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New York State Fair Traces Roots to 1841

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By Jolene Hawkins

As I continue to research the history of fairs, next on my list was the Great New York State Fair.

I was amazed to discover the first State Fair was held Sept. 29 and 30, 1841 in Syracuse. One reason the village of Syracuse was selected was because it was the center of farming interests in New York as well as the central point on the Erie Canal and a way-station on developing railroad lines from Albany, on the Hudson River in the east, to Buffalo, the state’s western outpost.

From 1842 to 1889, the State Fair traveled amongst 11 cities: Albany, Auburn, Buffalo, Elmira, New York City, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Syracuse, Utica and Watertown.

In 1849, the fair had a giant 50-foot tall manually-powered ferris wheel. According to the history of the fair, it was an iron and oaken wheel with wooden bucket cars large enough to carry four adults or six children aloft from the end of each of the four arms. This enabled riders to obtain a marvelous view of the newly chartered city and its suburbs. The wheel was so balanced that the entire wheel could be turned by the strength of a child. It was used over and over again throughout the years.

In 1890, the State Fair moved back to Syracuse permanently. Livestock buildings were constructed and a half-mile track was laid out. (In 1901, it would be expanded to a one-mile track.)

During the once-a-year event, the interest started to be centered on agriculture, its tools and its products, then lectures and discussions; selection of the dairy cow to winter feeding of sheep was added. Entertainment and band concerts, along with horse races and sometimes bicycle races, started to happen. And, of course, there were fireworks!

Around the early 1900s, automobile and motorcycle racing came with names like Barney Oldfield, Ralph DePalma and Wilbur Shaw who brought their speedy autos to town. In 1905, airplanes were zooming around at heights of 600 feet, giving spectators a thrill.

In 1902, Dan Patch, the famous race horse, raced at the State Fair and ran the mile in 2:00¼.

In 1910, Glen H. Curtiss, the famous aviator known as the bird man on two continents, would perform exhibitions of soaring, diving and altitude climbing and even a race between the automobile and his plane!

Also in 1910 was a chance for boys interested in farming to learn about agriculture at the State Fair. One hundred farm boys were invited to attend free, the cost being paid for by the State Fair Commission. Boys were selected from Erie County. During their time there, they learned more about different equipment and ways of farm work, along with care of livestock, through lectures, exhibitions and demonstrations. This was the forerunner of 4-H.

The State Fair Coliseum was built in 1923. The first event held was the World’s Dairy Congress, where 5,000 people came to view the various bovines which included numerous colors and breeds. Cattle were brought in from 40 different countries.

During the fair, the Coliseum is used for the multi-breed horse shows such as the pintos, arabians, miniature horses, quarter horses and appaloosas, hunters and jumpers, as well as the draft breeds.

From 1942 to 1946, there were no State Fairs because the state fairgrounds became a military base during World War II.

By the 1950s, James E. Strates Shows were being used and the crowds that had dwindled during the ‘40s were once again on the rise. In 1951, Olive Gernatt of Springville was named the state alternate in the poultry food demonstration program. She received a blue ribbon and cash award for her “Off to a Good Start,” which emphasized the use of eggs in the breakfast menu.

The Center of Progress Building is one of the largest of the 110 buildings on the fairgrounds and is located just inside the fair’s main gates. It can host up to 250 vendors and concessionaires and is now home to the fair’s 180-ton sand sculpture.

Among all the great things you can see at the State Fair is the live entertainment. Past acts include Sonny and Cher, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, Tina Turner, Neil Young, James Taylor and Bob Dylan to this year’s lineup of Blondie, Dave Mason, Steve Cropper, Herman’s Hermits with Peter Noone, Jukin Bone and ZZ Top, to name a few.

The fair to me will always represent summer time, fun time and family times! This year’s Great New York State Fair runs from Aug. 22 to Sept. 3.

Come read up on more at the Lucy Bensley Center on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Contact the center by email at lucybensleycenter@gmail.com or call (716) 592-0094.

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