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Cumberland County Fair: New Jersey's oldest

7/29/2013

By Linda Van Slyke

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New Jersey's Cumberland County Fair is not only the oldest in the state, but also one of the oldest in the country. 

Terry Pangburn, President of the Cumberland County Cooperative Fair Association, reports that the region's first fair was held in Greenwich ("a small township within our [present-day] county") in 1695.  Therefore, "in one shape or another," the Cumberland County Fair "has been a popular festivity for over 300 years."  That's a whole lot of merriment!

Pangburn said that he had "gone back to some very old books from the 1800s" in order to glean material for the website's "History" section.  He discovered that the erstwhile Colonial Assembly had legislated that "'it shall be lawful for all persons to buy or sell all manner of lawful goods and to be free from arrests on said days." 

This "stay out of jail free" card also covered the two days before and after the fair.  Must have been that the only thing worse than getting arrested on the way home from the fair would have been getting arrested on the way to it...

Colonial attendees "would travel for miles on foot or by horseback to exchange news with their neighbors while gathering needed farm supplies."  This festive event occurred not just once, but twice a year.

A rather lengthy hiatus occurred between the year 1765 (when a law then deemed the fair "unnecessary") and the year 1823 (when "the Cumberland County Agriculture Society was formed").  Although enthusiasm and funding hit some rough spots within the ensuing years, the fair - in one form or another - continued to persevere throughout it all.

Pangburn explained that this perseverance reflected the mindset of "none other than President Abraham Lincoln," who had stated the following:  "Fairs of Agriculture are useful in more ways than one.  They bring us together and thereby make us better acquainted and better friends than we otherwise would be."

When asked about fair highlights throughout the centuries, Pangburn recalled "the different kinds of entertainment that have changed over the years - how they've gone from farmers displaying their wares and products, and what their wives had made, to being more of an entertainment thing with horse races and demolition derbies."

Kids DayHe also recalled that "many years ago the schools would shut down on Wednesdays, and all the kids would go to the county fair - so that's how Kid's Day originated."  Pangburn added:  "Back in those days the fair was in September, October or November.  In 1968 it was changed to July, but we're contemplating changing it back to August or September because of the heat in July."
 
Back then there was also no dinner food at the fair.  Pangburn explained, "In the 1800s, the fair was a yearly family gathering.  People would see all the relatives they hadn't seen since the last fair.  They would all get together and have dinner, and then head back again to the fair."  Today, of course, food is very much a part of what the fair itself offers.  Pangburn reported, "Now you can get a lot of really good dinner stuff right at the fair."  He added, "We try not to have too much repetition - we try to have only one person with ribs, one with funnel cake, etc."  Vendors like Big John's Pizza, "one of the premier pizza places in the county, come out every year and have a booth."

The music is also a "smorgasbord" of something for every type of taste.  Pangburn explained, "We usually use local area bands - different ones every night.  We try for all types of music - country, rock, bluegrass...  A lot of these bands we've used for several years because they have their own following and they put on a really good show."

Entertainment has become very family-oriented.  Wednesday still caters to kids, and Tuesday now caters to senior citizens.  Pangburn stated: "Seniors age 62 and up are free during the day  all week long, plus all day and all night on Tuesday.  They can come out and sit in the shade and stay as long as they want.  We've had a few senior buses dropping folks off from the local senior high-rises."

Creativity is evident throughout such fun-loving events like the Toilet Toss and the Skillet Toss.  The former includes an "Al Bundy position" in which the participant has "to throw the toilet seat with a newspaper folded up under the opposite arm."  Pangburn proudly announced, "This year we had the mayor of Millville competing, and the mayor won!"

Pangburn also explained, "There are 18 directors and other associates of the fair.  We're all volunteers - we meet once a month, then every week a month before the fair.  We all put our heads together to think up activities."

The committee is always creatively brainstorming ways to fund this self-sufficient fair.  Pangburn reported, "I would say that our budget probably is in the $50,000 range, which includes year-round maintenance of the grounds and the fair itself." 

Within that budget, advertising "probably comes to about four to five thousand dollars." Pangburn explained, "We use local TV and radio stations and do newspaper interviews a week before the fair.  We also buy lawn signs every year and put them up throughout the county.  Facebook is used especially for the sports events."

Amusements of America has done a great job of providing the Midway for many years - "since at least 1968."  Pangburn also stated that the carnival revenue was probably "down this year because of the weather - the heavy rain and mud that we had on Monday and Tuesday was really tough."

He continued, "Last year was tough because 90% of South Jersey had the power and trees down everywhere - it was a disaster that affected what we could put out for free this year."  Nevertheless, "probably about 15,000 came" in 2013.

And they will continue to come.  As Pangburn noted:  "We've been around a long time, and we're going to be around a long time more."

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