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When the State Fair Was Held Here

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 2, 1932

 When the State Fair Was Held Here

By Howard Burba


     The unusually successful county fair held here this year did far more than prove that false prophets still are abroad in the land.  For a dozen years or more the country has been treated to an annual prophecy that the day of the old county fair has passed.  And yet, in the face of the most trying economic, agricultural and industrial conditions this generation has known, thousands laid their money on the line, walked through the gates of the historic old Montgomery co. fairgrounds and enthused over the exhibits as heartily as did their grandfathers back in the days when county fairs were young.

     Instead of fulfilling the prophecy, the county fair, on the other hand, actually appears to have taken a new lease on life.  At least it demonstrated the fact that what was good enough for grandpa in the way of amusements is good enough for us.  And it is generally accepted as a pretty good thing for the community, for there really is something wrong with any community that permits this delightful classic of the amusement world to fall into decay or to be lost altogether.

     Wandering about the grounds over which several generations have tramped in their search for entertainment, one could scarcely help thinking back, and wondering if the scenes weren’t pretty much the same fifty or even seventy-five years ago.  For be it known the Montgomery co. agricultural fair has been an institution even longer than that.  Curiosity gets the better of us, and we hurry to scan the files of early newspapers to satisfy it.  We want to know if this institution, one that has been the intended victim of so many false prophets, differed materially in its early days than from the county fair of today.

     The search revealed what to some must be a new and startling disclosure.  It showed that at one time in our early history the Ohio State Fair was held in Dayton.  And such a fair!

     “Preparations for the coming state fair are rapidly advancing to completion under the able direction of the executive committee, especially Mr. R. W. Steele,” comments a reporter in a Dayton paper under date of Aug. 27, 1853—just 79 years ago.  “The arrangements are more thorough and ample than for any previous state fair and there is reason to expect that the assembly will be larger and more brilliant than ever before.  Thirty-six acres, less than one-half mile from the center of Dayton, have been enclosed.”

     Being a state institution, it was but natural that the entire state should display marked interest in its success.  That they did so is evidenced by these few words from the pen of the venerable Scioto Gazette, Ohio’s oldest newspaper, published at Chillicothe:

     “The buildings are large and tastefully done, all in the Italian style, and the accommodations for contributors are ample.  A beautiful fountain from the adjoining hydraulic works will afford a novel feature.  As Dayton is accessible not only to states east and north, but also to Kentucky, Indiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Michigan, this will be THE fair of the season for the Great Central valley.

     “The wide streets of Dayton are just suited for such a crowd.  Her hospitable citizens have hearts on the same scale and will make all welcome.  May we be there to see.”

     The state board of agriculture had selected Dayton as the site for the state fair in 1853, and Dayton had accepted the honor in the same enthusiastic manner which has characterized her every public movement in all the years that have passed since that date.  The state officials opened an office in the Phillips House, where all arrangements in connection with the fair were carried out.  At that date, no legislation had been enacted providing for a permanent site for such an institution, nor had vast appropriations made possible such buildings and grounds as came with the selection of Columbus as the place for holding it every year.  The committee was forced to resort to tents in which to house the various exhibits, and our early historian tells us that 13 large ones were used for the 13 different groups of exhibits, ranging from cattle and farm implements to flowers, fruits and machinery.

     Tuesday, Sept. 20, 1853, arrived and the gates to the grounds swung open to admit a crowd variously estimated at from 50,000 to 75,000.  That it was an inspiring scene is attested from this enthusiastic writeup culled from the miniature daily paper of that date:

     “Everybody is enjoying the sights and scenes at the fairgrounds.  You hear the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the neighing of horses, and other specimens of pastoral music from the private apartments of these guests of the state.  There is the hum of machinery, with its wonderful capacity for producing all manner of things ornamental and useful.  Then comes the floral hall, with its array of fruits and flowers, and the fountain pouring forth liquid music for the listening ear.

     “The world is here, as it were, daguerreotyped.  Thousands of things which exhibit the highest development of art and science are here contained in one small miniature.  Here one can study nature; can see the genius and industry of a thousand minds spread out before him.

