by Joan Porter
Step back in time to Stark County in the mid-1800’s when women dressed in long skirts, bustles, and high-buttoned shoes and men wore trousers, stiff collars, and stove-pipe hats, when little boys pulled on knickers and stockings and young girls donned petticoats and aprons. A time when transportation was by foot, on horseback, or in a horse-drawn wagon or carriage. A time (in 1850) when Canton was a growing village boasting a population of 2,603 and 225 dwellings. A time when most families survived by the work of their hands. And most of that work centered on agriculture.
Farming had been the mainstay of the pioneer families who moved to Stark County in the early 1800’s and as farming grew, so did various industries to support it. First came saw mills to cut the timber cleared for farmland. Then came gristmills to grind wheat into flour. As farmers produced high-yielding wheat and rye crops, distillers used surplus grains to make into whiskey, a drink enjoyed by all family members, young and old alike. Tanners preserved cattle and sheep hides for leatherworkers to cut and sew into hats, shoes, harnesses, bridles, and saddles. Butchers cut and dressed the meat from the farmer’s livestock. Most of the raw materials made into goods came from the farm.
Not only did farm products bring about the development of many of Stark County’s businesses, but the needs of the farm and the farmer also brought about the development of many industries during the 1800’s. Blacksmiths hammered out shoes for horses that pulled the plows. Wheelwrights repaired broken wagon and carriage wheels. Wagon- and carriage-makers built sturdy transportation for both work and pleasure.
As the demand for agricultural products increased, manufacturers built plows to more quickly turn over soil as well as reapers, mowers, threshers, and hay rakes to speed harvesting. Before long, steam engines would replace draft horses and farming would become even more efficient and a little easier for the farmer.
By 1850, agriculture in Stark County was in its heyday. Sixty-five percent of the timber had been cut and cleared and 60 percent of the land had been improved. Stark County farmers produced the most wheat in Ohio. In addition to being a great sheep-raising area, Stark County was known across the state for its horses and cattle, ranking third and seventh, respectively. Horses, cattle, and flour made from Stark County wheat were shipped to New York and other markets.
In the 1800’s, agriculture did indeed drive the economy in Stark County. To recognize the importance of agriculture in the county, farmers representing 16 of the county’s 17 townships met at the courthouse in Canton and formed the Stark County Agricultural Society on February 22, 1850. (Some sources state 1849). Lawrence Township, and the cities of Alliance, Canton, and Massillon were added at a later date, resulting in a 20-member Board of Directors. To promote agriculture, the Society scheduled a county fair for October 15 and 16.
Held in downtown Canton near Public Square and the courthouse on lots and in buildings owned by the Presbyterian Church and Union School on West Tuscarawas Street, the fair drew both agricultural society members and interested spectators who thronged Market Ave. Livestock was exhibited on church grounds while the domestic and fruit displays were in the schoolhouse.
The first Stark County Fair was such a success that the Society scheduled another for the following year at the same location. The fair had grown so much in popularity that the third fair, held in 1852, was moved out of town to a seven-acre tract of land on the banks of the Nimishillen Creek. The area was fenced off and several permanent buildings and a racetrack were constructed. The fair remained at this site until 1856. With attendance as high as 12,000 visitors, the City of Massillon wanted an opportunity to host the fair and it was decided to alternate the fairs between Massillon and Canton. This arrangement lasted until 1859 when the annual fair was returned to Canton at Nimisila Park (now Crystal Park).
Among the fair buildings built at Nimisila Park was the Exhibition Hall. Completed in 1866 at a cost of $6,400, the building was described as the most architecturally attractive building of its size in the State of Ohio. On top of the octagonal center measuring 80 feet in diameter sat a 90 feet high dome. The two large wings each had a dome. A racetrack built at the park kept many visitors coming every year.
By 1860, farm-related machinery was on display at the fair. Farmers gathered around the new plows, mowers, and threshers, hoping for an opportunity to try out a new piece of equipment or maybe even own one. Premiums were awarded for the best horse-drawn equipment, such as hay rakes, potato planters and diggers, and corn cultivators. Even dog-powered equipment was in the running for prizes.
Lady equestrians continued to compete for prizes for their skills in handling their horses. According to the 1860 fair program, the first place equestrian won a $50 sewing machine “to be purchased by the young men of the county.”
Nimisila Park served as the fairgrounds until 1893 when several serious accidents occurred at the fair and a fire destroyed many of the horses boarded in the stables. Another fire in February, 1894 destroyed many of the buildings.
