Animals, barns, home arts, auctions, grandstand attractions, sweets and treats to eat, rides to thrill, things to learn, people to meet, and always something never seen before…guaranteed! Are these events and entertainment for the Great Walton Fair of 1887 or for the Delaware County Fair of 2006? The answer is both: the attractions were , and are, all at the fair!
The county fair should make the list of 100 places to go to in your life, preferably every year. It is an old-time fair, an event that hosts the larger community and visitors alike with something for everyone. The Delaware County Fair is very similar every year, not similar to every fair across the country but based on its own high standards. Held in Walton since 1887, it has retained the charm and magic of yesteryear while having the reputation of being the very best county fair in the state.
This annual event is not a new venue trying to create the spirit of old ways; it is a real fair with history, stories and roots that are deeply intertwined with those who first settled here. A review of the rosters included in the 1887 First Annual Fair of Delaware Valley Agricultural Society includes so many familiar names as appear in the 2006 lists of who’s who that the programs would need little updating of personnel. Generations of families have made the fair part of their lives; the time and effort of forefathers gives further incentive to continued involvement in this long-lived community venture.
For 120 years, 1887 to 2006, this fair has been entertaining people. The math will reveal 119 years but the first year is not added because the Agricultural Society was only two-months-old for the first event. Delaware County had started the business of fairs around 1841 at various locations, often having more than one fair a year, but the 1887 fair, then referred to as the Great Walton Fair, began the reign of the Delaware County Fair.
Think about tractor pulls, caramel apples, barrel racing, award-winning pies, blue ribbon-winning pigs, chicks hatching, taffy pulling, art displays, carnival games of chance (and some skill), information displays, first-place award preserves, grilled sausages, country music, a Ferris wheel, and cows being milked. All were part of the early fair days and all will be a part of this summer’s event. Many attractions are the same, with some updated and enlarged. Popular entertainment of the 1880s tended toward tightrope walkers, feats of balance, and trained animal tricks. After World War II the entertainment took on a trend for daredevil crashes and spills and pyrotechnic displays. This trend has only grown in popularity, as evidenced by the demolition derby ticket sales.
The fair was, and is, a gathering of neighbors from both next door and across the county, community members, visitors and vendors, politicians, farmers, cooks and craftspeople. Everyone feels welcome and all can find a favorite spot at the fair. In 1887, visitors from outside of the area usually arrived by train to spend all three days at the fair. Round-trip train fare from Norwich to Walton was about $1.45 per person. The value of the dollar in those days made it a sizeable expense that only well-to-do visitors would have paid. Walton hotel rates started at $1 a night for basic rooms, which might mean sharing with others. As travel by roads was difficult, hazardous and time-consuming, locals were the only ones to use this route. When farmers arrived with their animals, they stayed for the duration of the fair, which meant sleeping on hay bales at night, a practice that continues today. This allowed them to provide more intensive animal care and to join in a full week’s worth of fair excitement.
Many incidents could be printed without a date and left for readers to decide if the story happened in 1887 or 2006. Stories of conflicts over claims of unfair judging, ticket prices, a missing pig, or how many non-local vendors and entertainment shows should be allowed were all topics of 120 years ago as well as in recent years. Parking lot expansion problems to be addressed would be clear as to which era was involved depending on whether it was an issue of horse and buggy parking or cars and trucks. People sneaking in without paying by swimming the river can be left without a date – it has been happening every year but getting free transportation in the coal bin of the railroad train could be dated to pre-1923, the last year that the train ran.
Behind the scenes, fair board members have worked out problems throughout the years, always ensuring that there will be another fair the next year. The fair board of supervisors devotes untold hours throughout the year working out plans for the following year and in making improvements. Building maintenance, entertainment venues, judging issues, safety, parking, and additions to the program have always been a part of this committee’s responsibilities.
A farm of 1887 or 2006 would have a difficult time slowing operations to attend the fair but every year local farmers make the extra effort to be a part of this historic event. Cows must be milked, chickens need to be fed, sheep herded and beef cattle tended. Many farm families take double-duty shifts so that everyone has an opportunity to spend some time at the fair; others pay for extra farm hands to step in temporarily. Admission to the 1887 fair was $1 for a men’s membership that included two persons; ladies, 50 cents; carriages to be parked, 25 cents; children under ten were admitted free if accompanied by an adult. Many pennies were saved in a jar in anticipation of this day. Fair admission in 2006 is $5 per person; children 12 and under, free with an adult; free on-site parking.
If the fair entry fee was difficult to come by for a farmer in 1887, he or she could hope for winning a premium with their entry. A first-place award would bring in as much as $5, possibly an entire week’s wages for some winners. Premiums paid for a present day first-place winners can be as much as $27 depending on the number of entries although there are many more categories and classes plus the possibility of an animal being awarded Grand Champion that brings much higher dividends.
Those attending the first three fairs from 1887 to 1889 witnessed the only animal auctions held until the early 1900s when 4-H in Delaware County began a members’ animal auction that led to open-class auctions.
In the early days, the venue, though fascinating and alluring to children, was more focused on adults. Animal entries for auction and judging, showmanship, artistic displays and culinary feature were mainly for adult participants. Thanks to 4-H, Future Farmers of America and other youth organization, the fair has expanded to fill the generation gap. The 2006 fair will emphasize youth involvement, a positive change over the years.
One among the many wonderful Delaware County Fair-related stories is especially inspiring and summarizes the beauty of this event. Homer Benedict, recently turned 106-years-old and a lifelong resident of the county, tells his story of fair magic. Homer attended the fairs but because he was raised on a working farm and the work did not stop during fair week, he didn’t attend as often as he would have liked. His unfailingly sharp memory did not bring to mind any particular event, except one life-changing incident. He tells of wandering around the grounds, admiring animals and entries, when he came across a man with a display of woodcarvings. Homer said he stopped then and there, transfixed by the carvings that depicted men and horses with carts or wagons and ploughs. He left the fair that day declaring that he would try to carve like that. From that time forward, Homer has been carving. He modestly says that his carvings are not as good as the creations he viewed at the fair so many years ago, but he says he’ll keep trying. At 106, he is still carving scenes from his long life: a lifelong hobby created from one day at the Delaware County Fair!
To see photographs of the fair, visit the Walton Historical Society at 9 Townsend Street. In 2001 the Society published 160 Fair Years: The Store of the Delaware County Fair 1841-2001 by Ruth Bean, which contains historical information, stories and a collection of photographs in print. The Walton Historical Society can also be reached by calling (607) 865-5895. For information on the fair visit their website www.delawarecountyfair.org.