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Great Geauga Fair: Ohio's Oldest Fair

2/27/2015

By Linda McNatt

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It was a typical, traditional late summertime county fair in Burton, Ohio this year. You could hear the sounds of children laughing and playing. You could hear the noise from the amusement park rides, hear marching bands playing and farm animals making their various squawks, squeals and bleats at the 2014, 192nd annual Great Geauga County Fair.

"There was some rain on Sunday, but that was the only weather issue we had," said Bob Phillips, president of the Great Geauga County Fair Association. "I think it was pretty average compared to previous years, very successful."

The fair, the oldest fair in the state of Ohio, was held from August 28 through September 1. The fair is gearing up to soon celebrating its 200th anniversary, said Phillips.  It's the state's oldest continuous fair and one of the oldest existing agricultural fairs in the nation.

The Geauga (pronounced je-wau-ga) County Fair was first held on October 23, 1823.

"It was pulled together when a bunch of farmers back then got together to talk about celebrating agriculture," said Phillips. "From there, it was off and running,"

James Monroe, the nation's fifth president, was proclaiming the Monroe Doctrine, the United States was still a young nation and the state of Ohio was only 20 years old, according to the fair's website. Much of the state's western reserve was still a rugged wilderness and the invention of modern conveniences like the telephone, television, automobile and Internet were decades away.

Some of the people who first gathered in 1823 were among the first settlers in western Ohio. They eventually had the vision to band together to form one of the state's earliest agricultural societies the Geauga County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. The organization was designed to "promote agriculture and domestic manufactures." 

The first fair was called the "fair and cattle show." It lasted for only one day. Rail pens were built on the square for livestock, and agricultural and domestic products were exhibited in the old log courthouse.
Premiums were awarded for the best exhibits in each class. The best bull got $10. A ewe brought $6; a piece of woolen cloth was awarded $6; a winning table linen was awarded $4.

There are still several buildings on the 150 acre fairgrounds that date back to the nineteenth century. The Domestic Arts Hall was built in 1856 and rebuilt in 1889 and Flower Hall was built in 1890. Both buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Since it started in 1823, the Great Geauga County Fair has been held continuously each year. Many regional and local fairs didn't celebrate the event during the war years of World War I and II. The Great Geauga fair went on through the Civil War, the Spanish American War, both world wars, the Great Depression, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, as well as various droughts and hardships.

When fair organizers realized that their fair was one of the oldest and determined fairs in the nation, the word "great" was officially added to the name.

About a quarter of a million people flock to the Burton, Ohio fairgrounds each year to once again celebrate the annual event. The fairgrounds is located east of Cleveland, in the heart of Amish and maple syrup country.

"We have a large Amish population in the area," said Phillips. "There are a lot of horses around here, a lot of horses in the state."

There were more than 12,000 exhibits at the 2014 Great Geauga County Fir, lots of animals, rides, food, music, entertainment and special attractions.

The fair is still owned by the Geauga County Agricultural Society, now the oldest existing fair organization in the county. The fair is financed each year by the county, profits from the rides, concessions and admissions, said Phillips.

Admission to the fair this summer was $7 for anyone over the age of 12. There were, however, opportunities to get reduced prices. 

On Thursday, Veterans Day, veterans and members of the military and their families were admitted free.

"We had a special on the rides, with wristbands, and that really went well," Phillips said. "I think that helped increase the revenue from the rides."

The midway was serviced by Bates Amusement out of central Ohio. The company brought 50 rides to the fairgrounds. Phillips said attendance at the midway may have been slightly down because of some rainy weather, especially on Sunday morning, but specific numbers still weren't available at the time of the interview.

Bates is among the largest suppliers of amusement rides for county fairs and festivals in the state of Ohio. The company operates various amusement rides and funhouses for both children and adults.

Bates brought its newest attractions to the fair including Majestic Manufacturing's Charlie Chopper and a Super Shot, built by Bates' company, ARM.

The fair is still playing on its traditions. The motto for the 2014 fair was "Something for Everyone Since 1823." Many of the agricultural societies that started up during the 1800s later disbanded, but the Great Geauga County Agricultural Society is still continuing as the oldest existing organization of its kind in the county.

The Great Geauga County Fair is considered the grand finale of summertime events in the area.

That's not to say it's the only such event held around Labor Day in western Ohio. The other events provided competition, said Phillips.

"There was the Cleveland Air Show that went on all of Labor Day weekend," said Phillips. "There were also a couple of Octoberfests events going on. People had to choose where they wanted to go. But everything we did paid off well. We couldn't have asked for a better fair."

The fair was advertised through television, radio and print advertising and also through social media. Phillips said he was uncertain of the advertising budgets since there were a couple of trades kinvolved.

"We signed partnerships with a couple of TV stations, and that worked really well," he said. "We had a lot of contests and one of them was a rooster calling contest. We had TV reporters participating in that. It was a lot of fun. Everybody enjoyed it."

There was no national concerts but there was some well-known national cable television entertainment. One of them was Shotgun Red, a short, bearded puppet known for his antics on the Nashville Network.

"It was your average fair; it was typical," said Phillips. "The weather was in the mid-70s to the mid-80s every day. We wore shorts every day. You couldn't have done better than that."

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