     But how many look upon the fair as a means of only affording excitement!  Indifferent to the practical benefits of what they behold; delighted with what strikes the eye though no impression is made on the mind—but they get their dollar’s worth, it is true!”

     Fearful that you may be inclined to minimize the thrills set before the vast assemblage on that historic day, or that you are obsessed with a belief that the present generation enjoys a brand of outdoor amusements unknown to this part of the world four-score years ago, let’s take a peek at the “midway,” even though that name was unheard of until the great Chicago World’s Fair exactly 40 years later.

     There was “Rogers’ theater,” housed in a spacious tent and presenting dramatic offerings differing little from those produced in traveling tent shows of today.  Nearby Welch’s Hippodrome raked in the dimes, while still farther on the multitude paid its money to see the 1200 pound hog.  An added attraction was a steer with but two legs.

     The “Artist’s Museum” was another attraction that was patronized, the historian informs, largely by the male element of the vast crowd.  So the reader must be left to speculate on whether or not this was the fore-runner of the “hoochie-coochie” show that came on later to reap a rich financial harvest.  “Mount Vesuvius” was a favorite attraction, and so was the tent which housed “the man born without hands.”  Still another gaudy banner announced “Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress,” while the owner of the new and novel exhibit of glass blowing waxed fat from the moment the gates opened until they closed.  A “dynometer” and “lung tester” were there, just as they are to be found today on the grounds of the modern amusement park.  The jungle offered its contribution in the form of “The Only Living Ourang-Ontang in Captivity.”  Maj. VanHines, the Tennessee Dwarf, greeted the visitors much as did Tom Thumb of a later generation, while the tent housing the “Five Hundred Pound White Girl” drew hundreds whose mouths and pocketbooks were both wide open.

     It was one wonderful event, that first state fair in Dayton.  Every hotel and lodging house room in the city had its occupants, for be it known that visitors came in from states as far west as Illinois and south to Virginia.  Early newspapers all over the middle west commented on it, and Dayton has seldom been more thoroughly advertised, nor more favorably, by any single event.

     Magazines were few in 1853.  Those that were published consisted of but few pages and limited literary appeal.  But even the magazines of that early date, or at least one of them, took note of the state fair at Dayton. The one referred to was known as “The Ladies’ Repository,” a monthly publication of 50 pages, similar in form to our standard-size magazine of today.  A good friend has resurrected a copy of this old magazine, dated January, 1854, and under the heading: “A Ride in An Extra Train,” we find this refreshing and enjoyable recital of a trip made by a Cincinnati man to Dayton to attend the state fair of the previous year:

     “An extra train in the language of railroad officials signifies not so much a train of superfine or extra cars as an extra supply of inferior freight or gravel ones.  These are brought out and put into operation on occasions when people wish to go to conventions, state fairs, and the like, and when, in addition, there is a shallowness in one’s pockets, preventing prompt travel on the regular train.  Passengers, as everybody knows, pay half-price on an extra train; but this is enough considering that, in general, they move rather tediously and lay up on all the switches for the passing of the regular trains, and are supplied with uncushioned, unplanned and backless pine benches as seats.  This much by way of explanation and introduction, and now for a bit of personal experience.

     “It was on the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 21, 1853, that ourself, in company with a valued literary friend, started from the corner of Main and Eighth sts., Cincinnati, for the station-house of the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton railway.  The state fair was on exhibition at Dayton, and being disposed to test the virtues of an extra train, we marched down, with a heart full of comfort and joy to the aforesaid station-house or depot.  Hundreds upon hundreds of people were there awaiting the arrival of 9 o’clock, the hour for departure.  In the train before our eyes were some two or three of the regular cars, the balance, consisting of a dozen or so, were the genuine obling freight cars, without windows or sofa seats.  Here there was a scene for contemplation, which was duly attended to by us; we began also subsequently to add to our contemplation that other valuable quality, consideration.  At once the question sprung itself: Is there any chance for gentlemen getting into the regular cars?  All gentlemen with ladies were admitted without hesitation, but for our humble self we reflected that our wife was at home, as likewise was our friend’s.  By an honest and well-mannered effort we prevailed on the brakeman to let us in.  In two minutes we were snugly seated and presently the third bell tapped, the whistle shrieked, and we were off.

