Allegheny County Fairs (1849-2001)
The Allegheny County Fairs
On March 21, 1849, the Allegheny County Agricultural Association was formed for the purpose of organizing the Allegheny County Fair. The Market House square in Allegheny City was chosen as the location for the inagural event, which took place on October 2-3, 1949. The first fair was well-attended and it was decided to continue as a yearly event. Thus began the long tradition of the Allegheny County Fair.
The Pittsburgh Gazette, on October 9, 1851, documented many of the exhibits at the 3rd Allegheny County Fair, held that year in the Public Square in Allegheny City:
In the ladies department, dairy products like butter and cheese, bread and honey, along with other items were judged. The successful competitors received silver tea spoons, butter knives and diplomas as memorials of their skill.
Iron manufacturers displayed stoves, railings, ornamental designs, springs, axles, shovels, forks and nails of the finest quality. Carriage makers brought their best carriages, buggies, wagons and omnibuses. Cabinet makers showed off their best chairs, tables, sofas and wardrobes. Copper Ore from Lake Superior, and items made from it, like plate glass, lithographs, carvings, daguerreotypes and picture frames were arranged in the upper market house.
Ploughs, harrows, cultivators, seed sowers, grain cradles, winnowing machines and other agricultural implements were exhibited, along with grain, potatoes, pumpkins, melons, beets and an assortment of fruits. Also exhibited were harnesses, leather goods, hats, boots, hosiery, clothes, cloths and quilts. Floral exhibits of the finest varieties added charm to the surroundings. To crown all, a number of fine artists were on hand to display their paintings.
Between three and four hundred animals of various kinds were on the ground. The horses, mares and geldings were in large numbers, including every variety from heavy draught horses to light carriage and riding horses. The cattle on hand featured fine Durham bulls and cows, along with Alderney milk cows. Wool growers brought along several types of sheep, including Merino, Leicester and South Down bucks, ewes and lambs.
A few swine were exhibited, as well as numerous fowls. Specimens of the Shanghai, Cochin China, Poland, Plymouth Rock, Cittagong, Jersey Blues, Java and other fine varieties were all on hand for fair-goers to admire. The price of admission to the fair was ten cents per person and one dollar for a family ticket.
As with harness racing in later years, a highly anticipated Plowing Match was held each year. The competition was normally held in a field north of Sharpsburg on a seperate date from the main fair. In 1851, twenty-one plowmen entered the race, which was won by 18-year old Robert J. Boyle. Prizes awarded to the best ploughmen were: 1st Place - Silver Cup valued at $15; 2nd Place - $10; Third Place - $8; Fourth Place - $6; Fifth Place - $4.
In 1854, the fair was moved to a larger location in Pittsburgh along Penn Avenue, the site where the State Fair was held, on a five-year lease. The association made numerous improvements to the fairgrounds and the event was expanded from two to five days. No fair was held in 1856, as the Agricultural Association rented the fairgrounds to the Commonwealth for the State Fair, which included many of the County Fair attractions.
The Board of Directors of the Allegheny County Agricultural Association, in time for the 1860 County Fair, published and released "The Book Of The Fair," a comprehensive historical account of the first decade of the fair. Ten thousand copies of the volume were printed and, in addition to detailed accounts of the fairs, included matters relative to Allegheny County, and the Cities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny.
No fair was held during the Civil War years from 1861 through 1864. After the conflict ended in April 1865, the Agricultural Association quickly set out to reintroduce the County Fair. Soldiers were returning from the war and the region was recovering from the long struggle and bitter sacrifices. A fair was just what the county needed to brighten the spirits of the citizens of the region.
The Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, on October 21, 1865, reported that in addition to the farm crops and livestock, the fair featured the following new attractions for demonstration to the public: Photography, false teeth, washing machines, reapers and mowers, step-ladders, pumps, sewing machines, a self-operating gate and stomach bitters. Also introduced for the first time were mule and horse racing. The fair was a rousing success.
The fairs that followed continued to expand in both number of attractions, participation from the agricultural and industrial communities and overall attendance. However, after the 1868 County Fair, the association lost their lease on the fairgrounds. The land was sold for development and the organizers were left without a suitable location to stage such a large event. Twenty-two years passed before Allegheny County would host another fair.
