September means the York Fair
September wouldn’t seem like September if I didn’t do at least one post on the York Fair.
Instead of starting with the file boxes of York Fair materials at the York County History Center and/or local newspapers of the past, this time I thought I would look at another source. I pulled Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1840-1940 by Stevenson Whitcomb Fletcher off my shelf to see if he had anything on our local fair. This volume was published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1955, and is a follow-up to Fletcher’s 1950 book, also published by PHMC, Pennsylvania Agriculture and Country Life, 1640-1840. Fletcher was dean of the School of Agriculture at Penn State. I have found both volumes to be quite good references.
Sure enough, there are ten pages on agricultural fairs. Fletcher talks about how the fairs changed over the years from strictly agricultural competitions like plowing and corn shucking contests and judging whose crops and animals were best. About 1850, horse races became part of the fairs. Then, by 1870, side shows, where: “Here were to be seen—for a consideration—the boy with six fingers on each hand and eight toes on each foot; the two-headed calf; the dog-faced boy; the learned pig; the ‘World’s Largest Fat Lady, weight 610 pounds;’ the ‘legless lady—she lives, she breathes!’; the snake enchantress; the Hindoo wonder worker; troops of scantily-clad and sinuous oriental dancers; gambling devices, and games of chance.”
Fletcher uses some items about the York Fair to illustrate some backlash to the carnivalization of fairs. He writes: “In 1880 York County farmers were proud that their fair had ‘held twenty-one annual fairs, and has never allowed spirituous liquors of any kind, or gambling, on its grounds.’ Subsequently, under pressure of economic expedience, this enviable record came to an end. In 1929, the York County Grange resolved: ‘WHEREAS, The York County Agricultural Society…have sold concessions to crooks of all kinds, to immoral and indecent shows and…made the midway and whole fair ground a place where…the average man or woman could not pass through without feeling a keen sense of shame, and…WHEREAS, the York County Fair has ceased to be a county fair but has become one big carnival, a place unsafe and unfit for many people and especially children to attend.” York County Pomona Grange No. 40 went on to say they would not exhibit anything at the fair until the agricultural society cleaned it up.
I don’t know whether the Grange boycott caused any changes, but the side show spiels quoted above seem awfully similar to what I heard at the fair when I was growing up several decades later. At least, we finally seem to have gotten past making attractions out of people’s unfortunate physical disabilities, but it has taken a long time. There are still plenty of animals to see, rides to ride, horse races to watch, entertainment to enjoy, exhibits to view and food to eat at the York Fair.