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The Fair Comes to Town

The first Indiana County Fair was held on October 16, 1855 on a site which is now occupied by the IUP Campus. This was a six-acre site, now the current site of Waller Hall, Fisher Auditorium, Stapleton Library and Clark House. The site was purchased by the Indiana County Agricultural Society from James Sutton at a price of $840.

At the time the fair was a three-day event sponsored by the agricultural society, organized on January 2, 1855. Judge Thomas White was elected president of both the society and the fair, and was put in charge of a board of managers comprised of James Hood, John G. Coleman, Robert H. Armstrong, David Ralston, James Bailey, J.T. VanHorn, and Samuel Johnston.

In July, the society announced the date and admission price for the county’s first fair - tickets would be 25 cents and half price for children.

All competitors for premiums had to be members of the society. On the second day of the fair, a plowing match and ladies’ riding match were held. Caroline Peelor won the ladies’ contest. Among the other awards were $2.00 to H. Shomo for the best stalk and straw cutter; $1.00 to G.R. Shoup for the best washing machine; $4.00 to Hail Clark for the best two-horse carriage; and $1.00 to Dr. J.G. Caldwell for the best violin. There were also awards for a plow, grape jelly, and woolen carpet. Many winners returned their premiums to the society.

This year’s fair August 26-September 2 at Mack Park will mark the 160th in the county. It is important to note that fairs were not held in 1859, 1864, 1932-36, and 1943.

In 1856, only the second year of hosting a fair, receipts were $1,302.76, which included $426.00 in ticket sales. Among the expenses were $30.00 for a brass band, $20.75 for police on the grounds, and $120.87 for digging and walling a well. It was during this fair that David Peelor’s map of Indiana was judged “worthy of merit.”

In 1858, on the second day of the fair, Luther Martin of Blairsville “sent off a large paper balloon that ascended beautifully to a great height and sailed off in a northwestern direction until it was entirely out of sight.”

Farm equipment was exhibited including threshing machines of the tumbling shaft model operated by horses, flour barrels, “portable fences,” grain cradles, cider presses, tinware, and kaolin soap.

In 1859 because of a severe frost in early June, the agricultural society made the decision not to host a fair, however, a new organization, the Conemaugh Valley Agricultural Society, held a fair October 4-6 near Blairsville. Four special trains a day were run from Indiana to Blairsville, and the crowd on October 5 was estimated to be 3,000.

In 1860, Tom Buckly, a renowned pedestrian, walked 100 hours continuously at the fairgrounds.

In 1864, because of the Civil War, the fair was discontinued for a second time.

In 1866, A.W. Wilson addressed the fair on October 4, “I venture the assertion that there are more farmers’ wives than farmers overtaxed with work. This should not be so. Barbarism and the slavery of women have never been inseparable.”

Wilson also criticized farmers for their refusal to use new machines, adhering “stubbornly to the old ways, good or bad.” This “want for intelligence that is found in a large proportion of the agricultural class is wholly without excuse.”

Later that year, the Indiana Weekly Register criticized the members of the agricultural society for showing little interest “except at fair times, and the whole management is imposed upon a few zealous and prompt men. The December meeting through negligence has become almost a farce…”

In 1873, there was a sight at the fair as “Professor Light” ascended in a balloon. The Indiana Progress reported: “The balloon ascension came very near being attended with an accident. A western wind was blowing at the time, which blew the balloon as it ascended into a large tree. Professor Light saw his danger in time to throw out some of his sandbag ballast. This raised the balloon sufficiently to escape all danger except the breaking of several cords. The sandbag struck Mrs. Myers on the back of the head, but did not injure her seriously. THe balloon was up nearly an hour and descended near Bellsana (Belsano) in Cambria County, lighting in a treetop. The professor was back the next morning ready for another trip.”

The following year, the fair saw another balloon ascension, this time being made by John A. Wise, 13. The trip occurred on the second day of the fair. It was said to have been his first ascent alone. “As he ascended, he waved the stars and stripes over those below.” He landed about four miles north of Indiana.

In 1876, C.S. McCoy installed new stalls and sheds at the fairgrounds, and the race track was enlarged from a fifth of a mile to a third of a mile.

In 1876, attendance on Thursday of fair week was estimated at 12,000.

In 1888, the Forepaugh Circus exhibited at another site on October 4, the third day of the fair. This caused the Indiana County Pomona Grange to pass a resolution opposing this “interference with the exhibit of the agricultural society” and urging its members to “refuse their patronage to the show.” The Indian Times refused the Forepaugh advertisement and reported that the Forepaugh tent was only half filled in the afternoon, but the evening performance was “better attended.”

An interesting exhibit at the 1888 fair was an incubator by S.W. Guthrie, which hatched 96 chicks out of 100 eggs.

Ticket sales totaled $2,374.45. After the fair, by a vote of 4-2, the board of managers voted to sell the fairgrounds to the Indiana Normal School for $6,000 and to buy 33 acres of the state experimental farm. However, an election of new managers later resulted in two members who were opposed to the sale.

In 1889, there was yet another fascinating addition to the fair - a “large steam flying machine” (carousel) was brought in from Idlewild Park. It had 24 artificial horses and a number of carriages on a platform more than 40 feet in diameter. Rides were 5 cents each.

In 1890, the Indiana Times announced “Balloon Ascensions with Parachute Jumps. A feat never before witnessed in Indiana County. Also, a balloon race side by side, both balloons leaving the ground by a signal from a gun, and after gaining the height of two or three thousand feet…another signal is given and instantly both men jump from the balloons and drop like a bullet several hundred feet, when their parachutes open and break the velocity of their fearful plunge.”

After the 1890 fair, complaints were made that the “present grounds are too small” and that the grandstand “would not accommodate one-half the persons who wished to occupy it.”

1891 was the last fair held on the old grounds, as forty acres of the Carter farm were purchased from H.M. Lowry and Gamble Fleming for $4,000 in June, and in December after the fair had ended, the old grounds were sold to the Normal School for $8,600.

In April of 1892, all the buildings and fences at the old fairgrounds were torn down except the main building, which was used for a time as a gymnasium for male students.

On the new grounds stables were erected to house 214 horses, a “Round House” with 16 sides, 80 feet in diameter and 65 feet high; ticket office; secretary’s office; machinery hall; two cattle pens; sheep and hog pens; toilet houses; two dining halls; grandstand; four water wells; and a half-mile race track.

On Thursday of the fair, there were reported to be 20,000 people on the grounds before noon.

1895 Fair

In 1896, a petrified body of a woman was displayed.

In 1899, the total indebtedness of the agricultural society was $13,600. To reduce this, A.S. Cunningham was named a trustee and empowered to hold a mortgage on the fairgrounds and give each subscriber a proportional share in the mortgage. D.C. Mack, James McGregor and M.F. Jamison, the committee to solicit subscriptions, obtained $10,000 in subscriptions, the two highest being John P Elkin and Harry White for $500 each.

The above are just some highlights of the early years of the fair from 1855 until 1900. Today the fair still comes to town every year, attracting large crowds to enjoy “fair food,” look at the animals, view the sideshows, ride the rides, take in entertainment at the grandstand, or just catch up with old friends. Hopefully you will make it out to the fair this year, whether by yourself, with friends or family and make some memories that you can share about how the Indiana County Fair in fifty years compares to 2023.


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