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America’s affair with fairs has lasted for 200 years
Tennessee Correspondent

McMINNVILLE, Tenn. — In the Volunteer State, county fairs are still viable hubs of temporary summer entertainment – and not as different from their roots as one might think.

Tennessee is host to four regional and 54 county fairs, five of which have begun in the past few years. According to the Tennessee Dept. of Agriculture, in 2005 these attracted about three million visitors, equal to more than half the state’s population – most of whom might actually be the state’s population.

“When I pull into parking lots, I have a tendency to look at license plates,” said Kevin Lawrence, president of the Tenn-essee Assoc. of Fairs. Most, he explained, are from within 50 miles of a fair.

In fact, he said 98 percent of the state’s fairs had record numbers last year, ranging from the modest 3,500 of Bledsoe County to the gargantuan 411,000 of Wilson County. Attendance has been steadily rising for the past five years, following a period of holding steady or even declining.

Many who attend, he said, seem to be city folks who don’t have the chance to regularly see farms and how they work. “Their kids don’t know where milk comes from, or don’t know how to grow potatoes,” Lawrence added.

But the fairs themselves are no longer just about life in the barnyard. More and more exhibits focus on computers and industry. Some cyber-cafes have joined picnic-table concessions. Ringside entertainment is less about catching greased pigs and more about motor sports (“If you’ve got something that makes a lot of noise, the crowd’ll come out for that,” noted Bud Freeman, president of the Kentucky Assoc. of Fairs and Horse Shows).

This is part of a trend of marketing more toward the end consumer in a community than the farmer, said Max Willis, CFE, COO and CFO of the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (IAFE) based in Springfield, Mo.

“When I grew up, there was a farm on every corner,” he explained. “You have to change for the interest of your fairgoer.”

We tend to associate “technology” with microchips and machines. Strictly speaking, technology is anything that advances the use of tools or skills in society, and putting it on display at the fair is nothing new at all, according to Dr. Julie Avery, curator of Rural Life and Culture at the Michigan State University Museum.

“It was a way, before public education existed, before land grant universities existed, to educate people to do better in their society,” she said.

Early American county fairs also reflected their communities. Sure, there were animals and crops and baked goods. There were also exhibits and displays for the blacksmith, the miller and the banker.

New technology was introduced at county fairs, she said, including homogenization of milk, manufacturing equipment and sewing machines.

Culture also abounded. Just as singers and talent shows headline today’s fairs, literary societies, choral groups and bands and drama groups put forth entertainment way back when. New clothing fashions were unveiled.

Avery is the editor of Agricultural Fairs in America: Tradition, Education & Celebration, a publication of The FairTime Project on which she worked for several years. A collaboration of the museum, Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, this project not only documented the history of the American county fair, its staff worked with Michigan fair organizers to improve their events and take advantage of old ideas to present new exhibits and entertainment.

The uniquely American county fair owes its beginnings to Elkanah Watson, a Massachusetts banker and businessman who traveled the world. Avery said in the early 19th century, he brought home a couple of Merino sheep from England. They were sufficiently unusual that people gathered to see them.

“He thought, ‘If two animals could draw this kind of a crowd, what would something larger do?’” she explained. Watson later organized the Berkshire Agricultural Society to expand on his idea of a cattle show … and Paul Harvey would say “the rest is history.”

“There are some fairs going under,” Avery noted, “but I think it’s pretty amazing the number of fairs exist that still exist.” Willis added this number has held steady, by and large, in his 27 years of experience.

Maybe urbanites want to learn more about tomatoes and quilts.

Maybe teenage farmers like to enter contests for prize money. Maybe gas prices make the local fair more practical than Disney World for families. Maybe older Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers like seeing the rock bands of their youth in concert for $12.

Most likely, it’s just broad appeal, a hodgepodge of everything all in one location. “You can enjoy a fair from age two, to 92,” Willis observed.

This farm news was published in the June 14, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.