By DOUG GRAVES
BURTON, Ohio — In Ohio, some county fairs claim to be the biggest. Others claim to be the best. But only one in the Buckeye State can claim to be the oldest.
The residents of Burton, located 30 miles east of Cleveland, like to remind others that their Geauga County Fair will be celebrating its 197th season late this summer. They’ll tell you it all began in 1823 and that the event is considered one of the oldest existing agricultural fairs in the nation.
In 1823, James Monroe was the nation’s fifth president. Ohio was just 22 years old at the time and much of the state’s Western Reserve was yet a rugged wilderness. Such inventions as the telephone, television, and automobile were multiple decades away.
In February that year a hardy group of pioneers had the vision to band together to form one of the state’s earliest agricultural societies: The Geauga County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. The goal of the organization was to promote agriculture and domestic manufacturing.
It was called the “Fair & Cattle Show” and was held Oct. 23 in Chardon; the fair lasted just one day. Rail pens were built on the square for livestock and agricultural and domestic products were exhibited in the old log courthouse. Judge Peter Hitchcock (later Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court) gave its opening address.
Geauga County Fair officials have kept accurate records of yesteryear. For instance, the first fair offered premiums for best exhibits in each class. Among them were awards for the best bull ($10 to Eleazer Hickox), best heifer ($8 to Edward Paine), best buck ($6 to Lemuel Punderson), best ewe ($6 to Edward Paine Jr.), best piece of woolen cloth ($6 to Mrs. Sophie Howe), best piece of bleached linen ($5 to Mrs. Catherine Kerr), and best table linen ($4 to Mrs. Alice Beardslee).
The early fairs were alternately held between Burton and Chardon, with one in Painesville. This was all done prior to the formation of Lake County, which separated from Geauga County in 1840. From that time forward, the Geauga County Fair was in Burton.
While many old fairs in this state have refurbished or erected new buildings, much has remained the same at this fair. The fairgrounds today still houses several buildings that date back to the 19th century, including the Domestic Arts Hall (built in 1856) and Flower Hall (1890), both of which are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
A section of the old C&E Interurban railway station now serves as the fair’s administration building.
Besides being the oldest, the Geauga County Fair has one other distinction over other fairs in this state: It has been continuous despite such multiple national conflicts as the Civil War, Spanish American War, two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Korea, Vietnam, and Gulf wars.
Many fairs in Ohio started in the early 1800s, only to disband for various reasons; not this fair. And Geauga County Fair’s motto (“Something for Everyone”) hasn’t changed since 1823.
Geauga is situated among scenic Amish and maple syrup country and to this day offers more than 12,000 exhibits, animals, rides, and entertainment.
While 1823 was the start date for this fair, its origins and spirit actually date back another 25 years to 1798, when the families of the earliest settlers in Burgon (the Umberfields) first held a gathering that year. This annual get-together – they called it a “jollification” – was based on early fairs of Europe.
Spearheading the effort to form this jollification in 1798 was a farmer and horticulturist named Lewis Hunt. Hunt had been associated with the State Horticultural Society in Massachusetts when he lived there prior to coming to Ohio.
Each state has a fair claiming to be the oldest there. The oldest in other states of this region include the LaPorte County Fair (La Porte, Ind., 174th year), Mercer County Fair (Harrodsburg, Ky., 191st year), Calhoun County Fair (Marshall, Mich., 1839), Jo Daviess County Fair (Warren, Ill., 158th year), Lee County Fair (Donnellson, Iowa, 178th year), and Wilson County Fair (Lebanon, Tenn., 166th year).