Because of the tragic events and the need for more space, the Society decided to find another location for the fairgrounds. They chose the Wertz farm, the site of the present Stark County Fairgrounds. The county purchased the original 34-acre tract for $8,000 and then bought another 21 acres of the Mumaw farm for $17,000. The land’s location on the Canton-Massillon and lake electric streetcar lines guaranteed increased attendance. Within five months, the new fairgrounds boasted a half-mile racetrack, several buildings including an art hall, floral hall, and poultry hall as well as numerous sheds for livestock and racehorses.
Since the purchase of the land on what is now Wertz Ave., the fair has continued to grow in many ways.
First, the Society has added many new buildings since 1894. The first grandstand was built in 1900. In 1917 automobiles raced around the half-mile track, but the cars made so much dust that the races were terminated. At one time, a small lake was built in the middle of the racetrack for ice-skating. The area was flooded in the winter but drained in the spring. The present grandstand was built in 1928 after the first one burned down.
The existing Exhibition Hall was built in 1922 by the Stark County Automobile Dealers Association to exhibit the newest cars of the year. During World War II, the building was turned into a factory to make the molding for torpedo warheads. After the war, the hall was remodeled into a roller rink where skaters enjoyed themselves into the mid-1970’s.
Other buildings have been added over the years, including the Grange Building (1925), 4-H Hall (1935), Art Hall (1963), North Commercial Building (1963), Fair Board office (1964), and Wildlife Building (1971). There are also three dining halls used during the fair. They are the Pike Grange, Robertsville Grange (1970), and McKinley Band Parents Building (1982). A 40 x 60 foot pavilion built in 1970 is used for entertainment. A number of barns and show arenas were built from 1935 to 1998. A new office building was constructed in 1999 and a Junior Fair Activity Center in 2000. Currently, an addition is being built onto the Grange Hall to provide more dining space for fairgoers.
As the fair grew, so did the many exhibits, entry classes, and premiums. Crops and livestock are still judged and awarded premiums. Premiums are given as checks and ribbons are distributed. There are no half-dollars awarded today. Livestock is still auctioned off, but the prices have gone up. The 4-H Grand Champion Steer of 1934 sold for 15 cents a pound. In 1998, the Jr. Fair Grand Champion sold for $5.85 a pound.
Premiums were awarded for flowers and for domestic arts. Women were competitive exhibitors as they displayed their best work in darning, hair work, weaving, knitting, crocheting, tatting, quilting, and embroidery. A homemaker’s best biscuits, breads, cakes, cured ham and dried beef, canned fruits and preserves, jellies and jams, fruit butters and honeys often found their way to the exhibit table for judging. The domestic arts exhibits often served as an “informal matrimonial bureau” for young ladies hoping to catch one of the county’s eligible young bachelors.
Where women have ruled the domestic arts, there have been entries in special categories for men. Perhaps the men are hoping to entice today’s women into marriage as women tried to entice future husbands many years ago with their domestic arts. The fine arts had their place in the early Stark County fairs. Pastel, watercolor, and oil painting as well as china, sign, and carriage painting were popular exhibits. The fine arts continue to play an important part in today’s county fair as well with more entry classes including painting, drawing, colored pencil, ceramics, china painting, and photography.
Young people also had an opportunity to compete at the early fairs. Premiums were offered for the best school exhibits; best hand drawn map; best birdhouse, milk stool, and corn tester; largest pumpkin, potatoes, and watermelon; and best pumpkin pie, bread, cake, and cookies. Today’s young people compete at the Junior Fair. A Junior Fair King and Queen are chosen. Watermelon, pie, pizza, and licorice eating contests entice the ravenous. Youngsters show the animals they have raised, the breads they have baked, the vegetables and fruits they’ve grown, and the artwork they’ve created. They play barn games such as the wheelbarrow race, tug-of-war, and hay bale toss.
Entertainment in earlier times consisted of band competitions, choir contests, public speaking, recitations, spelling contests, arithmetic drills, bicycle parades and races, military drills, plow and horse races. Also popular were climbing greased poles, wrestling, and catching a greased pig. Today much of the entertainment takes place at the grandstand where as many as 4,000 people can be seated to enjoy harness racing, school bands, a demolition derby, the 4-H horse show, tractor pulls, and the main attraction performers. Area bands continue to entertain fairgoers as they did many years ago.
While many things about the fair have changed over the years, its purpose has remained the same. It has provided a means through the exhibits and awards for the Stark County Agricultural Society (the Fair Board) – “to promote and encourage agriculture, horticulture, and the rearing of better livestock, improve domestic science and art, promote community betterment, together with all other industrial, commercial, and educational efforts of the County.” To that end they have been successful for the past 153 years.