Allegheny County Fair Association
In 1886, the Allegheny County Fair Association was formed with the purpose of reviving the annual fairs. At the same time, the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society was laying the groundwork for an annual exposition. From 1889 to 1916, the Pittsburgh Exposition was held at the Exposition Hall near the point in Pittsburgh. Ranked one of the finest in the nation, the cultural exposition contained many agricultural exhibits but lacked the rural atmosphere of the County Fair.
The Allegheny County Fair made a comeback in 1890, with the location moved to the fairgrounds in Tarentum. During that opening year the event was such a success, that by the following year the barns and sheds at the venue was no longer adequate for increased stock presented. The increased crowd size also taxed the limits of the available space.
Despite these concerns, the 1891 fair was a rousing success. The following year, the fairgrounds were expanded and a large number of new barns built. Improvements were also made to the roads leading to the venue. Interest in the fair and attendance continued to increase in the years that followed.
The event was held in Tarentum for eight consecutive years, until 1897, before being abruptly cancelled. Having outgrown the current location, the association began the search for a new home for the fair. During this time, from 1899 to 1904, the Clinton Agricultural Association held Allegheny County's only fair in Findlay Township.
Finally, in 1905, after a seven-year wait, the official Allegheny County Fair was revived at the new fairgrounds in Imperial, located on the country estate of John M. McCune, and later William M. Craig, the president of the Allegheny County Fair Association. The fair was held at varying times during the year, sometimes as early as the beginning of August and other times as late as mid-October.
Some highlights from the inaugural fair at Imperial were the record-breaking times set in the the horse racing events, the fabulous exhibits in the floral hall, a celebrated crazy-patch quilt that brought $35 at auction, a 17,800 ball home crocheted quilt, J.P. Stewart's six pound, seven ounce turnips, George Beitzinger's 22-pound cabbage and 53-pound pumpkin and corn that grew to seventeen feet.
Pittsburgh Pirate star shortstop Honus Wagner, a Carnegie resident, and his horse, Red Fox, were one of the big show attractions on the first day. A memorable moment in County Fair lore occurred when, while going to feed his horse, Wagner took off the bridle and the horse broke away. With Honus in pursuit, Red Fox headed straight towards a lemonade stand and overturned several gallons of the beverage, then got entangled in a nearby side-show tent.
Honus offered to settle with the owners of the damaged tent and beverage stand, but the gentlemen would have none of it. "We are proud, Mr. Wagner, to have you with us," they said. "It is worth half a barrel of lemonade any day to have the big chief of the Pirates visit Imperial."
Another interesting anecdote pertaining to that first fair at Imperial was the number of arrests made for illegal liquor sales. Imperial, Pennsylvania was a dry town, and several individuals attempted to take advantage of that by distributing alcohol to thirsty fair-goers along the approaches to the fairgrounds. Sales were brisk, until the police intervened.
The following year the fair was another rousing success, with increases in attendance and exhibits. In keeping with the changing times, and to the delight of the crowds, automobile races were added as one of the featured events at the 1907 fair.
Some remarkable times were made. In the stripped car event, E.B. Barnard covered five miles in 7:37. His Pope-Toledo also made eight miles in 10:36. In the touring car class, A.L. Bowden was the winner after an exciting race. The four-mile, four car event was close until the last half mile when Bowden's car pulled ahead and finished first with a time of 4:28.
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From the September 3, 1915,
Pittsburgh Daily Post:
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The 15th Annual Fair at Imperial, held in 1919, drew record crowds. Enhancements to the fairgrounds included road improvements and a new grandstand along the track. It was reported that the livestock exhibition was exceptionally large, with entries including 75 head of cattle, 50 sheep and goats, 50 swine and 250 fowl. Also featured were four tractors which gave demonstrations on the practicability of tractors in farm work.
The 1924 fair was memorable in that it was the first time the Imperial fairgrounds were illuminated in the evening with electric lights, a real treat for the evening crowd. By that year, the fair dates had been permanently changed to conincide with the Labor Day weekend. The final fair at Imperial was held in 1925. It was the last County Fair for eight years.
