History Page 2
Held January 23-25, 1917, the first extravaganza was hailed as the Pennsylvania Corn, Fruit, Vegetable, Dairy Products and Wool Show. It was headquartered in a three-story farm implement dealer's hall, the Emerson-Brantingham Implement Company, at Tenth and Market streets in center-city Harrisburg. Apples, butter, carrots, celery, corn, milk, turnips and wool were shown, but no provision was made for showing or judging live animals. A total of $1,430 in cash prizes was offered, of which the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture provided $735. Gov. Martin Brumbaugh addressed the horticulturalists' group. An estimated five thousand people attended the show, and when it concluded, the agricultural trade magazine Pennsylvania Farmer described it as "the biggest thing of its kind ever held in the state.... It is generally conceded that an effort should be made to have such shows held annually or biennially."
For the next decade, the show burgeoned in size and in popularity, despite nearly being canceled in 1918 because of World War I. Because of the war, farmers were facing a shortage of labor with which to plant and harvest crops. (Munitions factories were paying as much as five dollars a day, compared to the dollar a day earned by the typical farm laborer at the time.) In spite of the war, attendance in 1918 doubled the 1917 figure, and more exhibits were added. By 1920, the exhibits spilled over into a second building, and a year later, the show (counting all meeting places) spread to nine buildings, and live animals - dairy and beef cattle, sheep, swine and horses - were shown for the first time. Two years later, the judging of animals began, the number of participating agricultural groups had grown to twenty-four, and the show expanded to four days. By 1925, the show was being held in fifteen locations, and the first 4-H Club livestock exhibition was held, featuring a display of forty-nine Hereford steers by the Adams County 4-H Baby Beef Club. This was the precursor of what eventually would become one of the show's most popular activities.
The growth of interest, participation and public acceptance of the show led to calls for a permanent location and a building or, preferably, buildings, and an eleven member state fair commission was charged with finding a site and drawing up plans. The commission hired an architect and proposed acquisition of a six hundred acre tract near Lemoyne, just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, but its proposal foundered under the soft economic conditions of the early 1920s, as well as opposition from officials of county fairs, who saw in the appellation "state fair" the seeds of unwelcome competition.
The years 1927 and 1928 proved to be pivotal for the Farm Show. A fundamental change took place in the planning and management of the show in 1927. With increasing public attendance, members of the joint private-public committee that had been in charge of the show faced unlimited personal liability if any accidents occurred. To remedy this situation, a new state agency - the State Farm Products Show Commission - was created to take over. The State Farm Products Show Committee that had organized the show since 1917 survived as an advisory panel to the commission. Three-quarters of a century later, the committee, made up of members of most major farm organizations, still functions in that role.
By statute, the State Farm Products Show Commission was organized as a nine-member board, consisting of the governor; the state secretary of agriculture, who served as chairman; another staff member of the department of agriculture; a representative of the Department of Public Instruction (now the Pennsylvania Department of Education); the dean of Pennsylvania State College's School of Agriculture; the director of Pennsylvania State College's Agricultural Extension Service; and three farmers appointed by the governor from a list of six submitted by the State Farm Products Show Committee.
The year 1928 was also extremely critical to the development of the Farm Show because Gov. John S. Fisher toured the show on Tuesday, January 18, visiting every building and examining every exhibit. Occurring well before the age of television and mass distribution of images, Fisher moved through the buildings largely undetected by the public. Only occasionally did his state police escort clear the way through the crowd for him. He was so impressed by the popularity of the show - more than eighteen thousand people passed through the Emerson-Brantingham building in the first five hours alone! - that he promised to help establish a permanent site. "The people have developed this show out of their own lives," Fisher said. "The show is an expression of the agricultural life of the State and it is the duty of the State to make ample provisions for the care of it, either in Harrisburg or the immediate vicinity."
Governor Fisher was no stranger to construction. By the fall of 1929, more than twenty-seven million dollars worth of state buildings around Pennsylvania were under construction, including several projects in the Capitol's back yard - the three million dollar North Office Building and the four and a half million dollar Education Building (now the Forum Building). To fund construction of the Farm Show building, a $1.34 million amendment was added to the appropriations bill for the Education Building. Selected as the site was a forty-acre tract on the northern edge of Harrisburg.
First bids totalled one million dollars more than the original estimates, and planners eliminated a large coliseum to help bring the project within budget. New bids were opened on October 23,1929, and a contract was awarded the next day. Less than a week later, Wall Street collapsed, inaugurating what historians would call the Great Depression, but it had little effect on Farm Show officials' plans, and a groundbreaking was held on October 31. A few months later, an estimated eighty thousand people attended the Farm Show of 1930, the last for which crowds would endure makeshift quarters.
The sprawling new building, with its nearly eight hundred foot wide facade facing Harrisburg's broad Maclay Street near the intersection of Cameron Street, was ready in time for the 1931 Farm Show. Containing four hundred and twenty-five thousand square feet (about ten acres) of area, it was a long, low, brick single-story structure with a two-story facade that accommodated Farm Show management offices. The coliseum was replaced with a modest judging area, now known as the Small Arena.
On Monday, January 19, his last full day in office, Governor Fisher toured the building on opening day of the 1931 event and proclaimed the show "a booming success." That evening, it &as dedicated with speeches by Fisher and Governor-elect Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Senator James J. Davis, and an assistant U.S. agriculture secretary. During the following four days, throngs jammed the show. Streets leading to the site were also congested, and a drive from downtown Harrisburg - about a mile-took at least thirty minutes. By the end of the show, officials declared that more than two hundred and fifty thousand people had seen the show, three times the number of visitors the year before.