In search of proof that York Fair is nation’s oldest

A historical marker near the York Fairgrounds states that the York Fair is the oldest such event in America.
So does a York Fair mural on the side of the East Market Street parking garage. (The widest of all the murals at 120 feet.)
And occasionally the claim will find its way into print, as it did in the York Daily Record on Friday.
The problem is that it’s a hard claim to pin down. Two of the oldest York County histories — Gibson’s and Prowell’s — just tell about its founding in 1765… .


In fact, the fallback claim that it’s the oldest continuously operating fair in America is even less grounded.
For about 30 years in the first half of the 19th century, the fair did not operate because the annual event had turned into a place for mischief. In 1815, a man was killed at the fair.
Readers and researchers are welcome to put forth a citation marking it as the nation’s oldest. For now, an excerpted fair history from “Never to be Forgotten” gives a summary, sans the oldest claim:

The York Inter-State Fair dates its origin from a charter issued by the Penn proprietors in 1765 for two annual fairs. Meanwhile, Wednesday and Saturday markets were authorized in York in 1767. The demand for a fair and farmers markets suggests that county growers are producing more goods than needed to feed their families within 30 years after the county is settled. It also points to sufficient population growth, from settlers continuing their westward march, to create a demand for these goods. The fairs ended after 1815 because of the slaying of Robert Dunn. Three men were convicted of manslaughter in Dunn’s death, and a grand jury declared such fairs a public nuisance. Time passed, and the York County Agricultural Society took over the fair in 1853. It has returned on an annual basis since then, except for two years. The fair was held near East King and South Queen streets from 1856 to 1887 and moved to its present ground the next year. The annual event moved from October to September in 1942. In 1876, the whole family could attend the fair for $1. Single admission was 25 cents. Carriages could enter for $1… .

And here’s a sampling of past York Fair posts:
Teddy Roosevelt at the York Fair: ‘I know York county farmers are prosperous. Their barns are bigger than their houses’.
This York Fair mural is fading from sight .
Good old days at the York Fair were at least old.
JFK received grand applause at York Fair visit.
Young curators produce York Fair exhibit: ‘A Fair of Our Own’.
All’s Fair blog gives all kinds of insight about York Fair.
Both Yanks, Rebs camped at old York Fairgrounds.
‘The lower she sank in her chair’.
‘The lower she sank in her chair’.
In search of proof that York Fair is America’s oldest.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in Archives, all posts, Books & reading, Events, Explanations/controversy, Small-town life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In search of proof that York Fair is nation’s oldest

  1. CHUCK LONG says:

    JIM, THE AGRICULTURAL SOCIETY NEVER CLAIMED THAT THE YORK FAIR IS THE NATION’S OLDEST “CONTINUOUSLY OPERATING” FAIR, JUST THAT IT’S THE OLDEST FAIR, A CLAIM WHICH I THINK IS SUPPORTED BY HISTORICAL FACTS. CHUCK LONG

  2. Chuck, Thanks for response. I wasn’t thinking the agricultural society played a role one way or another regarding the claim. It’s not clear to me how the agricultural society views this. I’m just not finding — nor have been able to find — a historical citation ascertaining that it is America’s oldest fair or first fair. Reason would suggest it would be in New England, settled before the Mid-Atlantic area.
    Jim McClure

  3. Anonymous says:

    The York Fair
    America’s First, America’s Oldest Fair
    The traditions of fairs in the New World began with the York Fair, America’s first fair, held in the historic old Town of York in 1765, eleven years before the nation was founded. A charter to hold that fair was granted to the people of York by Thomas Penn, son of William Penn in recognition of “the flourishing state to which the town hath arrived through their industry.” Those early gatherings were reported to have been “the liveliest days of the whole year.”
    At that time, the York Fair existed as a two-day agricultural market on the town commons, now known as Penn Park. Records don’t tell us too much about the York Fair during the American Revolution or the War of 1812, but we know the troops passing through York camped in the commons, so they would have shared the grounds with the Fair.
    In 1853 a group of prominent York County agricultural leaders formed the York County Agricultural Society for the purpose of making the fair a three-day event and finding it a new home. That society purchased seven acres and established a new fairground in 1856. The new location was on what was then the east side of the City of York near what is now Queen Street and King Street.
    In 1861, within days of the firing on Fort Sumter, injured Union soldiers were placed in temporary hospitals set up in the old Penn Commons and in the new fairgrounds. In 1862 the Secretary of War made those hospitals permanent so by fair time that year, the halls and grounds were filled with wounded from Antietam and the fair was closed until 1865.
    Following the Civil War, the York County Agricultural Society, in 1888, decided the fair had once again outgrown its grounds and these early fair leaders purchased land and moved the event to the 73-acre site that was eventually expanded to become the current York Fair/York Expo Center property.
    The fair remained open after the outbreak of World War I, but was not held in 1918 due to an influenza outbreak that killed 166 people in York.
    Over the decades the Fair has changed in many ways in order to keep attracting people. As tastes in entertainment evolved, the fair added horse races, dancers, strong man competitions and all kinds of new things to look at and enjoy.
    In 1926 a new Grandstand was constructed and the fair it became a five-day event, opening on Tuesdays and closing on Saturdays. The daytime nature of the fair passed into history two years later in 1928 when the York Fair stayed open in the evenings on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Tuesday night was added in 1931 and a year later the fair remained open on Saturday evenings.
    During the ‘30s the midways became lines with so-called “freak shows” and automobile racing became popular on the track.

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