South Park Fairgrounds And The Free Fair
One reason the Imperial Fairs were cancelled was the small size of the location, which could no longer handle the large crowds in attendance. When South Park was established in 1927, the County Commissioners were determined to build a showcase location suitable to host the event for years to come.
Beginning in 1933, the South Park Fairgrounds complex became host to the new and improved Allegheny County Fair. With such a large new location as a staging area, the Allegheny County Fair Association partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Exposition Society to expand the fair programming. Also, for the first time, the fair was free to the public. All cost overruns were covered by the county.
The week-long event, which became the most successful fair in Pennsylvania, attracted over 500,000 visitors a year and was loaded with activities for young and old alike. From 1933 to 1941, the fair continued to grow and became a much-anticipated attraction for both the urban and rural residents of the county.
There were various livestock shows and farming exhibits along with a wide variety of children's rides and games, individual and team competitions in a wide variety of categories, including baked goods, crafts, running and swimming (Brookliners Carl Rhodes and Andy Manko of the Brookline Swimming Club won the 100 meter free style at the Corrigan Drive Pool, in the Junior and Senior classes, respectively, in 1936.)
Other highlights included harness racing and other equestrian exhibitions, along with displays featuring the latest in military hardware. On the large inner field, polo, baseball and football exhibitions were held. Themed parades were a daily happening, with firemen, police, scouts, military units, marching bands, automobiles, wagons and farm animals making their way around the oval track that stood next to Catfish Run Creek.
The main stage was busy throughout the fair with a variety of performances, often by notable local entertainers, television and stage personalities. Musical attractions were also planned throughout the day, with performances by popular bands each evening. The fair culminated each night with a fireworks display.
During World War II, for five years from 1942 to 1946, the fairs were not held. The end of that global conflict and the economic boom that followed gave impetus to a resumption of the Allegheny County Fair. During that first year back, the 1947 Pittsburgh Steelers played their initial exhibition game before a packed crowd at the fairgrounds.
The 1949 Fair was most memorable. The highlight of the event was a special appearance by President Harry S. Truman, who was making his way across the country making a series of speeches. Despite cloudy skies, a crowd eventually exceeding 300,000 had every road leading to South Park jammed for hours in a rush to see the President's address.
The President was greeted at the airport by County Commissioner Harry W. Fowler, Senators Francis Myers and Edward Martin, local congressmen and Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence, who had helped to convince the President to attend. The President's cavalcade proceeded directly from the airport to the fairgrounds.
Over 100,000 fair-goers were present in the stands for President Truman's twenty-minute noon address, given in his classic "give'em hell" fashion.
"I am happy to be here today at the Allegheny County Free Fair," he said. "I notice that this is called 'the world's largest county fair.' I have attended county fairs for sixty years, and I am glad to be a guest at the biggest one of all."
The President continued, "I am particularly impressed by this fair because it is both a farm show and an industrial exposition. Farmers and industrial workers together are showing their best products here today."
The roaring crowd at the fairgrounds that day brought the five-day total attendance to over one million visitors. Immediately following his address the President went directly back to the airport and flew off to his next stop in Des Moines IA.
Organizers of the fair had for years gone to great lengths to keep politics out of the event. The President's visit clearly broke that tradition. A skeptical newsman asked if the purpose of his visit had been to further his political agenda. "Certainly," snapped the President. "Opening a fair is traditional - like throwing out the first ball in a baseball game."
The press had some fun with the occasion. The Post-Gazette's Cy Hungerford published the cartoon shown above depicting Mayor Lawrence, who was running for re-election, hitching a ride to the fair from President Truman. With the exception of a few isolated incidents, President Truman's address was the first and last time that politics played a direct part in the fair proceedings.
One of the attractions at the post-war fairs was a model home, built on site. Spear and Company was selected for the first three years. The 1949 home was known as "The Pink House." It was a compact four-room house fully furnished throughout with modern, functional furniture with emphasis on color fashion.
A big hit at the 1949 Fair Children's Playground was an exciting new ride called the Merry Cycle, a merry-go-round propelled on a four-foot disc that revolved as the rider pedalled. It was a big hit with the increasingly dizzied small frys.
One of the yearly themes was automobiles. For the many car enthusiasts in attendance, there were daily classic car displays, and local auto dealers were also on hand showing off both experimental cars and the latest new cars from their showroom. In 1954, Oldsmobile introduced their experimental "F88," while Pontiac displayed their "car of the future," the Bonneville Special.
