County fair steeped in history

The Washington County Fair probably had its roots in the early 19th century, according to a 1927 Marietta Times article by A.K. Bedilion, who traced the event back to the formation of “The Agricultural and Manufacturing Society of Washington and Wood Counties” in 1819.

“Annual meetings of ‘fair boards’ have been held since, and there have been also the annual fairs and exhibits with premium awards from the very first,” Bedilion wrote.

Based on the 1819 date, the 2013 Washington County Fair, which begins Saturday, is 194 years old. In any case, it’s Ohio’s second-oldest fair, according to longtime fair board member Richard Henthorn.

Bedilion said the first fair of any note was held on Oct. 18, 1826 when Nahum Ward, S.P. Hildreth, and Col. John Mills were on the “arrangement committee.”

The event began with a fair business meeting in the courthouse, followed by a sermon at the First Society meeting house entitled “Throne of Grace,” by First Congregational Church Rev. Luther Bingham.

“The inspection of stock began at noon with committee reports following, and premium awards made known the same day,” Bedilion wrote. “A big picnic was enjoyed ‘in the avenue of Nahum Ward’s locust walk’ the Ward premises occupying the site back of Putnam Street from the Strecker Brothers alley to the Citizens Bank corner.”

Livestock pens were set up in a square near Putnam Street, and in another square located behind the “market house” a facility described as a small building on Second and Ohio streets.

Fair exhibits included butter and cheese, “useful implements of husbandry,” linen, flannel and carpeting, “and the rare and extraordinary products of the soil…”

Bedilion wrote that “The Agricultural and Manufacturing Society of Washington and Wood Counties” was eventually changed in 1867 to “The Washington County Agricultural and Mechanical Association.”

Events like the 1826 fair were precursors to the county fair as we know it today. According to research by Washington County Fair Board Secretary Jeremy Barth, who’s working on a history of the fair, the event probably became an “official” fair around 1846, when Ohio began establishing various agricultural and mechanical societies throughout the state.

“But fair premium booklets as far back as 1933 date the first Washington County Fair to 1851-so the exact date of the first Washington County Fair can be a bit confusing,” Barth said.

Shirley Duckworth, who preceded Barth as fair board secretary, said the earliest fairs were held on Putnam Street and in East Muskingum Park. The fair was eventually moved to its current grounds along north Front Street and Fair Avenue.

“There were some years, during World Wars I and II, that there was no fair,” she said. “But those are the only years the fair wasn’t held.”

Duckworth said the first county fair parade was held on the fairgrounds in the grandstand area, and she and fellow board member Susie Amrine were instrumental in organizing the first parade from the Ohio River levee in downtown Marietta to the fairgrounds.

She noted for several years horse-racing, which has been a longtime staple at the fairgrounds, originally took place on a circular track where the fair midway is now located, next to the original fair building now housing the Marietta Roller Rink.

Early fair dates could be held between the first week of September to the last week of October, but eventually Labor Day weekend was selected for the annual Washington County Fairs, according to a 1980 fair history overview by the Washington County Historical Society.

The same article notes the formation of boys’ and girls’ “Corn Clubs” in the county between 1915 and 1917 by E.J. Riggs, Washington County’s first agricultural agent. In 1921 the Corn Club groups were invited to become 4-H Clubs by a subsequent county agent, John D. Hervey.

“The formation of 4-H Clubs was a big boost for county fairs throughout the state,” Barth said. He and Duckworth are both past 4-H members, and noted 4-H groups have played a key role, not only by exhibiting at the fair, but through fundraising efforts to have facilities like the Junior Fair Building constructed.

The best attendance years for the Washington County Fair were probably in the 1950s and 60s.

“There seemed to be a lot more participation then-the crowds were much larger, running around 20,000 a day,” Duckworth said, adding that big-name entertainment helped draw those crowds.

She said past entertainers included Ray Stevens, Loretta Lynn, the Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McEntire, and Kathy Mattea.

There have been some major challenges for the fair board in recent years. The September 2004 flood had a devastating impact on the Washington County Fair.

“The fair went on that year, but about a week later the fairgrounds were completely flooded,” Barth said. “We lost a lot of historical records, and the mobile home court behind the main building was destroyed. Leasing those lots was a source of revenue for the fair board.”

And in April of this year the poultry barn at the fairgrounds was destroyed by fire, meaning poultry exhibits will have to be held in a tent during this weekend’s fair.

“We need to have that barn rebuilt,” Duckworth said. “That’s one reason we need community support. The fair is part of the culture and heritage of this area, and as an historic community we need to keep it going.”