Delaware County Fair’s history and tradition leads makes the fair what it is today.
So it’s almost time for the Delaware County Fair. While dinner options might include fried candy bars and pepperoni sticks, or perhaps a trip to the Buckeye Valley booth for healthier fare, there was a time when the county fair meant bringing your own food in a picnic basket. As fair food offerings have evolved, so has the fair itself.
In February of 1833, the state of Ohio established a law that would authorize agricultural societies and encourage exhibitions of agricultural products. The Delaware County Agricultural Society (DCAS) was created shortly after the law was passed, with annual dues of fifty cents. Milo D. Pettibone was the first president and Wilder Joy was the first vice-president along with other officers and members. Streets on the east side of town, where the fair was eventually located, bear their names.
The DCAS planned to hold their first exhibition in October of 1834. Held in downtown Delaware, the first county courthouse was used to show domestic exhibitions, while animals were shown in a lot along Franklin Street where the First Baptist Church is now located.
The Delaware County Fair’s website has a list of all the premiums awarded that year. The highest prize was $7 for the best stud horse and the lowest was 50 cents for the second-best pair of woolen socks. The winning pair of socks garnered a quarter more. Later the number of categories and amount of premiums increased and the location varied as Delaware grew.
The fair was not always an annual event in those early days, and was not held for several years in a row. Things were quiet until 1848 when the state passed additional legislation which revitalized agricultural societies. The DCAS regrouped and held an exhibition in 1848.
Milo Pettibone had passed away in 1842, leaving several acres of land to his heirs. In 1854, they sold seven of those acres on the east side of the Olentangy River to the DCAS for the purpose of establishing a permanent location for their work. The naming of “Fair Avenue” is obviously an ode to this location – the first area of land used was east of Channing Street and north of Fair Avenue.
The next exhibition was held there, and over time the grounds grew to more than 40 acres. A harness track and several buildings were added, and the property was continuously improved upon. There was a horrible steam engine explosion in 1856, and 14 people lost their lives and many others were injured. Despite the tragedy, the fair continued on at this location for more than fifty years.
By 1879, over 900 Delawareans belonged to the Delaware County Agricultural Society. The 1885 fair boasted a tightrope walk by Professor Leon, a grand balloon race and a band contest. Part of the entertainment was a dentist who pulled teeth with a brass band playing alongside.
The DCAS decided to change locations in 1909 and purchased land in Powell. Fair officials used the location there for nearly 30 years, with the last Powell fair in 1937. If you remember Murphy’s Party Barn, then you know just where the Powell fairgrounds were located. The Murphy family purchased the land after the fair moved, and operated the Powell Speedway and Murphy’s Party Barn for many years. The party barn was originally the arts and crafts building. The horse racetrack evolved into the speedway, and in the beginning, legends such as Joie Chitwood raced there. Murphy’s Party Barn and the Powell Speedway are long gone and covered in condos. (The Powell Historical Society has more information – I just didn’t get there in time for this article.)
Local businessman William McKenzie bought the fairground land on the east side, perhaps because he raced horses and could use the old fairground track. Eventually businesses and homes were established there.
Delaware still held fair-like activities during the early 1900s, such as The Delaware Pumpkin Show. Ray Buckingham, in Delaware County Then & Now: An Informal History, wrote that the pumpkin show “had all the features of a county fair but was held in the streets, sidewalks and vacant lots.” Livestock and farm products were shown and judged, and there were even pony races on William Street. An article details the 1917 Pumpkin Show as reported in Ohio Farmer.
There were also other competing options around the county for fairs, such as the Ashley Independent Fair (1912 to 1949), the Rome Fair (1877 to about 1914) and the Hartford Independent Fair (1858 to present). Ashley was the very first place in the entire United States to hold a Junior Fair and it ran from 1923 to 1949.
In 1937, forty acres of land was purchased on Pennsylvania Avenue from Edward Magrew, Sr. Local bond issues and federal funds helped provide the money over the next few years to build the grandstand, track, and coliseum. The fairgrounds also were home to the county swimming pool for several decades until the 1970s. The pool was eventually filled in and the site is where the present fair office is located.
When the fair returned to Delaware, admission was 10 cents. The Junior Fair had just been established and over 10,000 people attended that year. The now famous race track with steep banks was completed by 1940. It was built around a ravine by R. K. “Rollie” McNamara, a Berlin township farmer, contractor and horse breeder. He was known for his expertise and building or supervising construction of thirty more race tracks, in addition to building many of our county roads and bridges.</code>
The Little Brown Jug history itself is fascinating and better covered here. The two main forces behind moving the fair back to Delaware and establishing the Little Brown Jug were Joe Neville and Henry C. “Hank” Thomson. Neville was an attorney with standardbred connections, and Hank Thomson was a local businessman whose family owned the Delaware Gazette. Another prominent figure in early fair and Jug history was F. Beverly Kelley, who served as president in 1939. He was the director of radio publicity for the Ringling-Barnum Circus, and wrote a wonderful children’s book about the Delaware County Fair. His expertise and connections no doubt helped put the Jug on the map.
In 1940, the Delaware County Fair joined the “Roarin Grand” aka the grand circuit of harness racing. Today, the premier event for pacers is our very own Little Brown Jug, which was established in 1946. The winning horse of the first Jug was Ensign Hanover, driven by trainer and driver Wayne T. “Curly” Smart. 27,000 people were in attendance.
For many the fair is all about the horse race, but others focus their time on the rides, food, entertainment, exhibits, competitions and other events. Buying a fair pass for the entire week is a good value if you want to break up your time by focusing on certain activities on certain days and enjoying as much of the fair as you can.
Over the years many an up and coming musical act has performed at the fair alongside established groups who now play smaller venues. Delaware native and actor Rick Scarry posted in the “You know you’re from Delaware, OH when… “ Facebook page that Mark Wahlberg said one of his first public appearances was here in 1991 as part of Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. That same week the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed during their 25th anniversary year.
Traditions vary from person to person. One of them might be to eat at the BV Athletic Booster food booth. For decades now, this group has been serving food at the fair and has evolved from a tent operation to having their own permanent structure. Another tradition might be to tailgate in the backstretch or chain some chairs to the fence to save your seat for the races. Many a high school class reunion has been scheduled around the Delaware County Fair dates.
You might also be one of hundreds who prepare exhibits in the Arts & Crafts building or show animals in one of the many fair buildings. Perhaps you’d enjoy watch the National Lawn Mower Racing series finales (Sept. 13) or take in some entertainment, such as fair favorite Phil Dirt and the Dozers (Sept. 20). The full entertainment schedule is online.
And no Delaware County fair article would be complete without a reminder about the All Horse Parade. Held one week prior to the opening of the fair (Sept. 7), it has been billed as the “largest equestrian event east of the Mississippi” with several hundred horses participating. Mark your calendars folks, it’s fair time!
Sources: Delaware County Historical Society, Delaware Gazette archives, Delaware County Fair & Brown Jug websites.