Red, white, blue ribbons…green, yellow and purple, too. Ribbons, cowboys, entertainers, plenty of food. It’s Fair Time in Washington.
Headliner entertainment aside, it’s always the artistic arrangements of fruits, veggies and flowers that are the perennial attention-getters at an agricultural event. These intricate displays have long symbolized the fair’s primary purpose: showcasing Mother Nature’s bounty.
Whether it’s a small community fair or an extravaganza on the scale of the Washington State Fair, there’s something about this rural activity, with roots in ancient history that, even in the 21st century, attracts large crowds.
Although early fair history is obscure, there’s plenty of reference in early records to fairs—more as reason for everyday social intercourse, compared to an elaborately institutionalized event.
While the setting of the first fair remains unknown, there’s evidence to the existence of the tradition as early as 500 B. C. The Book of Ezekiel refers to “Tarshish was thy merchant by reason of the multitude of the kinds of riches with silver, iron, tin and lead…traded in thy fairs.”
Fairs of all varieties were first held around the Mediterranean, giving merchants from distant countries and opportunity to trade. In early days worship was centered around the temples found in great cities such as Ninevah, Athens, Rome and Mecca. Because those cities also were respected as great commercial centers, the fields adjacent to the temples were staked out for traders.
The Latin work “feria” meaning “holy day” would appear to be the logical root word of “fair” Each feria was a day when large numbers of people would assemble for worship.
During the early Christian era, the church took part in sponsoring fairs on feast days, and as a result, fairs came to be a source of revenue for the church. It’s possible that modern church bazaars were an outgrowth of these religious fairs.
Over time the blended religious and commercial ventures moved into Western Europe, and ultimately to the New World.
Less than 300 years after Columbus finished his work in the New World, the first North American Fair was presented in 1765 in Windsor, Nova Scotia. In 1792 a fair sponsored by the Niagara Agricultural Society was held, and remains in operation today.
The first American fair of record is credited to Elkanah Watson, a New England patriot and farmer, who was dubbed, “The Father of U.S. Agricultural Fairs” after producing a small exhibit of sheep beneath an old elm tree in Pittsfield, MA. The year was 1807. Watson believed that the fine, textured fleece of those sheep, when manufactured into cloth would successfully compete with the best wool imported from England. Three years later Watson staged a larger, more ambitious project: a Berkshire cattle show. The event was successful beyond Watson’s expectations. Entries included 386 sheep, 109 oxen, nine cows, seven heifers, two calves and a boar.
Early American fairs evolved away from the European festival pattern, focusing more on agricultural development and animal husbandry along with education, while promoting local resources and industry, and entertainment. Competitions: from baked goods and needlework to hobbies, floral arrangements, and animals became the hallmarks of contemporary fair programming. Youth development provided a social theme.
At the end of the 19th century almost every state and province held an agricultural fair. Today there are more than 3,200 fairs held annually around North America.
The local branch of a nationwide Agricultural Fraternity, the Patrons of Husbandry (established in the late 1860s), better known as The Grange, is credited with establishing the fair tradition in the Pacific Northwest.
At the Washington State Fair’s Grange Display, fair visitors are encouraged to study the colorful agricultural displays, and then cast their ballot for their choice. Each day, those votes are counted, and transformed into a large rosette that’s presented to the Grange booth display rated as “best” by fairgoers.
Whatever your preference at the upcoming Fair—which runs Sept. 6-22 at the remodeled fairground in Puyallup—from the kick-off rodeo parade—to the scone booth and beyond, have a great time there!