The 1954 Fair also featured three days of simulated war games, with Marines of the 12th Infantry Battalion, USMC Reserve, storming a fortified position. Recoilless guns and tracked vehicles pounded away at various targets while the Marines maneuvered towards their objective before the eyes of thousands of spectators.
An interesting anecdote from the 1960 County Fair involved some local college students from Brookline who took offense to a flag of the Soviet Union being displayed among other United Nations flags during a time of heightened Cold War tensions between the USSR and United States.
William McGroarty, 1031 Berkshire Avenue, Warren Lander, 1060 Bayridge Avenue, and Dan Eichenlaub, 1206 Berkshire Avenue, planned on removing the flag, but were arrested at the park entrance.
In the meantime, as a result of multiple complaints from fair-goers, the offending red hammer and sickle flag was replaced with a "Don't Tread On Me" banner, a message that dates back to the American Revolution. The ill-intentioned yet patriotic young men were fined $25 for loitering and released to the fair.
Pittsburgh Railways, and later the Port Authority, was an active fair participant, dating back to the Imperial fairs. For the event in South Park, in addition to a specially painted trolley that advertised the fair, the company provided dedicated trolley service from downtown Pittsburgh, using the Charleroi and Library interurban lines during the days of the fair.
Trolleys left downtown every five minutes during peak hours and passengers transfered to buses at the Mesta loop, a short distance from the fairgrounds. A bus terminal loading and unloading gates were set up at the fairgrounds. The Brentwood Motor Coach Company also provided direct service from downtown to the fairgrounds.
One of the many Allegheny County firsts was the maiden appearance of the KQVehicle, a mobile radio studio that contained an exact replica of the station's "fishbowl" studio in the Chamber of Commerce Building downtown.
Completely soundproof, the mobile studio had two turntables and a 450 megacycle transmitter. One of Pittsburgh's most popular stations, KQV featured daily radio reports and live broadcasting from the fairgrounds. The vehicle drew large crowds of curious onlookers.
During the 1965 County Fair, the initial testing was done for the Skybus transportation system. The trial was a big success and the feature attraction that year. Questionnaires were passed out and collected, asking several questions regarding the rider's experience.
The majority of riders during the 1965 trial were mothers with their children in tow, and extremely long lines with a one to three hour wait to ride were common. The results of the polling were overwhelmingly favorable and Skybus remained a popular attraction until 1971.
In 1966, William D. McClelland, chairman of the county commissioners, said that the reason the Allegheny County Fair annually attracts so many visitors is:
"Ours is the only fair - county, state, or world - where admission is free: parking is free: the main show is free; where children get free pony and train rides and where free picnic groves are available for families."
The 1968 Fair was memorable for several reasons, including the return of harness racing after a twelve year absence. The fair also featured a mammoth two-hour parade on opening day that incuded six equestrian groups, ten high school bands, three drill teams, six drum and bugle corps, thirty majorette groups, a large float from Millvale proclaiming the borough's centennial, and a Miss Teen Pageant car from East Pittsburgh. It was the largest parade in the history of the Allegheny County Fair.
The evening was to be punctuated by an unusual horse raced dubbed the "The Run for the Mums," an International Powder Puff Derby featuring jockeys from Canada, France, England, Mexico and the United States. The crowd eagerly awaited the 8:00 post time, but the long parade dragged on and darkness began to fall.
Fair officials desperately tried to break off the parade, but could not since the individual bands, horse units and baton-twirling groups which were competing for cash prizes kept marching onto the field. The jockeys balked at riding in the dark, but eventually relented. The race went on, a half hour behind schedule, won by Jane Clark of the United States!
The 1970 Fair opened on a rain soaked Thursday and the rain was not the only thing that went wrong that day. The main show featured Arthur Godfrey, the Doodletown Pipers and the Banana Splits, a troupe of actors in animal costumes who lip-synced their way through a tape of songs from their popular television show.
The tape often stuck, and a few kids shouted "fake!" when the words didn't fit.
