Our State Fair is a Great State Fair!

Fair visitors on the Ohio State Fair midway, 1980.

It’s that time of year again! Right outside of the Ohio History Center, the annual Ohio State Fair is taking place. Beginning this past Wednesday, July 25th and running through Sunday, August 5th, hundreds of thousands of fair-goers will flock to the state fairgrounds to enjoy concerts, rides, agricultural and livestock demonstrations, midway games, and of course–fair food! Ohio has one of the country’s largest state fairs, with attendance last year topping 830,000 in the two weeks it was open.

Spectators and riders enjoy the Ferris wheel, ca. 1900.

First held in Cincinnati in 1850, the Ohio State Fair has been going strong for over 150 years. According to ohiostatefair.com, the location of the exposition has included eight other Ohio cities, as well as four different sites around Columbus. In the early years of the fair, most visitors and exhibitors came from the general vicinity of where the fair was being held, as transportation connecting the state together was still limited. Because of this, the Board of Agriculture decided to move the fair to a different location each year so that more people would have access to it over time. Ultimately, the Board decided that the state capital should be the permanent site for the state fair, and it was moved to Columbus in 1874. By the 1870s, the state’s railroad system had improved significantly, allowing for much easier travel from around the state. The current fairgrounds, known today as the Ohio Expo Center, were completed in 1886. The Ohio State Fair has been held at these fairgrounds ever since.

Johnny Cash performing at the fair, ca. 1970.

The fair continued to evolve over the years, adopting special traditions that still exist today. The early fairs focused entirely on agriculture, but fair organizers soon began including entertainment as well. Some highlights from the past century and a half include:

  • 1896: Electricity lit the Ohio State Fair for the first time, making it the first fair in the nation with electric lights!
  • 1903: A.T. Shelton & Co. sponsored the first “Butter Cow and Calf,” which is still a popular annual attraction.
  • 1925: The All-Ohio Boys’ Band began to perform at the fair. Over the years, this band was expanded to include girls as well, and is now called the All-Ohio State Fair Band.
  • 1960s: A “surprise sculpture” was added to the butter exhibit that changes every year. In 2003, in honor of the centennial of flight, butter sculptures of Orville and Wilbur Wright were exhibited.
  • 1966: The “OHIO” gate was constructed at the 11th Avenue entrance, at a cost of $40,000!

The Ohio State Fair has been held every year except during World War II, when the Board of Agriculture chose to cancel the fair between 1942 and 1945. Instead, Ohio rented the fairgrounds to the U.S. War Department, and the site was used to repair aircraft and store equipment. Once the war ended, the fair resumed.

“A Hidden World” fair exhibit, ca. 1970.

Along with the fabulous fair photos we have on Ohio Memory, OHS also has a special presence at the fairgrounds. You can come visit our booth next to the Civil War encampment in front of the Rhodes Building on 17th Avenue, where we’ll be talking with visitors about all the exciting things taking place at the Ohio History Center, Ohio Village, and all our sites around the state! In addition, you can buy some beautiful prints of images from our very own Ohio Memory to remember your time at the 2012 Ohio State Fair!

Learn more about the fair and its history by visiting the Ohio State Fair on Ohio History Central, the official fair website, and the digital collections of Ohio Memory!

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

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