August 1988

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The Steuben County Fair


Bill Treichler

The Early Fairs

This year, 1988, the Steuben County Agricultural Society's fair at Bath will be the one hundred and thirty-sixth consecutive annual exhibition since regular fairs began in Bath in 1853. Such a record makes this the longest running county fair in the country.

Fairs were held at Bath in earlier years but there were years when no fair was held. The Steuben County Agricultural Society was formed in 1819 and a fair was held in Bath in 1822, and again later in 1841 to 1843. Even before the Agricultural Society held its first fair in 1822, Charles Williamson, agent for the Pulteney Group, and promoter of their land interests, staged what he called a World's Fair at Bath in 1795 and again the following year in 1796.

Williamson was interested in attracting land buyers and investors from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey as well as homesteaders and pioneer farmers from those states. Williamson had laid out and had cleared a roadway from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to where the Tioga River was navigable and from Painted Post all the way to Williamsburgh, a new town on the Genesee River.

The Pulteney interests had bought from Robert Morris, the Philadelphian, much of the great land tract he had taken over from Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham, a territory of more than one million acres they had purchased from Massachusetts. None of these developers had been able to profit from the sale of parcels of this land.

Williamson recognized the great possibilities for this region and he set about not only building a road for settlers to travel to the new country and laying out new towns like Bath, but in providing conveniences like the Benjamin Patterson Inn, and in supporting all kinds of new ventures that might make the residents more prosperous and the land here more attractive. The idea of a fair to be held at Bath, the center of the southern and more recently settled part of the region, would suit his purposes admirably.

A fair as an entertainment would be a great treat for the new settlers. The excitement of horse races and physical contests would appeal to the rugged pioneering spirits. Williamson knew how to make it a spectacle. He would offer prizes to attract the sporting minded and he would advertise the fair widely so that the adventurous in the neighboring and even more distant states would come to see the fair and this fabulous new country. They would carry tales of its beauty and fertility home and more settlers would come.

Williamson had a race track built near where his estate was, close to Lake Salubria. He entertained his guests, took a direct part in the races by entering a horse. His horse didn't win. He may have been gentleman, showman, and promoter enough to prefer not to win. The whole spectacle must have had the appearance of a medieval English tourney. Again in 1796 the fair was held, but after that there wasn't enough fervor to support a yearly fair.

In 1819 a well to do merchant and a great enthusiast for fairs came all the way from Albany to encourage local farmers and husbandmen to organize an agricultural society and stage a fair. This man was Elkanah Watson. He had convinced the Legislature that the promotion of county agricultural societies would be generally beneficial. The legislators had voted to provide $10,000 a year for two years to be used for the improvement of agriculture and domestic manufactures.

Watson found men around Bath and neighboring towns who would start a society and hold a fair. Their first fair was held on a tract where Lake Country Estates is now located. Again a race track was built, for horse racing was always a popular sport. Prizes were also given to exhibitors of cattle and sheep and for produce. There were nine categories for judging in the Society's first fair in 1822.

Steuben County received $100 from the state appropriation. This money was used for the premium awards. In these first fairs only members of the society and orphan females could enter exhibits. Later this exclusion was removed.

Not until 1841 did the Society again hold a fair. The state had provided money again for county fairs. For several years a fair was held at Bath beyond the end of Ark Street, but after 1843 there was no annual county fair for nine years.

Then in 1853 the Society became vigorous again and the first fair in the present 135 year series was held. On October 12 and 13 the fair was held on the farm of Robert Campbell at the junction of East Morris Street with East Steuben Street. The next year the fair was held on a tract of land rented from the estate of Ten Eyck Gansevoort that fronted on East Washington Street. Ten years later the fair board purchased this six acre property from the heirs for $1200. More additions were made until the property grew to its present size of 26 acres.