Just before the show, the Pittsburgh Sky Divers dropped in on the fair, but arrived a bit off target. One diver landed on the hill above the stands, while another had to be retrieved from the roof of a car in a distant parking lot. Only one managed to drop on target, to the roar of the rain-dampened crowd.
A 26-mile marathon was added to the bill for the 1971 fair, along with Magician Harry Albacker and his Educated Animals, a nationally renowned magic show and animal act. Albacker performed daily to the delight of both parents and children.
A special guest was Air Force Colonel and Astronaut James Irwin, who lived in Brookline as a child and is the eighth man to walk on the moon as a member of the NASA's Apollo 15 mission the past July. Colonel Irwin and his wife were honored during a special ceremony on the fairgrounds stage and presented the Pride of Pennsylvania Award. The lunar explorer brought along with him a small Allegheny County flag that he took along with him on his space mission. The flag was presented to County Commission Chairman Leonard C. Staisey.
While the free fairs continued to be a huge success and attendance continued to rise, unfortunately the farming community in the region continued to dwindle while the costs of subsidizing the free event continued to rise. Because of these factors the Allegheny County Fairs came to a close after 1971. The cost of staging the fair had risen to above $200,000, despite a nearly $30,000 share of harness racing revenue from the state.
No fair was attempted in 1972. Public outcry forced a one-year comeback in 1973 with the addition of a parking fee to help offset costs, but it wasn't enough. The Skybus ride was not available for the 1973 fair, which was held the week before Labor Day. The fair attracted a less than expected crowd of 200,000 and ran a net loss of nearly $93,000.
Citing chronic budget deficits and the escalating financial burden on the county, the commissioners abolished the Allegheny County Fair altogether after the 1973 event. Another factor unrelated to finances that helped doom the fair were complaints that such a country-style, old fashioned show seemed out of place in this day and age in such an urban setting.
In an attempt to unofficially bring back the fair, in 1980 the county hosted the Allegheny County Festival and 4 H Show over the Labor Day weekend. Although successful, the effort turned out to be a one-year happening.
Seventeen years later, in 1997, the Allegheny County Fair, in conjunction with the Allegheny County Rib Cook-Off, made another small, unofficial comeback. The County Fair and Rib Cook-Off teamed up once more in 1998. The following year, the Allegheny County Fair Association officially applied to have the event sanctioned by the state. The 1999 fair, again a combined event, was a modest success.
Beginning in 2000, the County Fair was staged as a solo event for the first time in nearly three decades, and the non-profit fair association assumed all financial responsibility. The County announced that it would not cover any cost overruns. Admission fees were charged ($6/adult $3/child - age 5-under free) along with parking fees to help offset costs. The fair drew total attendance of 50,000 and organizers were pleased with the overall results.
In 2001, the fair association hoped to double attendance figures as the event gained in size and popularity. However, organizers had some major hurdles to overcome in order to continue in the future. Financially, the fair needed to turn a profit in order to secure a ten-year lease to the fairgrounds. They also had to clear a three-year probation period to meet state standards, such as having exhibitors in at least 12 of 24 classes of animals.
When the dust settled after the six-day event, the Allegheny County Fair Association proclaimed the 2001 County Fair another success, as attendance mirrored the previous year at 50,000, and vowed to return in 2002. However, a losing dispute over the 10% amusement tax, along with other issues resulted in another year with a net loss. This negated the fairgrounds lease and forced an indefinite cancellation, one that has lasted to this day.
* History of the Allegheny
County Fair compiled by Clint Burton - Last Modified: January 15, 2019 *
The South Park Rib And Wing Festival (2010-2012) In the absence of the County Fair, the South
Park Fairgrounds complex came alive on Labor Day Weekend from 2010 to 2012 with the
South Park Rib and Wing Challenge. The event included assorted activities and stage
performances, as well as a wide variety of food vendors. In 2013, the Rib and Wing
Challenge and Allegheny County could not come to terms and the festival was
The South Park Rib And Wing Festival (2010-2012)
In the absence of the County Fair, the South Park Fairgrounds complex came alive on Labor Day Weekend from 2010 to 2012 with the South Park Rib and Wing Challenge. The event included assorted activities and stage performances, as well as a wide variety of food vendors. In 2013, the Rib and Wing Challenge and Allegheny County could not come to terms and the festival was cancelled.
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