The entertaining history of the Erie County Fair

This is Marty Biniasz. At the June meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society, he kept everyone entertained with his recounting the history of the Erie County (New York) Fair. This August, the Erie County Agricultural Society will present the 171st county fair. The fair has definitely changed since it first began in 1820, when the first of two “pioneer fairs” were organized.

Marty said that there are six main reasons to hold a county fair. They are:

  1. To celebrate the harvest
  2. To share ideas about agriculture
  3. To showcase new technology, especially in agriculture
  4. to encourage competition among different county fairs
  5. to celebrate community and heritage
  6. to have fun
I will mostly focus on the “having fun” part. After all, if a county fair is not fun, why bother to go? 
So here is a bit of the history of the Erie County Fair. We now celebrate county fairs during the summer, but, originally, fairs were held in late September and early October, when farmers had harvested their crops. There was  a harness racing track at the fair. Down the road and away from the fairgrounds, people could enjoy watching drag racing.
After 1821, the fairs were suspended for several reasons:
  • impassible roads
  • an economic depression
  • the building of the Erie Canal (the Erie Canal was proposed in 1808 and was completed in 1825. It was considered to be an engineering marvel and the “eighth wonder of the world”).

In 1819, when the Agricultural Society was formed, the population of the region that would later become Erie and Niagara counties was 2,000. The society was formed to be a lobbying mechanism to look out for the interests of farmers. Erie and Niagara counties separated in 1821. By 1829, thanks to the boom economic times provided by the existence of the canal, the population of Erie County was 30,000.

Lewis F. Allen, who was the Society’s president from 1841-1842 and Orlando Allen, Society president in 1847, were instrumental in re-instituting the fair. The fair was moved several times. It was held in downtown Buffalo and was later moved south and was held in such towns as Springville, East Aurora, and West Seneca. By 1868, it was moved to Hamburg, and that has been its home ever since.

Here are some interesting (and maybe odd) facts about Hamburg and the fair:

  • Hamburg claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. Two brothers, Frank and Charles Menches, who were from Canton, Ohio, added coffee grounds and brown sugar to ground beef. They didn’t know what to call their dish so they looked at a sign and called it a “hamburg.”
  • Harness racing is lucrative. Enough money was raised during harness racing events in the 1950s and 1960s to purchase more land for the fair. The fair was originally on 27 acres of land and it now occupies 325 acres.
  • In the 1860s, there was a parade for returning civil war veterans at the fair.
  • The fair was suspended in 1943, due to gasoline rationing.
  • In the past, people were able to travel to the fair via street cars. The street car lines were the Buffalo Southern Railway and the Buffalo and Susquehanna (streetcar).
  • The Strates shows have been held at the fair since 1923. James E. Strates was a sideshow wrestler, who decided to create his own show.
  • There is a demolition derby at the fair, and Hamburg is called the “crash capital of New York State.”
  • Close to 7,000 animals are on the fairgrounds during the fair’s 12 days of operations. Sunday is called the “change over day.” All the animals are taken home and a new group arrives.
  • The fair is about competition. Last year, there were 12,000 entries in numerous categories, from animals to fine arts to crafts.
  • History is celebrated at the fair. There is an Indian Village and also a building for the county’s various historical societies to show vignettes.
  • There are events held off season. In April, a craft beer competition was held on the fair grounds.
  • The Erie County Fair is the tenth largest fair in both the United States and Canada. It is bigger than the New York State Fair.
  • In 2014, Nik Wallenda walked over the fair on a tightrope. It was a longer walk than the one that he did over Niagara Falls on June 15th, 2012.
  • The first rock and roll concert was held in 1956. It featured Pat Boone.
  • At this year’s fair, there will be a program called “little hands on farms,” which will feature seven little barns. It is designed for children aged two to seven. 
The fair is all about fun, with a serious message. These days, only two percent of the population of the United States works in agriculture. Because most of the population is not involved in farming or food production, there is a need to educate people about agriculture via a program called “farm to table.”
The Erie County Fair is scheduled for August 10th through the 21st. 
What summertime events are you looking forward to?

3 thoughts on “The entertaining history of the Erie County Fair”

  1. That's a long county fair. I haven't been to our county fair (Broome) in many years. Even longer for the neighboring county's fair (Tioga), which used to be held in August and is now held in July. I enjoy some of the agricultural aspects. I hope to get to the NYS Fair this year for Senior Day.

  2. Jeanine @ The Storybook Healing Blog

    What an interesting history! I like that they educate people about agriculture. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to where our food comes from. But how interesting that the first hamburgers had coffee & brown sugar in them. I think I'm glad we don't still make them that way. 🙂

  3. How I loved our county fair when we livedin upstate New York. It's great to read the history of your fair, I may have to dig up the info on ours!

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