "The Romance of Pennsylvania Agriculture" in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XVII, Number 1 - Winter 1991
When a small group of men met at Lancaster's Leopard Hotel in August 1916 to organize the first Pennsylvania Farm Show, they did not have in mind mammoth displays of fifty thousand dollar tractors, mountains of steaming baked potatoes or presentations of grand champion livestock ribbons.
They didn't envision a state fair of the type that had become so popular in places like Iowa, Ohio, New York or Texas. All they really wanted was a convention, a trade show for agriculturalists of every kind - dairy farmers, fruit and corn growers and livestock breeders. Three-quarters of a century ago, the promoters were simply looking for a way to bring farmers and breeders together at the same time to discuss common problems, methods and goals. And as the Farm Show marked its seventy-fifth anniversary this year , its mission - and its weather - remained unchanged.
This winter , Pennsylvania's agricultural community celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the popular Farm Show. Drawing two hundred thousand people and filling every corner of Harrisburg's fourteen-acre Farm Show Complex, today's week-long event bears little, if any, resemblance to its beginnings - except, of course, for purpose. Indeed, Pennsylvania's Farm Show is considered to be the largest indoor exposition dedicated solely to the promotion of agriculture. To farm families, the show honors and validates their way of life. For commercial exhibitors who breed animals, the event is valuable for the prestige that a Farm Show prize ribbon brings. And for urban or suburban families, it is perhaps the only glimpse over the barnyard fence they will ever enjoy.
Despite the long-held image of Pennsylvania as an industrial state, agriculture is its largest industry, accounting for nearly three and a half billion dollars annually! When restaurants, processors, wholesalers and retail grocery sales are counted, the economic effect totals more than forty-one billion dollars. Today's Farm Show reflects the magnitude of that industry, but it owes its heritage and its existence to that first modest show in January 1917.
Curious individuals sometimes ask why Pennsylvania does not hold a state fair in summer or fall with entertainment, midway carnival attractions, harness or automobile racing, and an admission charge, as do most states with a large agricultural sector. Instead, the Farm Show is an oddity - a free mid-winter event at which non-farm attractions and sideshows are forbidden. Much of this is by design, part by circumstance.
In the nineteenth century, Pennsylvania did have state fairs. Following a highly successful agricultural fair held at Harrisburg in October 1851, an annual state fair was organized. Hosted by a different city each year, organizers deliberately sought to stimulate the creation of county agricultural societies and county fairs. Some local fairs were already well-established, such as the York Fair, which began in 1765. In addition to Harrisburg, the state fair traveled to Bethlehem, Easton, Erie, Indiana, Johnstown, Lancaster, Norristown, Philadelphia, Scranton, Uniontown, Williamsport, Wyoming and York. The state fair was a victim of its own success: the county fairs it propagated eventually overshadowed it in popularity and importance. And, so, the last state fair was held in 1899.
From the turn-of-the-century through 1916, agricultural organizations met in various locations, usually gathering in Harrisburg in January of odd-numbered years to chart strategy for the biennial legislative session, but there was no real coordination as various farm groups often met in different cities and on different dates. The Pennsylvania Livestock Breeders' Association, organized in Pittsburgh in 1900 and representing twenty-four breeds, called for the revival of the state fair primarily as an educational event, managed by organizations representing livestock, dairying, educational and industrial interests. Across the Commonwealth, an editorial in the Philadelphia Press criticized the concept. "The Pennsylvania Livestock Breeders' Association is anxious to hold a big State Fair devoted to cattle exhibits with the absence of a midway. If the livestock breeders will take a tip from Allentown, Bethlehem and Lancaster, they will hold a State Fair and assure its overwhelming success by abandoning the livestock exhibit and sticking to the midway exclusively."
It was not until the 1916 meeting in Lancaster, called by Agriculture Secretary Charles E. Patton, that the Farm Show, as it is known today, began to take shape. The participants, who represented the livestock and dairy industry, the horticultural industry, the agricultural press and the Pennsylvania State College's agricultural extension department agreed on several principles: it was to be held in mid-winter, when farmers were least busy planting or harvesting, when agricultural societies customarily met and when there was no conflict with county fairs; it was to be a public show, as well as a farm-industry show, with free admission; and competitive exhibits of farm products were to be included, with cash premiums awarded, and farm machinery displayed.
The first shows were held in scattered locations around Harrisburg because no single building was large enough to contain meetings of all the agricultural societies, displays of produce and commercial exhibits. Fair officials and participants simply commuted back and forth among the buildings and meetings.