     The day, for the season of the year, was one of keen and bitter coldness, and we had on only a thin summer coat and a thinner pair of socks.  The distance to Dayton, 60 miles, was covered in three hours and a half.

     “Once in Dayton we found ourselves surrounded by an ocean of human beings.  It seemed as if all Ohio had been sending up her sons and daughters to view the great fair.  Many and many a one upon whose forms our eyes rested had full pockets of sweet cakes and turnover pies, and were in no condition to starve.  As for ourselves, we had the good fortune to be met by the principal of the Dayton schools, who took us to his residence, and had preparations made for our inner man.  The long ride in the cars and the keen winds and colds that had been playing on us gave us appetite to be appeased only by a full supply of food.

     “Dinner over, we bent our steps toward the ticket office at the fairgrounds, with our silver quarter ready to buy our ticket of admission.  But alas, like too many other folks, that day we went to bed a sadder but a wiser man.  The admittance was not 25 cents, but one dollar.

     “The grounds occupied 27 acres, but as we could see nothing of special interest anywhere, we closed our observations before 3 o’clock, left the show and commenced a tour of Dayton.  At 5:30, and it becoming bitterly cold, we buttoned our coat tightly about us and tramped to the depot.  There stood in a magnificent curve a string of 40 freight cars, the train for conveying us and hundreds of others home.  Men, women, and children had packed themselves into the box cars before us, and we, gathering courage from their example, made a deplorable leap and got into one of the cars alone.

     “It was now 6 o’clock and our iron horse, as if conscious of his big load, made a heroic plunge, and we were off.  We had got into a car almost vacant.  There were six of the rough pine benches, and just six of us as passengers. First we run a bench up against the end of our windowless prison and stretched ourselves for a nap.  But the wind howled so it was impossible.  Pulling out his watch, our friend found it was just 7 o’clock, and we had come to a dead halt seven miles out of Dayton, making seven miles in one hour.  Presently the bell rang and we moved forward.  We looked out of our side doors but it was pitch darkness.  The collector came along with a big lantern to collect our tickets, and told us we had to get up for the evening express train.  Our feet were numb and cold and our teeth chattering.

     Suddenly the express came thundering by.  We moved on and at half-past nine, after three hours and a half on the road, we reached Hamilton, a distance of 31 miles from Dayton.  Discharging a considerable amount of our load at Hamilton we made another start, but in a few minutes we came to another dead halt.  A brakeman nearby said we had to wait for the lightning express.  It was full 10 o’clock.  We thumped our feet on the floor and tried to start the blood circulating in them.  Then we got out and walked down the track.  We sat down behind a wood-house close at hand to screen ourselves from the wind.  We decided to catch the lightning express when it halted, and to pay out the extra money in fare to Cincinnati.  It finally arrived, and we got aboard.  It made no stoppage, and by half-past 11 we were in Cincinnati, a ride of five and a half hours from Dayton.

     “Next morning we hunted up our friend.  We wanted to know what had become of the extra train.  He said that when it got to Glendale it went into a siding and awhile after leaving there the discovery was made that some of the cars had been left behind.  Some miscreant had pulled a coupling pin as the cars stood on the siding and the engineer had gone several miles before discovering it.  Then he had to back up to get the lost cars.  But when he reached them all the passengers, despairing of ever reaching Cincinnati by train, had struck out on foot.  It was then 2 o’clock in the morning.

     “In closing his remarks to us our friend gave the assurance that, as he had enjoyed over eight hours of railroad riding, for only 75 cents, and had made in this time also the enormous distance to 31 miles, he should wait at least three years before he went to see another state fair, and that if by that time he must go, he would pay at least six prices in the regular train rather than go on an extra one.  And so thinking we bade each other, as we do now with you, gentle reader, a kind farewell.”