From 1853 on the fair prospered. Buildings were put up for livestock and exhibitions, a grandstand was built in 1872 and even a portable covered stage was added, a unique feature for a county fair. The original grandstand was built along the race track and later, in 1872, a second grandstand was built. It stood until it burned just before fair time in 1966.

In the 1920s the fair board had a driveway tunneled underneath the race track to make the space inside the track available for automobile parking. A year later a pedestrian tunnel was opened so that fair goers could safely go to their cars from the grandstand.

Clustered behind the new grandstand are the cattle and sheep barns and the permanent buildings of various organizations which serve meals during fair time. There are a number of these larger eating halls in addition to the temporary van and trailer kitchens that serve all kinds of special foods associated with eating at the fair.

In the early days when people travelled to the fair in their buggies and springboards, they usually brought food for the day with them and ate picnic style on the grounds. Those were times of a more self-sufficient economy when people had less money to spend and they came to the fair as an economical outing and a relief from the long, hard, hot farmwork of late summer. Then, going to the fair was an all day affair, now visiting the fair is more of an afternoon or evening relaxation when people enjoy strolling about and sampling the exotic foods of the fair vendors, listening to the hawkers, watching the children on the merry-go-round or seeing a performance from a seat in the Grandstand.

To experience the real ambiance of the Bath Fair buy your ticket at the board- and-batten fair office facing on East Washington Street, pass through the narrow gate and follow the curving walk that leads uphill to the Fair House or Exhibition Hall. The carousel, the little train and the slides for little children are on your right. (The rides for the big boys and their girls and the sideshow with painted canvass billboards are off to the left of the entrance.)

Before you go into the Exhibition Hall go to the Pioneer Log Cabin beyond the children's rides to see the exhibits of the early farm and household tools where usually there is some one in early costume spinning or weaving and ready to explain what they are doing and the uses of the various articles hanging on the walls or standing around.

The Pioneer Log Cabin was built in 1884 to commemorate the great accomplishments and hardships of the first settlers. On some of the logs in the cabin you can read the names of the contributors of the logs. The log cabin became the shelter for many of the articles contributed from the early families.

CLR Visits The Bath Fair

Just this year, 1988, a book was found that lists the first items that were given for safe keeping to the Society. Item number one was a buggy spring that came with Mr. Helms from Virginia. One of the earliest items is the Copybook of Hannah Baldwin of 1786. The book contains examples of Hannah's writing skills as a young girl when she lived in the town of Jerusalem. Her family must have been there with Jemima Wilkinson. These items and others listed in the register are in the Log Cabin Museum and in a concrete block building near the cabin.

From the Log Cabin return to the Exhibition Hall. It was built before 1870. Constructed like a barn it is well suited for its purpose to house exhibits at an agricultural society's fair The building has two wide doors at both ends and two alleyways running from end to end on the ground floor. Facing the alleys are the exhibitors' booths, much like stalls in a horse stable. The second floor is open like a great hay loft. Here the vegetable, fruit, and canning entries of the 4-H club members and other individuals and the displays of the Future Farmers clubs are placed on tables and shelves along aisles. There are also painting and ceramic objects entered for judging. One fascinating display that always attracts intense interest is Dan King's glass bee hive with live bees working on honey comb.

Walk through the Exhibit Hall and when you have seen all the booths and displays go out the back door and along the curving promenade that leads to the grandstand. Along this walkway are the food vendors and the games of strength, skill and chance.

Behind the grandstand is the antique engine and machine display. Many of the old single-cylinder engines are chugging and coughing. There may also be an old-time farm tractor running a thresher or other machine with a long flat belt.

Around this yard are clustered the animal barns with different breeds of cows and calves and sheep, pigs and ponies. Beyond the far end of the grandstand is the conservation building and pond. On beyond are the machinery exhibits.

The Bath Fair makes Bath a unique village. The fairgrounds are the focus of a week long celebration once a year in the center of an historic agricultural community. The remainder of the year the fairground provides the village open space with pleasant rural vistas of barns and grassy fields.

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