By Robin Young
During the months of July, August and September, counties across Colorado will hold county fairs, marking the end of the 4-H year and bringing people together to be entertained, see livestock shows and view local talent from youth and adults.
Fairs have been around since the middle ages. They were days set aside for leisure and religious celebration. These early fairs often consisted of games, competitions and other festivities. As time passed, fairs moved away from their early religious associations and began to focus more on agriculture, competition and education. In the U.S., agricultural fairs did not begin to catch on until the early 19th century, when the first American fair was held in Pittsfield, Mass. This early fair, organized by Elkanah Watson in 1807, was a small event consisting of only sheep-shearing demonstrations.
At Watson’s urging, other area farmers began to showcase their livestock at public gatherings, where they were then judged and awarded for the quality of their animals. Watson further developed his vision of what would become county fairs over the years, later including activities for men, women and children, and allowing merchants to sell goods at the event. 4-H became a part of county fairs in 1902, as youth began to partake in what is now the nation’s largest after-school program and a staple of county fairs.
The first American state fair was held for two days in New York in September of 1841, and focused on educating attendees about agriculture, featuring animal exhibits and speeches. In addition to educating fairgoers, New York’s fair also featured samples and products for both farms and homes, again mixing the agricultural education and commerce that would come to define American fairs.
As their popularity grew, technology also became important at fairs, as they were large enough events to showcase new technologies like electricity and airplanes. For many attendees, fairs were highly-anticipated summer events, and family farms would plan for months to be able to afford time off at the event. For these families that lived far from the city, the annual fair was an update on modern science, as it was often the first time technologies had been made available to them.
In addition to technology, entertainment acts also came to the forefront at fairs, with music performances taking center stage. These music acts were also accompanied by carnival rides, vaudeville entertainers and other general amusements. As a result, fairs became a time not only for educating the public on agriculture and for various competitions, but also a time for farmers to educate themselves on technology and the burgeoning American culture.
Today, there are approximately 2,000 county and state fairs nationwide. Some of these fairs, such as the State Fair of Texas and the Erie County Fair in New York, continually draw in more than 1 million attendees each year, making them some of the most greatly attended events in the country.
Since their early days of sheep shearing, agricultural fairs have grown vastly to serve many purposes. Focused on providing fun, education and engaging entertainment for all who attend, county and state fairs symbolize to many an exciting summer pastime.
Hope to see you at the Archuleta County Fair, celebrating 70 years of good wholesome family fun.